Give women credit for work to strengthen families

Story highlights

  • Helene Gayle: We should redefine what counts as a job to reduce gender inequality and fighting poverty
  • Women's labor - inside or outside the home - sustain families, especially in developing countries

Helene Gayle is president and CEO of CARE USA, an international humanitarian organization. She spent 20 years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and is now on the board of New America. This is the latest in a series, "Big Ideas for a New America," in which the think tank New America spotlights experts' solutions to the nation's greatest challenges. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The adage -- "a woman's work is never done" -- exists for a reason. Whether it's inside or outside the home, women's labor sustains families. How we assess women's work has long been a contested issue. In the developing world, it's especially important.

If we redefine what labor means for women in developing countries, we can be better at reducing gender inequality and fighting poverty.
For example, if you're a woman living with a family in northwest Bangladesh, there's a good chance that you know what it feels like not to have enough or the right kind of food when you need it. Experts call this "chronic food insecurity."
    Helene Gayle
    But for Chameli Begum, a forty-something mother living in the village of Katihara in the district of Gaibandha, it meant skipping meals and living in a near perpetual state of being vulnerable. The area her family lives in is prone to floods, which wreak havoc and cause death, disease, injury, economic loss and population displacement.
    She also was vulnerable to the social and cultural barriers of unequal gender power relations that give women less say in household decisions and shut them out of disaster response decisions made in the wake of floods.
    Heavy monsoonal rains and melting snow caps in the Himalayas, combined with seasonal crop rotations, consistently led to food shortages that Chameli's husband Soleman could not prevent with his own small business selling palm sugar and fabric. But because of the gender expectations in her family, Chameli felt powerless to address the problem or improve her family's quality of life.
    Western approaches to jobs tend to position them as a binary proposition -- either you have one or you don't. But that doesn't apply in many parts of the world where women employ a range of tactics -- often informal ones -- for generating income and feeding their families.

    They did not duck the problem

    Instead of "creating jobs," it is necessary to make those labor practices more sustainable by connecting them -- and the women like Chameli who adopt them -- with more formal market economies.
    Women in Chameli's village in Bangladesh used to raise chickens to provide meat and eggs. Now, many of them raise ducks for one simple reason. Ducks float and chickens don't. In a flood zone, this can make the difference between eating and going hungry. Duck rearing is perfect for the climatic conditions in this part of Bangladesh. Ducks can survive wet seasons and flooding and provide much-needed fat and protein-rich nutrition.
    As it happens, ducks are also a good income source. Chameli learned duck-rearing techniques from a community-led initiative that also improved her networking and marketing skills. Consequently, she connected with poultry buyers and suppliers and other women looking to sustain their families in similar ways. Now she has a duck business, an income, and a share in household decision-making with Soleman.
    By adapting the way they raised food for their families, Chameli and other women entrepreneurs like her have made their communities more resilient to disaster and diminished some of the gender inequities in their lives.
    The network of contacts gave Chameli access to capital and helped her generate income without changing the type of work she did. But some observers -- especially those in the developed world -- might not classify her work as a "job."
    There's a similar story in Topa, a remote coastal village along the northern coast of Mozambique. Women and men used to go their separate ways every morning. The husbands would set out into the Indian Ocean with their nets and fishing lines, while the wives would trek inland to work the machambas, small family farms for growing cassava, maize and other staples.
    In recent years, however, communities like Topa have struggled both at sea and on land. Crops faltered after unpredictable rainfall. Fish catches plummeted after years of overfishing.
    Now the women and men head off to work together -- at a saltwater fish farm they built from scratch. Raising fish requires the skills of the female farmers and the male fishermen to be successful.

    A different way of looking at work

    The duck rearers in Bangladesh and the fish farmers in Mozambique show why it matters to redefine work.
    Their successes can be replicated and used to develop common ground between many communities. Chameli's daughter is now married and living with her husband in a village nearby, where -- with her mother's help -- she has set up her own duck rearing farm. The men and women in Mozambique have joined their neighbors to form the Muaweryaca Fishing Association.
    Reimagining what it means to have a job is one key component to the vision that CARE -- the organization I lead -- has about how to transform the lives of the poor on a big scale.
    When development, investment and community participation combine, we can make a real difference. CARE partnered with the SKS Foundation in Bangladesh and the World Wildlife Fund in Mozambique to facilitate training and access to information and capital, but the ideas about how to adapt their labor to the changing environmental and financial needs came from the local communities.
    Economic and social empowerment are inextricably linked in the fight against global poverty. Reimagining what counts as work is one important way to promote the health and success of more people in developing countries.