The Benefits of Women’s Empowerment Ripple Far and Wide
Women’s empowerment has been the focus of countless social programs, not only for the benefit of women involved, but for the health of an entire nation as well. For years studies have shown that providing women with access to education and economic opportunities increases national economic growth, reduces poverty, and enhances business performance and innovation. The social gains from female empowerment are invaluable and far-reaching, from lower fertility rates, better nutrition, and longer life expectancy, to increased economic production and more sustainable practices. In essence, empowering women is tantamount to eradicating most social problems – according to the World Bank, “it is nothing but smart economics.” Women’s empowerment is so potent that even terrorists groups have gone to desperate lengths to silence those who advocate for it.
Here in Peru, the situation for women is particularly dire, especially so for rural indigenous women of the Andes. High up in the mountains, they continue to live in poverty with little education despite a thriving tourism and artisan economy elsewhere in the country. In these rural communities, women are the keepers of a 10,000-year-old secret – the art of weaving textiles by hand, using nothing but natural fibers and earthen dyes. Despite the possession of such a marketable and sustainable skill, geographical isolation and lack of education prevent these women from accessing the tourist market and earning income from their efforts, rendering it nearly obsolete.
While the daughters of the Andes create works of art that they cannot sell, their male counterparts go off to school to reap what benefits they can from the booming economy. In order to maintain the momentum of the economic growth of the past several decades, this attitude needs to change, and rapidly. “Women and sustainability are two sides of the same coin,” states Halla Tomasdottir, co-founder of financial services firm Audur Capital in Iceland. “I’m fed up with this tyranny of either/or choices in life — ‘either it’s men, or it’s women,’” she laments. “We need to start embracing the beauty of balance.”
Tomasdottir’s words strike a chord here in the Andes, where the idea of yanantin, or complementary dualism, was a central tenet of pre-Columbian life. The lack of female empowerment that exists today in the Andes contradicts the concept of yanantin, where the opposites of existence – such as male and female – are not opposing forces but rather interdependent parts of a larger whole. For Peru to move forward in a modern world, it must incorporate the contributions of its female population and restore the balance that has been slowly waning over the past five hundred years. The work of Awamaki – through connecting rural artisans with a tourist market, creating cooperatives, and its sustainable tourism and community education programs – go a long way towards reversing this trend, and Peru needs only to capitalize on these efforts to compete in a global world.