It’s particularly important to support women in developing countries – but why?
There are still too many women and girls in the world who don’t have the chance to learn to read or count. Without their contribution, half of the population’s potential remains unused.
“CHANGE STARTSwith your family. Then it can spread to your village and the whole community,” says Irene Kiplagat Koskei Rugut,48.
Chief Irene, as she is known in her home village of Barpelo in Baringo, northwest Kenya, has been at the forefront of her community’s fight against female genital mutilation (FGM). It has not been a simple or easy road, but Irene is passionate about her cause.
“It happened to me when I was 15 years old. I know what it’s like to be mutilated and how it affects your life and being a woman,” she says.
Irene did not want the same fate for her daughters or anyone else’s children. It’s not just about health or the effects of mutilation on a woman’s body. In many cases, FGM means the end of a girl’s schooling. Afterward, many girls are not allowed to finish their schooling, which affects their lifelong livelihood prospects.
Educated girls grow up to be women who can learn a trade, rather than having to live on agriculture alone. Now that the village of Barpelo is also severely affected by climate change, a profession other than traditional livestock farming would provide security. When a woman has a profession, she is not dependent on her husband’s or family’s money.
After initial challenges, Irene has won over most of the people of Barpelo. There is hardly any mutilation of girls here anymore. Irene is happy. Her own daughter has a university degree and already has a good job in the local government.
Discrimination against women starts in childhood
Women make up roughly half of the world’s population. Yet women face many forms of gender discrimination and physical threats; at work, in their communities and even at home. Women can rightly be said to be at a disadvantage compared to men in many parts of the world.
In many cases, exclusion and discrimination against women starts to build up in childhood. For example, in some cultures, the education of girl children is seen as a waste of time and money. If parents have to choose whether to send a boy or a girl to school, sometimes culture and antiquated beliefs lead them to prefer the boy. This idea is built on traditions where only men have full rights to decide their own affairs – and often also those of women and girls.
However, putting girls who grow up to be women in an unequal and inferior position ignores the fact that whole families and communities are losing half of their full potential. Development, prosperity and peace cannot be achieved if half of people are excluded from society and its decision-making processes.
The idea of supporting women in particular through development cooperation became stronger in the 1980s. The special status and needs of women and girls is still at the heart of development cooperation work in FCA’s country of origin – Finland. And no wonder, equality has a long tradition in Finnish society. But this has not always been the case.
Equality is the result of progress, it does not come automatically or for free. It is a social innovation, which has brought renewal and prosperity to society through the contributions of both women and men. Finland advocates a global commitment to equality. It wants to redefine the concept and put equality back in the spotlight.
Girls’ education is changing the world
There are still too many women in the world who never had the chance to learn to read or count. Without basic skills, people can miss out on important information about their rights and opportunities to participate in their communities and decision-making. They may be exploited financially and physically. Or they may not know how to seek help for health, financial or social-related problems even if they are entitled to help.
Above all, the lack of access to quality education shackles people to poverty. Millions of people in the world, especially in developing countries, depend on livestock or other forms of agriculture. Their already meagre livelihoods can be severely disrupted by sudden shocks, such as global pandemics like Covid-19 or weather events caused by climate change.
That is why it is important that girls also have access to schooling. With an education, girls become women who know their rights. This will enable them to use the knowledge and skills they have learned in a variety of ways to secure their own and their families’ livelihoods.
Education also protects girls from early marriage and pregnancy. Interrupted schooling, on the other hand, increases the risk of teenage pregnancies and child marriages. This is why FCA supports girls’ education and their return to school, especially in disaster and crisis situations.
Educated women are also more likely to put their own children through school. They keenly understand the importance of those crucial early years in school for their future well-being. So in a way, education is multiplied, especially by educating girls and women.
Peace needs women
The war in Ukraine has shown brutally how rape and sexual violence – mostly, but not exclusively towards women – are very much a part of warfare. But women are not just victims of war. In the context of conflict, women can play an important and leading role in peace processes. Women can work for peace not only at grassroots level, but also in higher levels of government.
In March 2023, the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs published its new Women, Peace and Security Action Plan, which FCA is also committed to implementing. The main objectives of the Action Plan include strengthening women’s meaningful participation and gender perspective in conflict prevention and peace negotiations, the security sector, crisis management and preparedness.
