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Empowered Women are Leading the Way

The following is a session transcript of a conversation hosted as part of our Online Global Conference originally aired on Thursday, October 7, 2021. One of the most compelling aspects of our global work is the way women and girls are empowered to lift their communities. In fact, many global observers believe empowered women may be the key to healing our broken world.  Join us for this personal conversation and gain new insight into the way the Plant With Purpose program is promoting equality and providing opportunities for women.

Presenters: Christi Huizenga Renaud, Vice President of Development
Annah Amani, MPH, PhD, Program Officer, Africa


(Christi Renaud): Welcome to the session on Empowered Women Leading the Way. This is a topic that we're both qualified and excited to talk about, so thank you for joining us. I am Christi Renaud. I'm the vice president of marketing and development at Plant With Purpose. I've been working here for about 11 years now. 

(Annah Amani:) I started work here in January. I’m the Programs Officer for Africa, welcome.

(Christi:) Annah, would you be willing to share a little bit about your story and how you got here, why you're here?

(Annah): I'm originally from Uganda. I lived there until I was eight years old, and I came to the US as a refugee. Uganda was in a civil war at the time, and my family fled from that fighting.

I was educated here in the Los Angeles area. I got my master's degree at UCLA in public health, and I went back to the continent, back to Uganda specifically, to do project work. I did project community development with a child sponsorship program that I was working with.

Then I decided that I wanted to get my doctorate in international family and community development. After that, I went back and did even more project work, and that's how I ended up here.

(Christi): Well, my story isn’t anywhere near as adventurous or exciting nor well-educated as Annah’s. I've been working in international development for a long time now. I studied international development and international business and had a huge desire to see the world and understand what it's like.

I spent some time living in Africa, probably about five or six years. I spent a little bit of time living in the Caribbean and Latin America, and a few years living in South Asia. Along that journey, I've seen a lot of different examples of what it looks like to be a woman around the world. I think one of the main takeaways that I had from all of those travels is that no community is exactly the same as another. However, there is a common thread that goes through a lot of that, which is that women have it hard sometimes.

Women also carry the load of the labor around the world. I started my career working in anti human trafficking. That's what led me to spend some time in South Asia. My experience there was really eye opening, and it's kind of what led me on the rest of the journey. I was working with women who found themselves in some of the worst possible situations that were sold as slaves into brothels. Just the most tragic stories you can imagine. Thinking about what led them there is just what I kept thinking about.

I am thinking about how I can help. So, I studied how they got there, and it was almost always poverty. Poverty was the root cause of a lot of the violence that people found themselves in. Poverty combined with a lot of, well, a lack of options.

Here I was quite a privileged woman living in that same culture, but I was single. I wasn't married. I didn't have my dad with me. I was just by myself. Even with my education and my position as a foreigner and the fact that I had money, I still couldn't rent an apartment. I finally did, but it was really, really hard. I had a lot of situations where I had to jump through so many barriers to do something as basic as put a roof over my head.

That just made me think about, well, what about the other women? What about the women who don't carry the same privileges that I have available to me? How much harder is it for them to leave a bad situation or to make their life better if they have to do it by themselves. How would you go about doing that? That really started my journey. From there, I learned a lot about the role of women and what women's situations look like in different places around the world.

Annah,  you were sharing with me earlier a little bit about your family in Uganda and that not everybody got to come. So, some of them are still there, and that gives you a really unique perspective about people you love dearly.

(Annah): I was interested in public health work, but the more I started down that field, the more I realized just how much resonated with me. My mother was married at 14 and she had me at 15. We both almost died because she was so young. She produced at such a young age. Then, you know, being a child refugee and the vulnerabilities of that, being sold or human trafficked or assaulted, all of these things just seemed so close to my experience.

I mean, I got my doctorate, but I have first cousins who are in the same situation or were in the same situation as my mom. They were being married off for a few cows or whatever the bride price was. For me it was like “there but for the grace of God, that would be me.” It’s so very close to me. This is how I ended up, getting more and more knowledge on those topics that specifically impact rural women.

(Christi): We're so grateful for your help on it. One of the things that I think is helpful for people to know is that you had a more lucrative commercial style career. Yet, you chose to instead spend your life helping.

(Annah): Yes, I did start off in corporate America living the “American dream”. At some point, I just felt called and prepared for this work. I had to put my life and energy to something that resonated with me. Something that was more meaningful to me.

I felt as believers, we are seeking purpose. I felt that this was my purpose. I mentioned that also, because you're just cool. And I wanted to share that with the world, but also because you're right.

