The cycle of poverty is often difficult to break, especially for women. Author Ritu Sharma witnessed the difficulties first hand in travels through four countries including Sri Lanka. She shares her experience in her book Teach a Woman to Fish. Sharma explains to Daybreak Asia's Frances Alonzo ways she sees that women can challenge and break free from oppressive systems that keep them poor.
How Women Can Break the Cycle of Poverty
SHARMA: So, I have done this practice of living on a dollar a day, four times in a number of different countries. For example, in Sri Lanka, the woman that I stayed with, Malaani, most of her dollar was spent on expenses for the girls to go to school. And even though school was free, you know 50 cents on that dollar is spent on bus fare to get the girls back and forth to school, school supplies, uniforms, things like that. Another chunk of that dollar just went to pay for electricity. And then what was left went into basic food stuffs. The family really wasn’t eating that well. A lot of rice, and a lot of starch but not a lot of protein, not a lot of vegetables. There’s no room for medical care. There’s no room for medicine. There’s no money for anything else other than the most important things.
ALONZO: Your book talks about the broader system that [prevents] women from moving past poverty. Tell us about that.
SHARMA: Yeah, in Sri Lanka, a number of women that I met with around the country, as I was talking with them about their experience after the tsunami, talked about how hard it was, to just to meet their basic expenses. And even though, they were producing more, many of them were, are weavers, and they were weaving more and selling more of their products, they just couldn’t keep up with the basic expenses. And we started to talk about why that is. What’s going on there? And they had a very clear analysis of it. That the government was raising taxes consistently on basic food stuffs, sugar, tea, coffee, bread, rice, to raise the funds for the tsunami reconstruction. And those taxes were outstripping women’s ability to earn income.
ALONZO: Beyond taxes, what other issues, in particular in Sri Lanka, did you find that women just can’t just seem to get ahead?
SHARMA: Oh, so many! Violence has become such a huge part of women’s lives. And it is a way of enforcing [the idea on] women, you know, ‘don’t get out of the home.’ That women are not able to take jobs that might pay higher because they must stay in the home. And if they begin to color outside of those lines, there’s a big consequence for that.
ALONZO: Violence from whom?
SHARMA: Violence from male relatives; from fathers, husbands, uncles; just trying to keep women really in their place. The other big issue is just straight up discrimination. When there are good jobs, they just go to the men because there’s still this assumption that men are breadwinners. But in reality, it’s women’s income that covers the expenses for the family. Around the world, women invest ninety percent of their income back into their family needs. And for men, that varies, between 30 and 50 percent of their income goes back into the family needs. And so women’s income is very important but they just can’t get the better jobs, that’s the heart of it.
ALONZO: Now in the promotional material, for your book, it talks about the old axiom, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime. But, teach a woman to fish, and everyone eats for a lifetime.” Tell me more about that.
SHARMA: Women do have a tendency to fish and benefit the whole community. But the other thing I mean by fishing is not just earning an income, not just going from a dollar a day to two to three dollars a day. What I really mean by fishing is this ability to engage your world and make a change in it. So, engaging in those local politics, engaging and changing how men think about what women can and can’t do. So when I say fish I don’t just mean the very basic you know, catch that fish or cash that dollar and share it, but I also mean you know having the ability and that instrument whatever it might be to really change your circumstances for the better.