Some people in the developing world are trying to help young women in their villages by working for an international organization committed to promoting equality for women as a way of ending hunger. The Hunger Project believes gender discrimination is a leading obstacle to eliminating chronic poverty around the world. People from Bangladesh, India and Uganda who have overcome various forms of discrimination against women visited New York recently to spread the message that women must be considered key elements to sustainable societies.
Rafiqul Islam Sarkar, 60, a native of Bangladesh, says the inequality of women in his village is something he learned painfully, at an early age.
"When I was very young, I was only 12 years old when I lost my mother," he says. "She was not given the proper medical facilities. My father could arrange a good doctor but he didn't, because my mother was not important to him. That was the moment I realized that the condition of women in my country is not good."
Mr. Sarkar has never forgotten the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the death of his mother. After working most of his life as a television news director, he eventually decided to join the Hunger Project, a non-governmental organization with offices in New York City. Now, he reaches out to government officials and tries to convince them that the low status of women in many parts of the developing world is contributing to the ongoing cycle of poverty.
Experts say gender cannot be ignored when it comes to hunger and poverty. According to UN figures, poverty affects 840 million people around the world, and a disproportionate number of those affected are women and children. Worldwide, women earn just over half what men earn. Women who are poor are less likely to receive education and health care services, die at younger ages, and leave behind children who often continue this cycle of poverty.
In some regions where poverty is widespread, women who do not bear male children are abandoned by their husbands because they are judged as too much of a burden.
Mary George, 25, of southern India knows this story well. Her father left her mother shortly after she was born, because she was a girl. Years later, her mother died, and she was taken in by relatives who tried to arrange a marriage for her. But she refused the marriage because she says her prospective husband would not have allowed her to keep her job, which involved helping women by means of the Hunger Project. She was rejected by her family as a result, but she says helping other women is what continues to give her life meaning.
"When I got into a problem, I thought I should end my life," she says. "But later, I realized I have to live. I have to lead young women and my mother and so many mothers out there. I should not end my life for no reason. I tell them that they are the future leaders, each woman and girl. They should come up in their life."
A key part of the Hunger Project's strategy in South Asia is to enable indigenous women to become self-reliant through education. In Africa, the group trains women farmers, helps them build their savings, and tries to reduce AIDS infections by distributing condoms and teaching about the risks of HIV.
As often as possible, they spread their message by hiring local women who have been able to break traditional cycles of subservience to men. Susan Katushabe, 24, from Uganda is one of those women. She grew up in a village where girls as young as 11 were being married to older men and bearing children. Even though they were very young, their parents wanted them to marry because they were too much of a financial burden.
Ms. Katushabe avoided early marriage with the help of an uncle who supported her decision not to marry and helped pay her way through school. Now she says, she tells other women to rely on themselves as much as they can.
"I encourage them not to look at themselves as losers," she says. "I tell them everything is possible if you don't listen to destructive advice or look at men as being the only source of life. And I also encourage them to stay in school."
Mr. Sarkar, of Bangladesh, recalls that his sisters did not receive the same level of education that he and his brothers did in their youth. In many developing countries, women are more likely than men to be illiterate, and women tend to receive much lower wages than their male counterparts. But in the decade since the Hunger Project began promoting equality for women in Bangladesh, Mr. Sarkar says he has seen changes occur.
"Women are coming forward, on the grassroots level also, [and] in local government, local government institutions," he notes. "Women are coming and they are raising their voices. So we see great changes have taken place in Bangladesh."
The Hunger Project is affiliated with the United Nations' effort to cut worldwide hunger in half by the year 2015.