(Christi:) I mean, we have a sense of calling and a sense of purpose. We are a Christian organization. We firmly believe that all our people were created in the image of God and that we all have inherent dignity. We also are equipped with skills, gifts and talents. That's one of the things that we get to focus on when we're talking about integrating women into our programs: making sure that we are honoring all of those things that stem from who we are as children of God. That they're not overlooked or left out. 

We wanted to tell you a little bit about our own personal journey, because we thought that that might help shape the story. We also want to give you a few more statistics to base this in. A lot of the many things that Annah has studied over her career. So would you lead us? 

(Annah): Women produce 70 percent of Africa's food. That is huge. I just want to sit on that one for a minute. 70 percent of the food coming out of Africa is produced by women.

Also, at the same time, women's labor share in African agriculture accounts for 60 to 80 percent of the work. Women are producing the food, but it is because it's their labor, time, energy, sweat, and digging that hard clay soil.

Sometimes women also bear the brunt of other domestic duties on top of that. Doing the work in the fields, coming home, and feeding the family. Rural women are less likely than urban women to have formal employment. They're often unable to own the land that they farm or inherit the land. If it's family land, and they bear a disproportionate share of heading single parent households. And there's a lot of that as well, especially the land thing for rural women.

They may be vulnerable if their husband or father or whoever leaves again. Back to the story of what you do when these bad things happen. Bad stuff happens. What do you do? Women are vulnerable, and that's huge. But the other thing that we see, which is really exciting, is that there is very strong evidence that savings groups, which is a big component of our purpose groups, expand access to financial resources for women. This helped to contribute to asset accumulation,  and increased income generating investment opportunities.

(Christi:) There's a lot of things that have just been proven through research to work and have a huge impact on the lives of women. So that's one of the progressive aspects of our programs, is our continuing focus on monitoring and evaluation. We’re looking at the most evidence-based approach for our model so that you can be sure that we're really following things that we measure and know to work. We’re also making sure that we're looking at the possible side effects of any choices we make.

Would you explain a little bit more about how important it is and why it's important in the development process to foster female participation? 

(Annah:) Absolutely. In the global picture of development, I think if you look at societies, pre money, pre cash economy, the contribution that women made was valued. The caring work that they do was valued. Where as when we moved into a cash economy, we find that women's work became less and less valued because they were not paid. It became more about who's bringing in the money and less about what contribution they are making to the progress and development of our communities.

Part of what we do is restore that balance; to put attention on the care work, to give women agency to be able to do the care work effectively. Things like raising the children, cooking and cleaning and working their farms. 

A huge task that falls on women and girls is getting clean water to the household. It takes hours and hours for them to do that. It’s very, very heavy. There's a lot of manual labor that women do around the world.

(Christi:) Sometimes you can get lost in the wording around these studies. So, it's good for us to think about gender equity versus gender inclusion. Gender equity is an approach that a lot of organizations use, which is where you try to elevate the role of women to that of the role of men, so that they're equitable. At Plant With Purpose,  we often align more with the gender inclusion style of women's empowerment. This is where you make sure that you're inviting the women in and you don't worry as much about measuring the gender difference.

What we find is they often lead us to the same place in many ways. One of the things that we've learned along the way is that sometimes when you artificially try to inflate the role of women, you do it as an outside organization coming in and trying to make it happen. With this, you occasionally can be valuing women at the expense of men. That backfires, especially coming from the perspective of all people, men and women alike. 

I never want to be in a situation where we're elevating the role of women at the expense of men. We want to make sure that just by bringing women in, including women in the story and in the solution, and giving women opportunities to lead, that what we start to see is women are smart. They start to surprise people and people start to understand the value of what it is that women do. A great example that we were talking about earlier is our Congo program.

We started working there in 2015. Again, our communities where we work have slightly different gender roles. It's kind of a thing that happens in the community that we started working with in Congo. When we got there, there were women working so hard. Women's role in that community and culture was to do all of the farming of the backyard. All of the agriculture, the subsistence farming that feeds the family to take care of the kids, to get the water all the way down the mountain, to take the food to market. Basically to do all the work.

The men were supposed to go get jobs and bring money home. Maybe if they're lucky, you put on a suit and look smart. It was just a place that had experienced so long conflict and a lot of economic disinvestment, and those jobs weren't there. The jobs that men were supposed to get, they just weren't there. What we found when we arrived was, people were eating a little more than a meal a day most days. Just a meal a day. They weren't thriving. It was a really, really difficult place with high levels of poverty. We also found a lot of men sitting around because they felt like there wasn't much for them to do. Their job just wasn't there.

They sat there and everybody was discouraged. Again, we think about gender inclusion and we think about drawing women in, but we don't want to do it in an artificial way. Our program model is designed to value women and to think about what it is that women do.

