• These Men Have Never Carried a Drop of Water

    Posted by Tim

    27 August, 2012

    My recent book, Hope, contains anecdotes that come from where I have travelled with my work or impressions I have gathered as I reflect on my lived experience. A dominant thread through the book is that of hope. I am essentially a hopeful person who believes that life has a way of giving us the impetus to keep going in hard times, and not to give in to cynicism and despair.

    Following is an excerpt from the book which illustrates the hope that I see on my travels:
    I love watching the advertisements when charities devoutly declare that they are not political. What they mean to say, or in my view should say, is: we are not partisan but, of course, we are political.
    We should never be partisan and have a secret agenda to back a particular political party or interfere in domestic politics – tempting as that is when dictators rule. But we cannot do development without being small ‘p’ political. Politics is about power and who gets what they want and who misses out.
    Development and lifting people out of poverty often means disturbing power that is religiously and culturally enshrined in the status quo – think caste. And these power relations, left undisturbed, will continue to leave certain groups out because they have no power. Instead, we will continue to do a bit of charity – which is always needed, but becomes like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it.
    The largest group regularly left out are women. When we empower women, we are being highly political and we have an agenda. In highly patriarchal communities it is common for the women to do all the work. So to empower women is to subvert a culture, and that is touchy. It can have unintended consequences and upset power balances. But it is worth the risk.
    I have watched women on the border of Kenya and Somalia during that terrible drought draw water from the well that the World Vision water truck had just filled. 
    After drawing water these women were struggling to stand upright with the weight of the water buckets on their heads while the men, thirty to forty of them, sat or stood and watched. They would be surprised to be questioned about whether they loved their wives. ‘Of course we do. Why would you even ask? But respect our culture where women are expected to do the heavy work.’ The only finger lifted was when one man on one occasion stepped forward to help steady the bucket on a woman’s head as she struggled to stand upright, straining with the wobbles of a weightlifter moving from squat to press. That image has never left me.
    Of course, men cannot be blamed for everything. Horizontal oppression is a term for when women hurt each other. In Zimbabwe after we conducted a gender audit, I listened with our staff in Harare to the results that included some amazing attitudes. Some Shona women will tell their daughters, in the time leading up to their wedding, that if their husband does not beat them in the first week of marriage, he probably does not love them. They tell their daughters they must never ask about what seed their husband chooses to grow. That is a man’s domain. And when he goes off to market with the crop and comes back almost empty-handed with a likely story that he has been robbed, it is not for them to question. A good wife just does not do that. 
    These attitudes can spell a death sentence. If women who have reason to suspect their husbands’ fidelity are not empowered to ask questions, or even to admit to and act on their suspicions, they can be infected with HIV. It is why I cannot accept the teaching that condoms are wrong and unacceptable to God. If a wife is not permitted to say to her husband that he will have to use a condom until he has an HIV test, the risk is that sex can be fatal for her and her family even though she has been faithful. But to even imagine that sort of change takes generations, and for that to even be a possibility, it requires the education of women and the empowerment of girls. We know that in every society it is largely women who regulate the behaviour of men. They must be allowed the tools and freedom to do so.
    One of the best things we did after the crippling floods that left nearly 20 million homeless in Pakistan was set up women-only tents and spaces. The joy radiating from the communities was evident, as they had never experienced a women-only space in their village culture. The women’s tent could hold over 200 and was set well apart. It was an amazing thing for them to be unburdened by the presence of men in a space where they could talk about health issues and pressures in their marriages, draw pictures and write lists of plans and what they wanted for their future in a rebuilt village. When they showed us their hopes, confidence exuded from them – the confidence of expressing their ideas without fear of transgressing norms. To see that level of excitement was a tonic. It was a free space where they processed feelings and talked with deep concern about the patterns of depression and pain they saw in their men. 
    The men, by contrast, were curious and puzzled about this innovation. But they acknowledged that their wives were certainly happier and so, though they felt uncomfortable and were still unsure about the novel experiment, they reluctantly agreed it was better for them. Most acknowledged that because their villages and homes had been washed away, the women needed a place to regroup.
    It was a start that could kindle an idea that may change basic cultural attitudes in the days to come. Change takes place slowly, but is best aided by beneficial outcomes for all concerned.
    Tim Costello is the CEO of World Vision Australia, a coalition partner of Micah Challenge. Tim's recently published book 'Hope', is a collection of inspiring and thought-provoking stories of hope from all around the world.