Dara Lipton

Dara Lipton (Vital Voices- Kenyan Association of Women Business Owners - KAWBO): Before her fellowship, Dara served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan and Suriname. In Uzbekistan she worked at a community health clinic. In Suriname she worked with a women’s group. Dara then returned to Suriname to train Peace Corps Volunteers. At the time of her fellowship Dara was pursuing her MA in International Relations with a concentration in sustainable development in Africa at Yale University. After her fellowship, Dara wrote: "This fellowship has helped me to understand many of the academic and theoretical concepts that I learned in school in a more realistic and practical setting. This has given me increased confidence and a level of comfort in development discussions that I didn’t previously have."



The extraordinarily empowered woman, and her less empowered counterpart

19 Jun

I wanted to work for Vital Voices because their vision of development is directly in line with my own: locate emerging women leaders who are already empowered and have great ideas for community development and support their projects however necessary.  Vital Voices provides means for capacity building through access to funds, training and broad based advocacy initiatives.

Through their relationship to ABWN (the Africa Business Women’s Network) and hub offices throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Vital Voices aims to strengthen businesswomen’s organizations throughout the region.   This strengthening occurs through regional conferences where business growth skills and “best practices” are shared across the continent as well as through increased funding and infrastructural/organizational support.  My counterpart organization, KAWBO, is Kenya’s hub, and its mission is to become the leading businesswomen’s organization in Kenya.  The board members that I have met are all empowered, successful Kenyan woman.  They have conquered adversity, attained economic independence and committed themselves to empowering other women business owners in Nairobi.  The work that I will be doing here will hopefully enable KAWBO to broaden their membership and increase their visibility locally and internationally.  No pressure.

A few days ago, with my host sister and mother out of the house I sat down at the dinner table alone and was presented with an amazing feast—which somehow seemed less exciting because there was no one to share it with.  I asked Beatrice, the servant in the house to sit with me and try some of the amazing butternut squash soup that she had made.  After much protestation she eventually agreed to sit with me.  She had left the previous afternoon to visit three of her four children who live on the outskirts of Nairobi and had returned that afternoon. I inquired how her visit went.

Beatrice told me that she cooked for her children, washed and ironed all of their clothes and cleaned their house–the same thing that she does every week on her one day-off.  She told me that she woke up at 5 in the morning to transport water from the community pump to her children’s home. She walked ¼ mile with a 20-liter bucket on her head, and a 5-liter bucket in one hand, and she repeated this trip 6 times.  I told her that it didn’t sound like much of a day off-and she laughed and said that this was her responsibility.  She has been single since her husband died 7 years ago from Malaria and she wanted her children to go to school and be taken care of.  Her oldest is about to take his exam to enter college and she is hopeful that he will pass but unaware of how he will be able to afford college if he does decide to go.  Scholarships are few and far between and bank loans difficult to obtain.

When I inquired about her own schooling as a child Beatrice told me a story that is all too familiar throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East where resources are scarce and male children are favored.    Beatrice is from the Western Province of Kenya.  She grew up in a house built of mud walls with aluminum sheets for a roof.  She grew up with 10 siblings; 6 brothers and 4 sisters.  Beatrice is the second oldest girl, and she and her sister were not allowed to attend school beyond the 6th grade because her parents refused to pay for it.  Funding her brothers’ education was justifiable because they would later contribute to the household income—paying for a girls education however, was the equivalent of throwing money away.  These girls would marry, move out of the house, and that investment would have been wasted.   I asked Beatrice whether her younger sisters went to school.  She answered that yes, they had, because Beatrice and her older sister were working and therefore were able to help pay for their younger sisters’ schooling.  Beatrice was never able to attend school beyond the 6th grade and thus was limited in her job opportunities as an adult, she didn’t want to the same limitations to affect her children.

I have only been in Nairobi for a week, and only met a handful of women and already I can’t help but be struck by the stark contrasts between different women’s lives.  My host-mother attended college in Florida, became a leader in her field and has owned her own successful business for the past 10 years.  Beatrice left school at the age of 12, is only able to visit her mother in Western Province once a year and never really gets a day off.  This scenario is familiar in almost any developing or developed country that I have lived in—the advancement and empowerment of some women in a society is inevitable counter balanced by the influx of poorer, less educated women as domestic help.   My professor in Gender and Sexuality 101 at NYU described this trend as feminism’s dirty little secret.  In all of our excitement over women entering the workforce in America—abandoning their aprons and burning their bras—we failed to notice the Filipino, Ecuadorian and Caribbean women walking right back into these women’s aprons and kitchens to take their place.  This is not to undermine the great importance of those women who enter the workforce and gain access to careers that would have previously been impossible, only a recognition that these “gender advancements”, and strives toward “equality” are not necessarily impacting all women equally.

I would never belittle my host-mother or her accomplishments; she has achieved extraordinary things as a businesswoman in the face of great challenges and has earned all of her great success.  I only wish to highlight an inequality that seems to be pervasive internationally.  I can’t necessarily even dismiss it as “right” or “wrong,” but simply complicated, and frustrating.   This inequity further highlights the foolishness of a one-size-fits-all gender development strategy.  In central Nairobi women need access to business growth strategies and in Western Province women need access to the 7th grade.

Development projects should vary accordingly.

Posted By Dara Lipton

Posted Jun 19th, 2010

4 Comments

  • Susan Hein

    June 19, 2010

     

    An incredible way of articulating and painting a picture of something many of us (women) know but do not spend much time or focus thinking about.

    Dara, the way you tell the story could be made into a childrens’ book with magnificent illustrations.
    And, I imagine you are capable of creating such a book.

    Perhaps being aware of the discrepancies early in life would lead to more people trying to make a difference.

  • Mendi

    June 25, 2010

     

    I would never belittle my host-mother or her accomplishments; she has achieved extraordinary things as a businesswoman in the face of great challenges and has earned all of her great success. I only wish to highlight an inequality that seems to be pervasive internationally. I can’t necessarily even dismiss it as “right” or “wrong,” but simply complicated, and frustrating. This inequity further highlights the foolishness of a one-size-fits-all gender development strategy. In central Nairobi women need access to business growth strategies and in Western Province women need access to the 7th grade.

    Development projects should vary accordingly.

    ^ This!
    ITA that this is not a simple problem that can be solved with a simple solution. Success is a nuanced thing. One the one hand, Beatrice is able to educate her children- one of them through college probably- an amazing achievement made even more so when you consider she probably had to do it alone. On the other hand, she can also achieve much, much more if the opportunities are provided- or more realistically I think, if the barriers to women’s success e.g. access to education are minimized.

    Great post! It reminds me of a quote from Chip & Dan Heath’s book “Switch” which states “Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over weeks, sometimes over decades.”

  • iain

    July 11, 2010

     

    I agree with Mendi. Great post. I particularly like the improvisation: you found yourself in a normal moment – having a meal – and were able to turn it into something quite profound and well written. The mark of a curious mind and good writer. Look forward to more of the same. I don’t think that profiling Beatrice belittles your host mother: after all, Beatrice’s struggle is not caused by your host mother’s success. But the contrast is striking.

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