It takes courage to lead any business. That means being bold and having the conviction to back yourself.
On a recent trip to cyclone-ravaged Vanuatu, I was reminded that courage can also be deeply personal. I was there as CARE Australia’s ambassador for women’s empowerment, and in a remote village on the island of Tanna, I met a young woman named Lily. In a quiet space, away from the assembled crowd of mothers and children, she related her story and her experience of gender-based violence. For Lily, like many young women in Australia, that violence came by her husband’s hand. These brutal attacks happened over years. Sometimes daily. Two months before we visited, she had left her husband, afraid for her life and forced to leave behind her children.
In Australia, we hear stories like this too. We are starting to examine publicly our attitudes to family violence and some victims say that has made it easier to report abuse in the home. But it is hard to fathom just how difficult it would have been for Lily to make that decision in a country with no welfare safety net, where your standing in society is rigidly defined by your place in the community hierarchy. Despite the challenges, her eyes are now on the future, which she hopes will be brighter. “I dream of becoming a teacher,” she told me.
Yesterday was the International Day of the Girl Child, a timely opportunity to reflect on stories of courage like Lily’s and consider the challenges girls face around the world. Through initiatives such as CARE Australia’s Leftemap Sista (Empowering Women) program, adolescent girls and young women like Lily are being supported.
What programs like these do is help remove the barriers that prevent girls from reaching their potential. At its heart is the desire to see women and girls provided with options and skills that build their self-confidence and belief that they are respected and valued.
Significantly, CARE Australia also works with the boys and men in the communities to tackle entrenched beliefs about gender and the acceptance of violence.
In Vanuatu, like many places around the world, gender-based violence is widespread. According to the UN, three in five Ni-Vanuatu women who have been in a relationship have experienced either physical or sexual violence by a husband or partner.
Imagine your five best female friends and now imagine being told three had experienced violence from their partner. For the 42 per cent of women who experienced physical violence, the violent incident was followed by rape.
Local welfare groups estimate more than two in three women experience at least one form of coercive control, mostly in the form of physical and sexual violence. But you don’t have to look far to see signs of a seismic cultural shift.
It was evident in the vital role women played in preparing communities for Cyclone Pam in March, the worst disaster in the country’s history. In the months leading up to the cyclone, organisations such as CARE Australia had helped establish local community groups and taught them how best to prepare for disasters and what to do in the event of one.
Women were well represented in these groups, and for many it was their first opportunity in life to take on a leadership role. Seeing women achieve this potential had a profound effect, not just on women but also on the men in these communities.
As one man on the tiny island of Aniwa told us: “When women talk and take part they think about the younger ones, the older people, the different vulnerable groups. We men only think of ourselves.”
While there is clear evidence women are part of the solution to bringing people out of poverty and rebuilding communities, this cannot happen until attitudes towards girls and women change.
When girls and women have opportunities, communities are stronger, homes are healthier, more children go to school, there are fewer teenage pregnancies and lower levels of child mortality.
There is plenty of research to show that if you bring one woman out of poverty, she will bring four people with her. A woman such as Lily may bring a whole classroom with her.
It’s a good investment.
Gail Kelly is CARE Australia’s ambassador for women’s empowerment and the former chief executive of Westpac Group.
Original copy was published by The Australian.