I realize that I am preaching to the choir when I say that there has, and continues to be, an incredible number of development projects that fail. Schools sit empty because no one thinks about how to pay the teachers. Crops produce small yields because farmers choose not to use the subsidized fertilizer. Computers are stored on shelves because there is no one to repair them when they break. There are solutions to this, although admittedly not always that simple: Ask people what they need and then work with them to deliver it.
I came to understand this nearly a decade ago as a budding graduate student exploring social change by working directly with people who are arguably the most disenfranchised demographic in the world: poor women. Women make up 70 percent of the world’s poor, and as a result, strategies to alleviate poverty and empower women have been rolled out on every continent. Women’s empowerment specifically has been touted both as a human rights issue and a key component in poverty alleviation because of the direct impact that it has on economic development, higher education achievement, and an increased quality of life for the poor.
Unfortunately, some people tend to make decisions for women living in poverty without engaging them in dialogue, let alone consulting them. Conventional wisdom would have us all believe that poor, uneducated women do not have the acumen to devise strategies that will improve their quality of life and lift them out of poverty. Tackling these complex issues requires a degree from an institution of higher learning or perhaps a prestigious position in a development agency. The result is that there is an incredible disconnect between what women need and what they actually receive.
This has never sat well with me, so I decided to investigate this detachment by using an alternative method of collecting data not about women living in poverty, but rather with women living in poverty. In the early 2000s, an innovative approach was emerging—participatory photography—in which disenfranchised groups of people would use photography to define, communicate, and ultimately improve their situation. This is fundamentally different from taking photos of people, in which our interpretation of their lives is shaped through the artistic lens of the photographer.
Working with a small group of women in Kenya and another in Nicaragua, I gave them point and shoot cameras, taught them how to use them, and asked them to take photographs of their lives and write captions to accompany them. Rather than being the subjects of the photos, these women became the creators, playing a more significant role in shaping the meaning associated with each image.
Captioning the photos also became a process of storytelling, and for the first time in their lives, they had an opportunity to share their stories with the world. They embraced it. Rolls of film poured in, handwritten notes accompanying each one. Although I had met with these women in their communities, oftentimes in their homes, I was amazed at what I hadn’t seen with my own eyes. There are many things that occur when the Western white women leave, and this project gave me insight that I had never dreamed possible.
I called the project HerStory, believing that if women were given a voice, they would re-conceptualize and rewrite their own history, as well as determine their own future.
Here is the project...
"Salvadora hopes that mankind is equal…Salvadora is a single mother with an 8-year-old son. She has been father and mother at the same time. She was mistreated physically by the father of her son and for this motive she decided to stay single. She advises that women stay single. The major negative impact was that the father of her son said that he wasn’t his. She hopes that her son becomes a great man. She feels, as an independent woman, that she likes to work in order to do what she wants. She recommends that many women should receive seminars in order to raise their self-esteem."
"I am a woman, I feel very proud. Divided it is the society so that women don’t have all the equal rights that of the man. The problem is that in Nicaragua machismo still prevails and the women still doesn’t have the self-esteem she should have, but I am of those who think that we should be united and fight against all these obstacles in our society."
"I am all alone, very alone and I had a relationship and I ended up pregnant, I am a mother and father at the same time, I feel proud because I don’t depend on anyone. For me men don’t give women a place. The women need to defend ourselves, to have our own character and way of thinking. Before I didn’t think much of myself but one day I began to value myself. I asked myself who am I? I am Veronica, strong in my emotions, I wonk on everything, and I said to myself, I feel that my self esteem now is good. I have had many boyfriends, I haven’t had luck, for this I decided to stay single and enjoy life, working on what I can."
"I am 22-years-old Kikuyu lady from Kenya married with one lovely baby girl. My husband is a hawker who really struggles to keep the boat of life afloat and bearable. After finishing with all house work I have to spare some hours to my young girl because I think its good for her upbringing now that she is still dependant of me. Afterward I wish to do something to help my husband raise the living standard."
"I am a Luo. Here on these pictures I had started what I normally do indoor to survive. Since life is very difficult, I normally go to the nearest forest to fetch firewood which I locally sell, so that I can earn my living. In the forest I normally face a lot of problems like meeting wild animals and also some rapists. And since I have no otherwise I’ll have to continue with the hard task."
"I normally start my activities very early in the morning so that I can go and carry out my small business. The first thing that I have to do in the morning is to go to the river to fetch water for domestic use. Here we normally go for long distances to look for water as you know most parts of our country are very dry. So I normally carry the bucket on top of my head about seven times in a day so that I can have enough water."
"A woman always wakes up very early in the morning and starts doing the daily activities in the house. I first prepare breakfast, and after breakfast I start other domestic work. As you can see in the above picture, I have sorted out the dirty clothes and started washing. So you find that at the end of the day a woman does a lot of domestic work."
"This photo I took while I was looking for a job. Despite the difficulties as women we still have the hope for a bright future. The fact that there are difficulties, we cannot stop. This photo also shows that despite being women, we also have careers and can look for employment. It shows the double duty of woman that despite being there at home with household duties, you still have to look for work."
Common themes emerged from the narratives of the participants, but what I learned back then and what sticks with me today is that cookie cutter approaches to women’s empowerment are limited in their effectiveness because women are actually a diverse group of people. The women in Nicaragua told stories of extreme domestic violence—homes being burned down, fearing for their lives. The women in Kenya, on the other hand, spoke of an inability to earn a living; they had a burning desire to be able to financially provide for their families.
Ultimately I chose to focus my work in Kenya, founding the non-profit Zawadisha, which was designed to address the issues that emerged through the HerStory project. Today, as a PhD student and the Chief Innovation Officer for Zawadisha, I still pour over the research and look for data that reveals the most promising practices to alleviate poverty and empower women, but I haven’t forgotten what you can learn when you give people an opportunity to share their stories. Granted, it’s the most difficult thing to measure, but the richness and depth that is revealed through storytelling is unmatched by any survey, bar graph, or statistic.