Yalimar’s Story – Reflections on Gender Equality

Think of a place where over 66% of the girls get married before the age of 18.

Picture a country where fewer than one third of the primary school teachers are female.

Consider a region where 35 percent of the girls lucky enough to even start primary school will never finish.

This reality exists around the world in places where buildOn works. Despite the enormous efforts that have been taken to reduce gender inequality, there is still a long way to go.

Yalimar, a buildOn student from the Bronx, New York, noticed the gender inequality in Malawi firsthand when she traveled with buildOn on a school building trip.

“What surprised me was the stereotype. When I was picking up the rocks the men were just looking at us like ‘These girls, what they are doing here? They are supposed to be carrying the bricks.’”

In many developing countries, community responsibilities remain divided along gender lines. Women are expected to complete certain tasks while others are traditionally designated to men, both in the home and beyond.

While Malawi has developed countrywide protocols and policies that are designed to help achieve better standards of gender equality, there is still a long way to go. This is due in part to the fact that many social practices in Malawi are rooted in deep-seated patriarchal tendencies and culture, something that cannot change instantaneously.

The United Nations and similar thought leaders stress education as “the great equalizer” between men and women. An educated women is more empowered to access or start her own income generating activities. She is able to spend well, invest her earnings in small businesses, and save money in the process to pay her children’s school fees or future investments. A more secure job means a more secure future. In this respect, a woman can play a stronger role in society as she fights discrimination, combats gender-based violence, seeks out better opportunities and, in turn, increases her self worth and confidence.

A young woman like Yalimar may have more opportunities than a young woman her age in Malawi, but inequalities still do exist in the United States. According to the Center for American Progress, women in the United States are paid on 77 centers for every dollar a man makes. This gap is even larger for women of color. Women are still underrepresented in the government, face challenges regarding health care, are stigmatized in the media and, studies say, there are 7 million more women in the United States are living in poverty as compared to men.

And, according to the World Economic Forum, the United States of America is ranked number 23 on the Global Gender Gap Index. This metric tracks countries and their progress at reducing gender-based disparities. In 2013, the United States dropped a further six places from the number 17 slot, which it held in 2011. Malawi’s improvement on the same list is equally striking – jumping up from a number 65 ranking to 2011 to 39 in 2013. This advancement signals that change, at least on the surface, is happening.

Every time that buildOn break ground on a new school, community members sign a covenant where they commit to enrolling equal numbers of girls and boys in the school while also emphasizing female participation in areas where we support adult literacy courses. Even if large scale change cannot happen on a countrywide level, targeted solutions can ensure that gender disparity is reduced one community at a time.

As Yalimar’s trip to Malawi helped her think critically about gender equality, she can prompt changes within her own community when it comes to empowering women to seek out opportunities, breakdown stereotypes and stigma and demand equality of opportunity within their schools and beyond.