Gender Neutrality

In 1993, the constitution of India was amended to stipulate that one third of positions as village chief were to be reserved for women. These positions were randomly allocated. The results were not always as positive as one might hope – often even the women complained about the female leaders.  However, there was one very significant outcome – follow-up research suggests that once a village has had one female leader the bias against female chiefs disappears and their candidacy and actions are judged by gender neutral standards. (1)

The same would seem to be true in Ireland – having had two consecutive female presidents – both of whom did a marvellous job – the electorate has moved into a very gender neutral place and we now have a male president. The expectation is that he will bring to the job many of the same characteristics of care, community development, human rights protection etc., that Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese made the trademark of their presidencies.  Michael D. Higgins was elected because he is who he is – nothing to do with his gender – and this is due at least in part to us being used to female presidents in Ireland.

If gender neutrality is achieved in political and public life by simply adding women (properly) to the mix – what other emergent advantages might equality – gender and racial and social – bring to all our societies?

Photograph – 11th November 2011 – Inauguration of President Michael D Higgins at Dublin Castle. (The former Presidents Robinson and McAleese, are dressed in red)

(1) Nick Kristoff and Sheryl Woo Dunn, Half the Sky pp 217-18

Teach a Girl – Change the World.

Camfed (Campaign for Female Education) is an international, non-profit organisation focused on educating and empowering girls and young women in a bid to eradicate poverty and help develop societies.   Camfed programs operate in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi.

In 1993, an English woman named Ann Cotton started Camfed at her kitchen table after a visit to Africa.  Nineteen years later, Camfed has helped 1,451,600 children with their education.  In addition, they have also set up the Cama Network – an offshoot of Camfed which trains and organises women to provide support, healthcare and education to others in their communities,

Wonderful as these things are there has been an unexpected outcome from this whole endeavour – the Camfed graduates have become individual philanthropists themselves.

The girls who have benefitted from the help given by Camfed, are now helping an average of 5 other girls at any one time – not including their own families who they also help.

As Ann Cotton says – “They are becoming real role models in their communities. It may be that the neighbor’s child can’t go to school because she doesn’t have a skirt, so she’ll provide that. Or maybe she’ll pay another girl’s school fees.  This was something we didn’t expect at all. It shows the power of education.”(1)

Human beings.  Endlessly wonderful once they get a chance.


(1) Half the Sky, Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, p. 203

Making a New Reality

We sometimes mistake the way things are for the way they have to be.  Even when our institutions and structures fail to meet our needs we often continue with outmoded structures and practices.  But occasionally people with vision are able to see clearly enough to change reality.

In the 1970s, a group of academics and professionals in Columbia looked outside their ivory tower and saw that the people around them needed help.  Gustavo Correa, a former mathematics professor, describes it thus –

“The economic indicators were saying that things were getting better, but you could see that the conditions of the poor people were not improving.” (1)

Although urban areas were prospering, the rural people were being pressurized into selling their land to the huge sugar and coffee companies.  Selling the land did give them an initial injection of cash but destroyed their futures as they were transformed from self-sufficient farmers to vulnerable contract labourers.

In an effort to deal with this situation they set up FUNDAEC – an acronym for Fundación par la Applicacion y Ensenanza de las Ciencias, (the Foundation for the Application and Teaching of the Sciences).

The founders of FUNDAEC wanted a new type of development.  Rather than trying to superimpose a model of development they let the needs of the people dictate the provision of services.  The primary need identified was knowledge.

“…they need access to scientific knowledge so as to be able to produce new knowledge that is applicable to their own situation, knowledge that works within cultural and technological restrictions that exist at the starting point of development.”(2)

So they started a rural university.  This university would not only work on generating and applying the knowledge the rural Columbians needed, it would also involve them in the gathering and production of this knowledge.

“The idea of a rural university is not so much a physical place as a space of learning, a social place, where people can get together and produce and then distribute the kinds of knowledge needed for rural life.” (3)

One of the outcomes of the establishment of this rural university was the development of the “Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial” (SAT).  This programme is a formal but flexible system of secondary education. SAT – now recognised and certified by the governments of Columbia, Honduras and Guatemala – which makes it possible for any individual – even those who live in the most remote rural areas – to have access to a full secondary education.

“If people don’t have access to knowledge, and in today’s world that means scientific knowledge in particular, then you can have all of the ‘participatory’ meetings you want but you won’t really have participation. Because the people won’t really understand.” (4)

This is a great example of a group of people who made the institutions fit the needs of the people rather than insisting that the people fit the needs of the institutions.


(1) Gustave Correa – Fundaec: Not a typical development foundation –

Girl Power

Camfed – Campaign for Female Education – has discovered that poverty is the main obstacle to the education of girls.

Research shows that the consequences of not educating girls are not only felt by the individual girls but by the entire society.

If you educate a girl she’ll:

  • Earn up to 25 percent more and reinvest 90 percent in her family.
  • Be three times less likely to become HIV-positive.
  • Have fewer, healthier children who are 40 percent more likely to live past the age of five.

So it appears that if you educate girls then you not improve the quality of their lives but, it seems, you also improve the quality of everybody’s life.

Investing in girls and women is likely to prevent inter-generational cycles of poverty and yield high economic and societal returns – Ban K-Moon, United Nations Secretary General.

If we want a functional, happy, healthy world we need to find ways to unleash more girl power it seems…


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The Principle of Principle


Image by Antonio Marano via Flickr

The best way to approach many issues, both in our private lives and our societies, is to spend some time examining the underlying principles that apply.

A principle is a fundamental truth or guideline that can assist us to make discrete decisions as we move from situation to situation. Unlike sets of rules, which can be rigid and need constant revision, principles are flexible and organic and they allow for both individual differences and change.

Take the principle of equality for example. Equality is not an easy concept for us.  We have no real framework for equality so it is hard for us to work it out.  We understand high and low, up and down, better and worse but equality – as in things being equal – is much harder for us to see.

Let’s imagine, for the purposes of this exercise, that we are running a country and that we all agree that everybody is equal and has an equal right to education.

Next we have to resource this educational system – so we divide up our education budget by the number of children to be educated. In other words we make sure that each child gets exactly the same slice of the pie. Seems equal so far?

Now, however, we discover that some of our children have learning disabilities and therefore more resources are needed for them if they are to benefit from our educational system.  This means there is no way we can treat everybody the same and hope for the same outcome.

So we have to return now to our principle of equality and see what we must do so that each child has whatever he/she needs to be educated. If we fix our gaze on the goal – namely that each of our children has a fair and equal opportunity for education – and then we can work out what we need to do in order for this to happen.

This is an over simplified example but it does demonstrate the importance of principles.  Without clear principles, we become bogged down in the ‘rules’ we have created and very often lose sight of our goals.