Does investing in women really make good business?

In response to Wendy Harcourt's post on Gender Matters!

by Fatma Alloo

Society has always talked of peace and security and sustainable development and common statement like investing in women makes good business sense is a clichè in the UN language and development world of aid donors and recipients.

The above statements reminds me of many a stories I have lived. To me it seems like women are not at peace if they do not have a roof of their own over their heads. Thus here in my part of the world, Tanzania, one of the key struggles of women of all classes has been land ownership and the right to own land despite cultural norms of society. In Tanzania this right now exists as a law. It was a fifteen years struggle led by women's movement in Tanzania in which media was used massively to mobilize society and awaken the women on their power of vote to get it passed in a male dominated parliament. The members of parliament also became aware that should they fail women they will be voted out. The few male members of parliament who did not support the bill were voted out! The case empowered women to follow other issues like violence against women. Sexual Offence Bill was also passed in the same year in which it is life imprisonment for rape. The implementation practice however is another story. It is a luta continua-the struggle continues.

The other thought which comes to my mind is when I was researching in a small village on the east coast of Zanzibar. Most of the children, girls and boys were going to school in the village. The school children were well dressed with shoes, well fed and excelled in examination results. Curiosity in the media world led me to find out what was different. There was company set up in that village, who encouraged seaweed farming. Since it is a back-breaking engagement where one has to bend in the sea when the tide is out to plant seaweed, it is the women who responded to the call for they were attracted to the cash economy it would bring in the household. So far the men in the village went out to fish and earned cash and the women were doing subsistence farming and feeding the family.

The opportunity to earn soon paid dividends in that, since the company employed women directly, albeit at exploitative level if one compares what they were paid vis a vis the labour they put in, the money that these women earned went into the welfare of the children and family. Soon it became evident to the male folks of the village, that the women were bringing in household economy and stood up to their rights on violence against them. As a result the level of wife-beating incidences went down, malnutrition level among children went down and mothers sent their girl as well as boy children to school. On interviewing the head of the village who was a man I got a very telling statement when he said 'Our women are now bad. They do not share their money with us. They keep it or spend it on their children. We cannot even discipline them anymore because when we do they leave us. So now our men go to next village to get wives where they are more obedient to us'.

For me meeting this community of empowered women raised the whole issue of globalization and gender equity. On the one hand we know that the corporate world will exploit cheap labour from men and women and take products they want and eventually will leave you high and dry. On the other hand here was a community who benefitted in terms of women's empowerment in spite of the exploitative wages. The women in the community were now aware of what it is to earn their own income and be in charge of it too. They are now aware that there is unpaid labour at the household level which does not give them a voice and the power of money wages. Granted that the women chose to put their money into the welfare of their kids and hopefully themselves. Do they still continue to tend to subsistence farming in the village in terms of growing their own food? The answer was yes they do try to use the extended family and community network to maintain their gardens of food. As long as this happens the standard of health will maintain. The awakened women who have tasted the independence of economic power is a force to reckon as the men in the community were feeling it.

So as we debate on issues of globalization and neo-liberal policies, it is clear to me that the policies have not worked for us in this part of the world and now it is becoming increasingly clear it just has not worked in all parts of the globe. The important issue is however empowerment of women but should this be at any cost be it corporate solution or should we enhance other solutions at community level. If that is the case what is this solution and how does it operate at community levels where it matters?


Fatma Alloo is a media specialist and civil society leader based in Zanzibar. She is founder of Tanzania Media Women's Association (TAMWA). A long term member of SID in Tanzania, she has contributed to many of the SID WID programmes and publications since she joined SID in 1988. At the moment she is member of the SID international Governing Council and associate editor of Development.


Photo: Tomlinson/flickr