FCA has long supported women’s participation in local governance and peace processes. One example is in Somalia, where decision-making is largely dominated by male-dominated clans. Traditionally, women, youth and marginalised groups are excluded from decision-making processes. Our advocacy work since 2016 has resulted in 16 women being elected as members of five new regional councils. FCA has also provided leadership training to over 700 women leaders.
At the grassroots level, women, especially mothers, have played an important role in peace work. In Kenya’s Kerio Valley, where FCA works for peace, when a woman becomes a mother, she receives a wide leather belt. The gift is often decorated with shells by her mother or another woman in her community. The purpose of the belt is to aid recovery from childbirth, but it also has symbolic, trans-tribal significance. In times of violence, women come together to discuss issues. The old custom is for mothers to place their belts on the ground in front of them. The symbolic line is not allowed to be crossed, but is there to protect the peace of the parties to the conflict to negotiate.
Finland is a women’s rights pioneer
It is often said that Finland was the first country in the world to grant women full political rights. That was in 1906. However, decades of work for equality preceded women’s suffrage and political participation. As early as the 1850s, women activists were speaking out for girls’ education.
In many countries around the world, women continue to struggle for political participation as well as for everyday rights such as the right to own land or inherit from their relatives. In Finland, women and men were granted equal inheritance rights in 1878. The first Finnish co-educational school brought boys and girls together in 1886. In 1870, Marie Tschetschulin became the first Finnish and Scandinavian woman to enrol as a matriculate. Until 1888, however, women were still required to obtain a separate permit to sit the matriculation examination. It was not until 1901 that women were granted the right to study at university.
As the 19th century Kuopio woman lawyer and writer Minna Canth said, “The question of women is not only a woman question, but a question of humanity.” It is easy to agree. Gender equality is first and foremost about human rights, and human rights belong to everyone.
The tenth UN International Day of the Girl Child will be celebrated on 11 October
The United Nations International Day of the Girl Child calls attention to the fact that girls’ access to education also helps families, communities and society. In Somalia, Finn Church Aid works to promote girls’ access to education and their inclusion in peace work.
HAWA, 16, does not take education for granted. In Somalia, studying is something many young people Hawa’s age can only dream of. Hawa’s dream is to learn English properly.
“That way I could talk to all kinds of people,” she explains to Finn Church Aid (FCA) at her school, Mama Gedia.
For children and young people in poor and fragile Somalia, there’s very little room for dreaming. Decades of conflict have left the country practically devoid of infrastructure. To make matters worse, the country is gripped by a devastating and protracted drought that threatens food security.
In September, the World Food Programme warned of a risk of famine in the region. The war in Ukraine is disrupting grain imports, inflation has more than doubled the price of food in some places, and local conflicts and terrorist attacks weaken the security situation. Tens of thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes due to violence, or lost their livelihoods as a result of the drought. All of this contributes to a cycle of poverty.
Without external assistance, Hawa would not be able to go to school as her parents can’t afford school fees. With FCA’s support, they can pay Hawa’s school fees, learning materials or school uniforms.
Hawa calls her teachers her role models. She appreciates their encouragement and the high quality of teaching provided.
“I’m full of energy and I want to use this opportunity to get an education,” she says. “When I grow up, I want to work for a humanitarian organisation.”
THE TENTH UN International Day of the Girl Child will be celebrated on 11 October. While attention over the past ten years has been called to the importance of offering girls more opportunities, much work remains to be done. Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have further increased the burden on girls and threaten to reverse progress already made.
But, as the UN points out, with adversity comes resourcefulness, creativity, tenacity, and resilience. On its theme day website, the UN points out that hundreds of millions of girls have shown time and time again that given the skills and the opportunities, they can be the changemakers driving progress in their communities.
Finn Church Aid works to support girls’ access to education by distributing school uniforms and supplies to those in the most vulnerable position. FCA also supports parents’ livelihoods, organises awareness campaigns, builds schools and classrooms, and supplies furniture and teaching materials.
“In Somalia, the education sector is facing enormous challenges, starting with teachers’ competence and the lack of a sufficient and accessible school network”, says Ikali Karvinen, FCA’s Country Director in Somalia. “School buildings are in poor condition, groups are too big, and teachers lack proper training.”