We started by talking to churches. We use a curriculum there that speaks a lot about the theology of work; reading the Bible, understanding what it is that God is saying to us about our role. Part of our role is that He has created the world and called us to make something beautiful out of it. 

We know that God deeply, deeply cares about how we care for our families. He deeply cares about how we care for the land, for each other, and for Him. All of these things are really important.

As we started to talk about this, the men started to think, God probably wants me to get up and care for the land, too. Even though that was traditionally the women's work, the men started doing it because they felt called.

That was really exciting. The other thing is our purpose groups and savings groups methodology that you were mentioning earlier. It does a lot to help equip women in saving a little bit of money and preparing for the future.

We started to see a lot of businesses form and women were starting those businesses. Then the men watched and thought, ‘that looks nice’. ‘Maybe I should try that’. Long story short, men started watching what the women were doing and joining them. They started realizing that together they were able to accomplish twice as much.

One of the things that I think is really cool about the stories from that community is to watch the men talk about their wives and the women in their community. There’s  just this sense of ‘awe, these are some strong women’.

What they're doing is so important and it's really, really hard work. It just shifted the value like Annah was talking about. It shifted that value of women's work, in that particular community and elevated the value without artificially inflating women. And women started to become seen as valuable.

I think that especially as Christians following God's call as we just faithfully live out. What we're supposed to do and be caretakers of the Earth and caring for our neighbors and caring for the more vulnerable people in our community, we start to understand and see them maybe freshly through the eyes that God sees us through.

That's just super beautiful. Annah,  you had a story that you wanted to share. 

(Annah:) I wanted to share a story about a woman named Emelyne in Burundi. She was married for 18 years. Then her husband abandoned the family and she was left to take care of the family on her own. So being a woman, she didn't have very many skills that she could get for more employment. She was struggling day to day, just being able to feed and have some coffee for her children. She was having a very difficult time. Coming into the program, she was describing herself as poor, unsuccessful, and bitter. Being able to join the Plant With Purpose program gave her hope, and it gave her community.

One of the things that we see is when a woman is in that situation where she's outside of the community structure, they can be very isolated. In terms of not really having people to collaborate with, work with, and socialize with.

The Plant With Purpose program gave her that community and the savings group, gave her an income. She was then able to invest in some small projects and have money in her home to pay her children's school fees.

She was able to have greater productivity on her farm with improved agricultural training through our program. Overall it was a wonderful testimony. One of the quotes that she would pull from her story is “my children, who barely eat twice a day before, now eat three times a day, they're well dressed, well educated and well regarded in our community”. This is a beautiful example of how a family that was falling deeper and deeper into poverty and becoming more and more marginalized in the community was able to be pulled into the community.

Now they're productive members, who are contributing to the community. They're progressing and well regarded in the community. 

(Christi:) She also told us that people have been watching her. The other people in her community are now starting to follow her lead. 

(Annah:) This is part of our overall watershed model. The idea that whether they are in the program, or if they're not in the program, the success of our programs impacts the entire community in the entire watershed.

(Christi:)  I'm sure that she's a great model to her community and someone who has a really beautiful story.

It's fun to see how much pride you can see in her face in those pictures we have of her, as well as her daughter’s. To think about how different her daughter's lives are. Knowing that their mom is able to take care of them 

(Annah:) and be a good example of having agency. Knowing that women can do these things and provide for her family is really a powerful example for her daughters. Some of the things that we see are just like in her story, women, girls who are more likely to drop out of school, will remain in school.

These women are able to provide for their families. The people are eating better. They have better structures in their homes. They have diversified income, which helps with resiliency in terms of natural disasters. This time of Covid, we saw that our communities in the program were doing much better in having diversified forms of income. We're able to go through that period, thrive, and help other people in their community.

(Christi:) And bounce back off a personal tragedy. 

(Annah:) We know that the model works.

We research and improve it every day. We're very happy and excited about all the progress that the women in our communities are making. We're very grateful for your support. Yeah. 

(Christi:) We've just shared a little bit about how we work with women, why we think it's important to empower women, how we do it, and how we don't do it. All in all, we just firmly believe that women are valuable. I believe that men are valuable. We believe that children are valuable. Women specifically, are often substantially more vulnerable. By seeing them, recognizing them, validating the work that they do and equipping them, giving them access to agriculture training. You don't only teach the men, but also the women. We can really change entire societies in a natural and honoring way.

 If you have any more questions or want to find out more information, we would love to talk to you about this more in depth. We didn't want to overwhelm you, but Annah and I are here all the time, and we would love to talk with you further. Thank you very much for joining us today in the session, learning about empowered women leading the way.

(Annah:) Thank you.

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