A New Voice for Women in U.S. Aid

Last week marked a turning point for women like Mariam Ouadraogo and her relationship with the U.S. Mariam, who lives on about a dollar a day like many millions of her sisters all over the world, generously hosted me last year in her family compound in the small village of Doulougou, in the West African nation of Burkina Faso. Mariam doesn't know it, but for the first time she now has an advocate within the highest offices of U.S. international assistance programs, whose job it is to ensure that women like her are included in all U.S. foreign assistance efforts.

Since its inception, Women Thrive Worldwide has been spearheading the advocacy for the creation of a new high-level position within the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to help put the needs and voices of women at the center of U.S. foreign assistance in a systematic way. Not just through stand-alone projects in traditional areas like education or health or microcredit, which are necessary, but also across economic assistance, infrastructure, agriculture, political participation and post-conflict programs.

When I learned last week that the newly-created position of Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment at USAID was real, I immediately thought of Mariam. I also remembered Eluvia and Margarita in Guatemala and Betilde and Leticia in Nicaragua--all of whom in their own way adopted me and helped me understand what life for the world's poorest women really looks like.

Women are the majority of the more than one billion people living on just a dollar a day, and account for 6 out of 10 of the world's hungry. Despite this, because of the many barriers the world's poorest women face, they very often get left out of assistance programs. I've worked in this field for 20 years, but nothing brought home both the challenges and the opportunities for women like actually trying to live like them for just a few days.

Last year, for four days, I slept, worked, and ate alongside my host, Mariam Ouadraogo. After working in her fields and gathering water in the 100+ degree heat, every night Mariam raced against the sinking sun to cook a dinner of "Toh" -- a staple porridge made from ground sorghum and broth made from soaking leaves of the baobab tree in water. I found that a dollar in the local market bought me a bowl of cooked spiced rice to eat as an indulgence for my spoiled American appetite, cooking oil for a few days, some spices, bar soap, matches, detergent, and small amounts of dried fish and okra. I couldn't imagine sustaining myself on this, let alone a family of eight. My mind spinning, I sat down with Mariam to learn more about her family's expenses. When all line items were counted up, the total annual family budget came to the equivalent of $362. When I noticed that school fees accounted for almost half of that, I understood why only about a third of all children in Burkina Faso attend primary school.

But Mariam was also extraordinarily resourceful. She is the head of the village women's association, which farms entirely by hand a large community plot with vegetables and grains for all members to supplement smaller individual and family fields. The association's women now give each other loans for family emergencies and rides to the hospital when a family member is sick. It is the backbone of the community.

When I asked what they needed, women were clear: draft animals to help them plow, fertilizer, a rice mill. These would cost very little and make a huge impact on the village. They would also help hugely with another kind of poverty women face, called time poverty. In those four days, I barely had time to sit. Starting a new business or going to school are impossible when you're already working 18 hours a day. Very often though, there is little input like this from women before ambitious projects are launched.

This eye-opening experience is just one of the reasons that I applaud USAID's commitment to making sure our aid dollars end up the hands of women like Mariam. Even more reason to celebrate is that the creation of the position of Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment comes as the Agency is also working on a new Gender Policy to mandate exactly how all projects will reach both women and men. Last week was a major step in the right direction, but there are more to be taken before Mariam can start to see a difference. Women Thrive will push to make sure that I can go back to Doulougou and see families like the Ouadraogos not just surviving, but thriving with focused, effective support from U.S. assistance programs. One half of the world's population deserves nothing less.

Ritu Sharma is Co-Founder and President of Women Thrive Worldwide, which advocates for U.S. international policies that benefit the world's poorest women and girls.