While overcrowded classes are a problem in many schools, dropping out of school is another big issue, Karvinen says. In most cases, dropping out is associated with poverty. From an early age, children have to help their families to earn a living.
IN DIFFICULT CIRCUMSTANCES, girls are in a particularly vulnerable position for various reasons. According to Karvinen, there are cultural and traditional as well as structural reasons for this. Girls’ education is not considered as important as boys’, because girls are expected to stay at home and help parents with household chores and with earning a living.
Many families refuse to send girls to school because the journey to school is unsafe. FCA is contributing to making schools safer. In Hawa’s school, Mama Gedia, FCA created a channel that pupils can use to report threatening situations to teachers.
For girls, some of the reasons for dropping out can be very simple: the lack of hygiene facilities or single-sex toilets can be a significant issue for teenage girls. To reduce dropout rates among girls, it is important to provide relevant health information, organise proper sanitary facilities and make sanitary pads available.
In Karvinen’s opinion, it’s also crucial to raise community awareness of girls’ rights to education and the positive effects it has on families, communities and the entire country.
“Generation after generation of dropouts and a growing number of people with no education will generate an intellectual deficit. This will make the country increasingly dependent on external aid provided by international organisations, both on a shorter and longer horizon.”
LUL MOHAMED NUR, headteacher at Mama Gedia school is one of the 16-year-old Hawa’s role models. According the school principle, there are now more girls than boys in the school.
“This is the result of our tireless campaigning to make families understand why sending girls to school is important. It seems that the community has heard and accepted our message.”
Abdullahi Moallin Ali, chairman of the community’s education committee, agrees that campaigning significantly contributed to the change in attitudes. More and more families decided to send their children to school after they found out that they don’t have to pay school fees or pay for school uniforms or learning materials.
Children themselves can also feel nervous about going to school. 10-year-old Suleqo thinks it is important that all children regardless of gender have access to education, and she wants all parents to give their children equal opportunities. At first this little albino girl was reluctant to go to school herself.
“At first she resisted, but now she’s used to going to school and she likes it,” her mother Hamaro Mohamed Nur explains.
Because of her albinism, Suleqo’s vision is impaired. Her teacher placed her near the blackboard so that she can see what teachers write.
“Suleqo became much more interested in school after she received her school uniform and learning materials. Now she has plenty of energy and she really likes her teachers,” Suleqo’s mother says.
ACUTE CRISES tend to divert attention from long-term goals. In Somalia, famine threatens almost seven million people, or half of the country’s population.
Karvinen emphasises that while the help of the international community is vital in an acute crisis, it is equally important not to lose sight of the long-term objectives.
Finn Church Aid’s work focuses on peacebuilding; this includes supporting the national reconciliation process and inclusive local government. Other key focus areas include the promotion of education and livelihoods. In Somaliland, FCA has supported two vocational schools with the incorporation of career counselling and entrepreneurship education into the curriculum. With support from FCA, students have been encouraged to pursue entrepreneurial activities.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, FCA built learning facilities in hard-to-reach areas and provided training to teachers to allow children to stay in school. FCA helped build 10 new temporary schools and 16 renovated classrooms in the cities of Baidoa, Hudur and Elbarde. Almost half of the students in these schools are girls.
Peace work does not exist in a vacuum; it is part of something bigger, Karvinen underlines. FCA works to promote the inclusion of young people and women in peacebuilding by organising events that give marginalised groups an opportunity to be heard. FCA also supports the BAYWAN network of women’s organisations in southwest Somalia.
THERE IS ALWAYS hope, even in the face of famine, violence and insecurity. FCA’s Karvinen underlines the importance and impact of small changes and improvements. A simple way to improve safety in schools is to build a fence around the area and to have access control in place.
“School is the safest place for many children. Being at school protects children from being exploited as child labour or ending up in the hands of terrorist organisations.”
According to Karvinen, children who go to school enjoy learning new things, which increases their satisfaction and creates optimism about the future. Education makes children and young people better equipped to make healthier choices in life. The repercussions are significant: as people become healthier and more educated, they will be able to accept responsibility for services, security and respect for human rights in their country.
Education can also empower girls to put an end to harmful traditional practices. During the COVID-19 lockdown, there were reports of an increase in female genital mutilation.
