Women and development

By Sr Kayula Lesa RSC

What would social and economic development in Zambia be like if women did not contribute to it? And how much more development would take place if women were allowed to contribute further? These are two burning questions when we talk about “women and development” in a country like Zambia, a “developing country” with rich potential.

In Zambia, some 80% of maize, a food staple, is produced by small-scale farmers. And in some parts of the country, some 80% of those working on farms are women. Putting food on the table is a great contribution to development but still more could be done if women had easier access to title deeds for the land they work on. Frequently it is difficult for a woman to get title to the land and this certainly influences output because it affects her sense of ownership, determination and creativity. Education is a number one priority in securing the future development of a country like Zambia. But often girls from poor families do not have good opportunities to get an education. If resources are scarce in a family to meet school fees and other needs, then boys are usually the first to go to school. Cultural biases negate the girls’ chances because it is expected that they will get married and will not need much formal education.

These are just two examples of how women’s involvement in development is frequently frustrated through discrimination from legal or traditional structures. Then there are difficulties in enabling women to participate actively in the political processes necessary for development. For instance, in Zambia today, among the 158 Members of Parliament (MPs), there are fewer than 25 women. Long-established prejudices against women serving in important public positions influence voting patterns. This can, however, be overcome by specific efforts to get more women in Parliament. In Rwanda, public education, political party facilitation and accepted quota targets have made a difference. Now more than 50% of the MPs there are women.

Small-scale farmers like Ms Mulenga produce much of the organic cotton grown in Zambia. Women comprise 80% of those working on these farms. (Photo: J. Cafiso/CJI)

Small-scale farmers like Ms Mulenga produce much of the organic cotton grown in Zambia. Women comprise 80% of those working on these farms. (Photo: J. Cafiso/CJI)

Another factor that needs to be overcome is a prejudice that sometimes exists among women themselves. Some discourage others from too much public involvement or assertive leadership. This is something that women’s groups are struggling to overcome.

In the Church too, canonical and cultural structures inhibit women’s effective participation. During the Second African Synod in Rome last October, Archbishop Telesphore Mpundu of Lusaka highlighted the negative discrimination against women in the Church and stated strongly that the Church is simply poorer because women are not allowed to contribute to the full with their gifts and charisms, commitment and hard work. And we in the Church are all poorer because of that.

However, despite the barriers, women contribute significantly to development within the ‘set boundaries’ at every level. It is women who keep families going. Especially in the era of HIV and AIDS, women are ready to abandon their own aspirations to provide care to sick family members.

And nowadays we are seeing more and more educated women organizing non-governmental organizations and becoming executive directors in companies. Thanks to this visibility in such key arenas, traditionally considered ‘no go areas’, women are slowly being perceived as figures of authority.

The visibility of women in different spheres, where they are not expected to be, is partly due to affirmative action in government policy, which stipulates that a percentage of certain posts either in politics or education should be occupied by women. Women have been able to demand the rights due them through organizations such as Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA), Women For Change (WFC), JCTR and Caritas-Zambia, which have been instrumental in public education on gender. It must be said that talk about women taking up roles traditionally associated with men is seen by many as akin to dismantling the whole Zambian culture. So the gender discourse is often met with resentment.

But with many voices coming from all corners of society, women’s ability to contribute to development will gradually gain much appreciation. Women’s groups, human rights institutions and Church organizations of both women and men must work together to ensure that women in development is not just a slogan but a reality for everyone to benefit from.

This article by Sr Kayula Lesa RSC originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of CJI’s Mission News under the title “Women and Development: Reflections from Zambia.” Sr Kayula coordinated the Church’s Social Teaching Program at the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) in Lusaka, Zambia.