Politics of Poverty

There is more than one way to teach a woman to fish

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From the book jacket of "Teach a Woman to Fish: Overcoming Poverty around the Globe" by Ritu Sharma. Photo: Arne Hodalic / Corbis

A review of Ritu Sharma’s new book about women and global development by Rebecca Fudala, Coordinator for Oxfam America’s Aid Effectiveness Team.

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Give a man a fish and he eats for a day.
Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.
But teach a woman to fish, and everyone eats for a lifetime.
~Ritu Sharma, from introduction of Teach a Woman to Fish: Overcoming Poverty around the Globe
(Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2014)

In Teach a Woman to Fish, Women Thrive Worldwide President Ritu Sharma illuminates an elementary truth too often overlooked by policy makers and development practitioners: throughout the world, a woman carries burdens that are not shared by her brothers.

But for all the usual development sector lip service given to women and girls as disproportionally affected by poverty, disasters and conflict, the examples of the challenges faced by women featured prominently in Teach a Woman to Fish are not about victimhood.

Almost everywhere, and across most social and health indices, women today are doing better than their mothers and grandmothers. Acting as our guide, Sharma shares stories of women in Sri Lanka, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Burkina Faso fighting to overcome the obstacles that keep them poor. We find one small, but emblematic example of progress in the mountains of Honduras. There Sharma worked with a rural women’s group to found several flourishing businesses managed by women.

We grew up with the belief that we came to this life to stand beside a man,” one of the participants said, “without developing ourselves, living in seclusion, and just having a family.”

But today, with training and a little bit of startup capital, members of the group produce and sell natural aloe for the local market and organic coffee for export, as well as manage a mountaintop retreat center that caters to Honduras’s growing business community. Besides setting an example for their daughters and other girls in the community, the women earn an income sufficient to allow them a measure of independence from male relatives—no doubt a harbinger for a more prosperous and just future.

It’s important to note that women’s empowerment is not, or is not simply, a struggle for women by women. Women need men to be champions for women in their communities and workplaces. And men need women to help tear down the barriers that limit what men can say, do, think, or be.

Millions of men want to be released from the prison of cruel masculinity as much as we want to close those prisons down for good,” writes Sharma. “If we could join forces—women and men—we would be truly unstoppable.

Teach a Woman to Fish is replete with tested and replicable ways to support women around the world, from shopping ethically to letter templates to send to your Congressperson. But the book’s principal contribution is grander, and bolder: it is an invitation to adopt a more nuanced, corrective view of development. It is a call to stop thinking about and treating the poor as one undifferentiated mass. Sharma asks us to think hard about the enabling conditions that underlie socially-inclusive economic development. Drawing on her experiences working with US political institutions, global development agencies, and with women on the ground, she concludes, convincingly, that women’s empowerment is both a fundamental driver and purpose of development.

So, what role is there for outsiders in solidarity? How do we help fuel the virtuous circle between women’s empowerment and economic development? A theme that resonates throughout the book is that women throughout the world do not need sympathy or advice, only genuine solidarity and the resources to turn their visions into reality.

There is more than one way to teach a woman to fish,” Sharma writes. “You can give her a stick and a hook, point her toward the lake and then hope for the best. Or you can really support her, with high-quality training, good nets, bait, and a boat and watch her bring in the catch.”

Oxfam’s own work acknowledges that poor people, more often than not, are well aware of what they need and want—and of the forces holding them back. Teaching someone to fish is vital, and akin to the Ricardo Levins Morales’ quote, Vice President Paul O’Brien reminds us, “Unless of course, someone steals all the fish, the water gets polluted, or the government sells off the access rights!” Along with Sharma, we believe the role for outsiders is to amplify women’s voices, to help make sure the world listens and acts.

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