Too often ignored, the intelligence of people living in extreme poverty, and the way their experience shapes their understanding of the world, can be invaluable tools for social change. To give just one example of this, I am very struck by the way our members in South America look at the question of gender and poverty. They are among two thousand people in a dozen countries who took part in ATD Fourth World‘s creating the conditions for people living in extreme poverty to contribute to evaluating the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.
In looking at the ten Millennium Development Goals, one of those people living in poverty in South America chose to address was the third: “Promote gender equality and empower women.” But the analysis they brought to this question suggests that “empowerment of women” is too simplistic and narrow a goal.
- In many places, no birth certificate will be given if the birth does not take place in a maternity ward. But many women living in extreme poverty spoke of their dread of hospitals and clinics where they are spoken to with stunning disrespect. Doctors tell them: “Why are you having so many children, like a rabbit?” or “You must wash yourself, you pig” or “You know how to open your legs to a man, just do the same to push the baby out.” At the same time, when fathers try to accompany the mothers into a maternity ward, they are often told, “The room is too small, you should wait outside.” Mothers in these situations ask that their male partners be empowered and allowed to stay with them. They point out not only that fathers can defend them from being treated badly in the hospital, but that a father who has the chance to be present for his baby’s birth will be given strength and inspiration for the challenges ahead in protecting and providing for the family.
- The group also gave thoughtful consideration to the tragedy of domestic violence. One of the participants summed up their conclusions by speaking about the enormous stress of living in extreme poverty. She said, “We all have these feelings of despair and anger. But as girls and women, when life is too hard, we can cry sometimes. Our sons cannot. We teach them not to express their feelings by crying. So what can they do with their despair? As they grow up, some of them may turn to drink when they are very upset. And as they drink, some of them may become violent. How can we give our sons the chance to express their feelings in other ways?”
One person listening to this wondered, “Is she just giving an excuse for violence against women?” But to me the most important part of what she said had nothing to do with excusing anyone’s act of violence. It is an approach for preventing violence that I had never heard said in that way before. When I was growing up in the United States, there was actually a movement telling boys, “It’s alright to cry.” (Who else remembers Rosey Grier’s rendition of the “Free to Be You and Me” song?) But I never heard anyone say in such a clear strong way why this matters, and how we can create better situations for both women and men by addressing the despair and anger that destroys lives.
While gender inequality exists in both rich and low-income communities, we must realize that the crushing realities of extreme poverty have been created not by poor men, but by the economic oppression and discrimination of society as a whole. Women living in extreme poverty often remind us of the ways these realities affect their brothers and sons, as well as their sisters and daughters. While gender affects many aspects of life, they tell us that fighting poverty is not a zero-sum game where empowering women will be enough to effect change. What they call for is empowerment for their whole families: in maternity wards; in access to schools where both girls and boys deserve teachers who respect them and believe in their hidden potential; or in the labor market where both women and men need to be protected from exploitation as much as they need equality.
People living in extreme poverty can help to inform the world’s agenda for development and community building, shaping a new approach to people-centered development. By listening to people living in extreme poverty, our societies will discover that they do not want to be the beneficiaries of anti-poverty programs. Rather, they aspire to play an active role in a model of development for society as a whole that is based on human dignity and designed to promote human rights and peace for all.