“Educated girls and women are instrumental in the fight against this human rights violation,” Karvinen notes.
Providing educational opportunities for girls is of paramount importance.
“An educated woman wants her children to receive an education. This is the virtuous cycle that FCA wants to reinforce,” Karvinen concludes.
Your donation allows Finn Church Aid to e.g.:
distribute school supplies and school uniforms to children
provide income opportunities for parents so that children can go to school
organise awareness campaigns designed to help parents understand how important education is for their children
build schools and classrooms, supply blackboards, desks, textbooks and teaching materials for schools
In Somalia, FCA has trained more than 700 women leaders in leadership and other skills.
OVER THREE DECADES OF CONFLICT has left Somalia in poverty, most of its infrastructure destroyed, and ongoing political instability and armed conflict exacerbate the effects of climate shocks. Women have borne the brunt of these hardships.
FCA has been supporting state-building and the establishment of inclusive local governance through district council formation in line with the Wadajir National Framework and National Reconciliation Framework. Together with the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, we worked closely with the Somali State and Federal Government, local authorities, communities, and civil society partners.
In 2021, we released a new publication on lessons learned and best practices for supporting inclusive local governance, focusing on promoting the participation of women, youth, and marginalised groups to support future state-building efforts in Somalia. As decision-making is largely in the hands of clans, which men dominate, decision-making processes exclude women, youth and marginalised groups. Since 2016, our support has resulted in the formation of five new district councils, with sixteen women elected as district council members. Furthermore, FCA has trained more than 700 women leaders in leadership and other skills.
In 2021, we lobbied for women’s meaningful participation in federal and district elections. In the Barawe district of Southwest state, a new council was formed, comprising twenty men and seven women, including the first female Deputy Mayor. Twenty youth (fourteen men and six women) were also elected. In partnership with the Network, Somali Peace Line and the Ministry of Women, Human Rights and Development, we promoted women’s participation in federal elections in Southwest and Hirshabelle State, advocating for a 30% quota.
Social media, radio and television raised awareness about civic rights and opportunities to participate in political processes and communication activities that FCA supported. That contributed to a 98 per cent awareness rate of district council formation, which helped increase the participation of women and other marginalised groups. Inclusive local governance in Somalia is time-consuming and labour-intensive work, but the incentive is clear – the dividend is peace.
Women and girls became central in our pandemic work
Right after the declaration of COVD-19 restrictions and lockdowns, we understood that child marriage would become a pertinent issue in our working areas, writes Program Development Coordinator Deepika Naidu.
Intensifying gender-based violence (GBV), more domestic work, drop-outs from school, and increasing numbers of child marriage. The covid-19 pandemic hit us all hard, but the consequences of school closures and national lockdowns were especially serious for Nepalese girls and women.
Right after the declaration of COVD-19 restrictions and lockdowns, we understood that child marriage would become a pertinent issue in our working areas. That’s why we wanted to focus on child safeguarding and make it one of our first priorities. We started implementing our activities which included child clubs in school, community dialogues and even educational street drama performances.
We also erected billboards with a message on child marriage and its negative effects on children’s physical, mental, social well-being and legal provisions against child marriage. It was encouraging to see that the billboards were well recognized by the community and local government officials.
In addition to child safeguarding, the pandemic forced us to respond to the crisis in many ways. Our food distributions addressed the immediate needs of the most marginalized groups, especially pregnant and lactating women, and households who had a person with a disability.
As in many other countries, there were more reported cases of gender-based violence in Nepal during the lockdown. We did our best to tackle the problem with our family dialogues, media awareness campaigns and sessions on gender inequality with mixed groups engaging men, boys, women and girls of communities. Some of the cooperatives (supported by FCA) formulated advocacy plans of action including activities to reduce child marriage and addressing GBV, amongst others. These were submitted to the respective local governments.
In consideration of the increasing violence and abuse against women and girls in the quarantine centres, FCA partners advocated for women-friendly spaces with local governments. Our efforts bore fruit: due to this collective voice of Civil Society Organisations, local governments initiated women-friendly spaces in the targeted quarantine centres.
I’m hopeful because our constitution is very progressive and the policies and acts addressing child marriage and violence against women and girls are promising. The presence of the local units of the government at the community level aims to create an enabling environment for women and girls to thrive.