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Susan M. Blaustein

Susan M. Blaustein

Posted: March 8, 2011 08:43 AM

Fast-Tracking Women's Empowerment: Partnerships and Practical Solutions


We've learned a lot in the first 100 years of celebrating International Women's Day, about women's empowerment and resistance to that empowerment; about leverage and how to fight above one's weight class; and about the benefits and challenges inherent in sister solidarity worldwide. But we've not really appreciated yet the degree to which supporting women in any environment necessitates engaging in a complex system of interactions. Even the most innovative education initiative, without attention to related issues in public health, sanitation and livelihood training, cannot help free women and girls from searing poverty. In urban settings, of course, this complexity is multiplied many times, as the salient relationships between transport, population density, drainage, pollution, pay-scale parity and green space also have direct and often dramatic impacts on the lives of women and girls.

The traditional approach to international development, therefore, wherein only one sector is addressed at a time, will necessarily fall far short of the mark -- whether that mark be achieving the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of reducing maternal mortality by 75 percent, clean water being no more than a 10-minute walk from one's home, enjoying access to affordable credit, the freedom to say no to early marriage or the opportunity to stay in school beyond the primary years.

The Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI), a project of the Earth Institute, Columbia University, founded in 2006 by Earth Institute Director Jeffrey D. Sachs to help under-resourced sub-Saharan cities achieve the MDGs and eradicate extreme poverty, begins and ends with an integrated approach to sustainable development. MCI staff realize that for women and girls to thrive in urban settings, thoughtful multi-sectoral strategies must be applied. From ensuring safe transport to school for teenage girls, to training law enforcement personnel to handle domestic violence cases, to establishing safe local blood banks so that a pregnant woman in a complicated labor need not die waiting for the only properly outfitted operating theatre, urban women's issues are as rich and various as urban women themselves.

MCI begins, where possible, with a deep investigation of a city's ability to deliver social services and by identifying specific MDG-related needs and financing gaps, nearly all of which touch the lives of women and girls. We then reach out to a broad network of partners able to fill those gaps with successful pilot projects that can be replicated and taken to scale, across the Millennium Cities and beyond. It is the integration of these projects, at scale, that can bring about an urban transformation -- one essential to attaining the MDGs.

Beginning with maternal and newborn survival, MCI is carrying out maternal and neonatal mortality surveys, to establish reliable baselines, and is facilitating training in ultrasound screening, neonatal resuscitation, breast-feeding, infant health and nutrition, in tandem with an array of hand-picked corporate, government, academic and NGO partners.

In Accra, Ghana's capital, MCI and Columbia University's Urban Design Lab are working to improve emergency access in densely built downtown slum areas, so that pregnant women needing assistance will no longer have to be carried out of inaccessible alleyways on piggyback by neighborhood youths. In Kumasi, Ghana's second largest city, neonatologists from Ben Gurion University designed and built low-tech neonatal triage units at two city hospitals when it became clear that as many as five premature babies were sharing one incubator in the neonatal intensive care unit at the national teaching hospital there. The issue of newborn survival has been further addressed, thanks to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Johnson & Johnson and the American NGO AmeriCares, through our training in Ghana's two largest cities of both medical professionals and lay health staff in the AAP's simplified, low-cost, newborn resuscitation protocols, as well as by educating mothers to recognize the symptoms of the most common newborn illnesses, which have already proven their worth in saved newborn lives.

At MCI's request, experts from Haifa's Mount Carmel Training Center have brought a comprehensive early childhood education curriculum to Ghana, helping to fulfill an unfunded Ministry of Education mandate by training dozens of Kumasi educators in interactive, nurturing ways to foster curiosity, creativity and confidence in young children. The city of Kumasi itself, together with Ericsson and Airtel Ghana, MCI, Columbia's Teachers College and selected NYC public and private schools are running a three-year school connectivity project, connecting Kumasi junior highs to NYC middle schools and training teachers and students in productive ways to use the Internet for the study of the so-called STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and math - and the acquisition of critical thinking skills required to excel in the 21st-century economy. This project, designed to fulfill another unfunded government mandate, is still young, but in a previous scientific exchange with Washington, DC's Sidwell Friends School focused on water quality testing, we observed, as though via time-lapse photography, the progressive emboldening of participating Kumasi girls, shy and demure at the outset, who, by week's end, were straining to be the first to present and discuss their results. And in Kisumu, Kenya, the New York-based literacy non-profit LitWorld is training female teachers to organize and run "girls clubs" to encourage younger girls' interest in reading, writing and staying in school.

The people of Mekelle, Ethiopia, were able to witness MCI's government and NGO partners build safe latrines and establish an ingenious sanitary napkin-making project, as material encouragements to keep girls in school. In Kaduna, Nigeria, and Segou, Mali, the Virginia-based Physicians for Peace has completed multiple medical missions to carry out fistula repair surgeries, enabling girls and women to return home to resume productive lives in their communities without shame.

MCI has inventoried leading microfinance institutions focused on women in many Millennium Cities and is constantly seeking ways to help expand livelihood and job training opportunities for women and girls, as well as the provision of credit and training in political participation, leadership and how to run for elected office.

With regard to the built environment, in tandem with Urban Design Program architects from all over the world, MCI is now addressing even more directly the infrastructure deficits facing today's urban poor, as women struggle to carry out housework and childcare duties in contexts where access to drainage, water, energy, markets, transit, privacy, health care and jobs is severely compromised. In this new and exciting phase of our work, involving in-depth consultations with local NGOs and the communities themselves regarding their own needs and priorities, this MCI-engendered network is now coming up with innovative, practical solutions that are, quite literally, three-dimensional representations of the MDGs.

Today we celebrate 100 years of progress and awareness-building on behalf of women and girls worldwide. Maybe we won't need another 100 years to understand the vital importance of a comprehensive and inclusive approach to solving women's, and the world's, most pressing problems. However stressed or impoverished the setting, women have always known that they can achieve far more by reaching out and working together than by going it alone.

MCI and its many gifted partners, like so many other committed companies and organizations, are already wise to the reality that, just as women prop up much of our planet, it will take all of us, men and women, coming together with our infinite tapestry of backgrounds, assets, areas of expertise and our empathy, to make the world safe and compassionate enough for women and girls to be able to fulfill their own potential, even as they continue, day after day, to empower us all.