New ideas open doors for women around the world

By Veena Ravichandran The International Development Research Centre has been funding research to study promising innovations that can help disadvantaged women improve their lives and livelihoods.

Canada’s Innovation Strategy, launched in 2002, is based on a simple premise: Our prosperity depends on investments in science, technology, and innovation (STI). In economic terms, innovation means converting knowledge into value. Put more simply, it means improving people’s lives by finding ways to do things better than before.

STI is as critical in the global South as it is the North. My organization, Canada’s International Development Research Centre, helps developing countries use STI to solve practical problems. Investing in STI has helped emerging economies such as China and South Korea become more competitive and grow, but it has also resulted in the widening of inequalities. In fact, most innovations do not improve the lives of the poorest. In particular, they do not improve the lives of disadvantaged women.

One notable exception is the mobile phone, which has enabled rural women to earn a living by buying phones and renting them out. But this singular example also offers some important lessons. First, on their own, technical innovations are not useful without accompanying social innovations. In this case, it was microcredit, which enabled female entrepreneurs to invest in mobile phone enterprises. Second, capacity building is also crucial. The more successful mobile phone businesses also involved entrepreneurial training.

We recently funded research teams in eight countries to study promising innovations that can help disadvantaged women improve their lives and livelihoods, as well as to identify barriers to further progress. One team looked at innovations in education. Researchers from Pakistan travelled to Paraguay to study a remarkable “self-sufficient school,” which they thought could provide a model for their own country.

Students at the San Francisco Agricultural High School in Cerrito come from poor rural communities across Paraguay. More than one-third of the 150 students are girls. In addition to academic courses, the students work in the school’s 17 businesses, which include an organic farm, a store, and a hotel. Revenue from these enterprises allows the school to pay for itself and keep tuition fees low. After three years, the students earn a high-school diploma and, more importantly, gain entrepreneurial and life skills learned in running profitable businesses.

The researchers concluded that similar schools would be a boon for girls in Pakistan, providing greater access to education as well as vocational skills. Now, business plans are being finalized for two similar schools, both in the Lahore area, where at least half the students will be girls.

Another team focused on whether skills training helps women improve their lives. The evidence from India is encouraging. Researchers are finding that in the construction industry, for example, when women gain skills, wage disparity disappears. Women who carry bricks earn less than men, but women who make bricks get equal pay.

Elsewhere in India, researchers analyzed the success of the Barefoot College in training illiterate or barely literate rural women to do technically challenging jobs. Founded in 1972 by social entrepreneur Bunker Roy – named one of the 100 most influential personalities in the world by TIME Magazine in 2010 – the college has trained 15,000 women in traditionally male occupations such as masonry and solar engineering. Poor rural women spend six months at the college in Tilonia, Rajasthan, learning from instructors who have little or no formal education themselves.

The results are astounding. “Barefoot” solar engineers have electrified hundreds of villages in India. They make and maintain solar panels that power lamps, cookers, and other appliances. Many of the women have gone on to become skilled instructors, even training women from other countries with whom they have no common language.

Other research teams have identified different factors that constrain women from innovating and from benefiting equally from innovation, including cultural barriers and policy gaps. In Afghanistan, for example, saffron – the world’s most expensive spice by weight – is thought to have great potential as an alternative crop to opium poppies. But so far, Afghan women receive less than a fair share of saffron’s promise. They grow the plant and process the flowers in their homes, but cultural norms keep them out of the public markets where saffron is traded and sold. Even women who have joined forces in producer associations have difficulty breaking into the more lucrative end of the saffron business.

This is just a sample of what researchers in South Asia have found so far. Teams in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East are also identifying constraints and opportunities for women. The research wraps up next year, but efforts are already underway to forge a global network on women and innovation. Through this network, researchers will share their thoughts, and the evidence, about what helps women around the world become active participants in, and beneficiaries of, innovation.

Veena Ravichandran is a senior program officer at IDRC, where she focuses on innovation to alleviate poverty in developing countries.

This article was originally published in The Hill Times

Published: 08 Mar 2011

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