Caveat Benefactor (Let the Benefactor Beware)
Thursday was the last real day of CSW for us at the IYc. I went to an event focused on how the discipline of Social Work can be used to help rural women improve their situation. The second speaker on the panel was a woman named Dr. Marciana Popescu, a professor at Fordham University. She talked to us about a three-step process that she has found effective in reaching rural women with resources that they need:
1. Availability. The missing/deficient resources must be brought into the community.
2. Accessibility. The women must have access to or control over the resources so that they are able to use them for their families’ benefit.
3. Utilization. The women need to know how to effectively utilize the resource. This should be done either before the resource is brought in or as it is being brought in.
In particular, she stressed the importance of listening to the community when completing the last step. The good, but misinformed intentions of outsiders can sometimes completely miss the point and cause more harm than good. Here are some examples:
We’ve all heard the stories of women and girls walking for 3 hours to get water for their families. In response to this, a group of people raised money and built a well closer to the village where the women were living. The group left and then returned a year later, only to find that the women were miserable. What they found was that in the women’s long, hard workday, the three hours they spent walking to get the water was their down time. It was the time they had to laugh together, cry together, bond with one another, and to teach their daughters about life. When that time was taken away, their lives became less enjoyable. The practice was a legitimate problem, but it would have been better to involve the community in the solution.
In the Dominican Republic, there was a large group of refugees who were deeply impoverished. The government of the DR, however, categorized them as a “transitory population”, and so no aid programs were created to target them. Some social workers that were visiting the DR started analyzing the problems of the group and came up with some recommendations: Get the group more food, put up better shelter, start a literacy program, etc. But one of the workers decided to ask the community what it was that they thought they needed the most. When this question was asked, one of the female refugees said that they needed a public latrine. It was a simple request for dignity. Without this simple acknowledgement of their dignity, the women never would have made use of the other resources provided to them.
In Romania, the schools in many of the villages only go up to the 4th grade. Consequently, the only youth who are ever educated beyond the 4th grade are boys, since it is not safe for the girls to travel. In one of the villages, there was a girl who was just finishing the schooling available to her and wanted to continue so she could be a teacher, but she was promised in marriage to a man in the village (In the culture, the marriage isn’t consummated until the bride is old enough, but she is still expected to go to the in-laws house and fulfill other duties). The natural reaction of the social workers was to find a way for the girl to continue her schooling, and so they spent several weeks talking to the family and the in-laws to find a solution. Eventually, the in-laws agreed to let her stay with her family and attend school in the next village, as long as she didn’t go alone. The girl’s best friend volunteered to go with her, and the social workers would walk with the girls each day to school. They also worked with some of the boys, teaching them that it was their job to protect these two girls from anyone who wanted to hurt them. The plan was a success, and the girl (now a woman) is back in her village teaching other children. Had the social workers simply demanded the girl’s right to an education and sent her off to school without the help of the family and the in-laws, she almost certainly would have been raped, abducted, or both.
Just something to keep in mind as we help the helpless: They probably know more about their situation than we do.