It’s my pleasure to introduce guest columnist: Valerie A. Young. Valerie is Advocacy Coordinator for the National Association of Mothers’ Centers (NAMC) and the MOTHERS Initiative. She blogs at Your (Wo)Man in Washington Blog. Welcome, Valerie!

Gender-Responsive Aid in Haiti

The push continues to get food to the people of Haiti. Distribution efforts are often hampered by unrest and chaos when thousands of starving people compete to get their hands on something to eat. The Washington Post reports that local authorities are now implementing a coupon system, directed to women and girls, who demonstrate less aggression and are more likely to share the food with others, including the young, elderly, or disabled, instead of selling it. As the primary caregivers for family members, women are particularly well situated to get more food to more people in their homes and neighborhoods, in less time and with less conflict.

Previous posts in this space have noted the gender-specific needs of women and girls, especially following crises that exacerbate their pre-existing vulnerability. In Haiti, sexual violence, poverty, hunger, and disease were already destroying the lives of women before the earthquake. Aid targeted to these populations, it is argued, is more effective for women and girls, and benefits the wider community as well, rather than coming at the expense of men. However, in addition to being a specific target for aid, the particular position of women renders them more effective as the conduit for relief, as aid organizers are now discovering.

This isn’t the first time international aid organizers have harnessed the power of the “girl effect,” the phenomenon of targeting aid to adolescent girls who start a chain reaction, multiplying the effect and reach of the initial investment by passing it on. For example, if a girl has an income, she will reinvest nearly all of it for the benefit of her family. If a girl has a goat, she will sell the milk, send her children to school, breed more goats, hire others to care for the herd and sell the milk, and so on. Disaster zones around the world have begun to focus on women’s ability to maximize and enhance relief operations. Countries funneling aid to the developing world, including the United States, are implementing the practice as well, as is evident from the numerous mentions made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Further proof is documented in the work of Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools. If a girl in the developing world receives at least 7 years of education, she will be older when she marries, bear fewer children, increase her earning power, and have healthier children. She is less likely to be beaten by her husband, less likely to die in childbirth, and more likely to be capable of supporting herself economically. There is a growing consensus that women may be the most effective agents of change on the planet, due to their ability to multiply the value of a resource and their willingness to share it with others.

The conclusion that women in the developed world must also be capable of transformative change cannot be far behind. After all, the girl effect arises from gender, not geography. Why aren’t women in the industrialized world also seen as offering exponential opportunity for optimizing human potential, sharing responsibility for governing, producing, educating, caring, healing, and leading? The impediments that exist, which make mothers more likely to live in poverty, and women more likely to work in low-paying jobs, cannot be the result of our lesser capacity or inferior potential. They cannot be the natural consequence of an inescapable truth of innate gender disparity. If the girl effect is true (and it seems more than amply supported by the evidence), then maternal poverty and women’s limited representation in certain aspects of society can only be the result of artificial distinctions, man-made barriers, and social constructs put in place and continually reinforced by learned behavior… which can be unlearned, with intentional, deliberate, and informed action. Distributing food aid via women, reducing violence and aggression, and getting more food to more people in less time following a disaster is precisely what such action looks like.