On Tuesday 7 March, Soroptimist International’s (SI) second parallel event was held at CSW67, informing us all on the achievements of President Maureen Maguire’s International Appeal “Opening Doors to a Bright Future”. The panel offered diverse insight into creative ways in which Soroptimists around the world are embracing science and technology to educate, empower, and enable rural women.
SI President Maureen opened the event by highlighting the disproportionate discrimination faced by women and girls in rural areas, often due to harmful traditional practices including FGM and food insecurity linked to the climate crisis. Unwanted pregnancies, taboos surrounding menstruation, and the expectation for girls to occupy caregiving roles within their homes are among multiple reasons why they are often forced to drop out of education, limiting their employment opportunities later in life. Opening Doors to a Bright Future has partnered with the Cambodian Community Dream Organisation and Rose Academies Uganda to provide women and girls with educational training modules covering a wide variety of topics that will allow them to make healthy choices for themselves, by themselves. Importantly, the trainings are culturally specific and are taught by staff that speak the local dialect.
First to present her Federation projects was Stephanie Smith, President of SI of the Americas (SIA), who presented SIA’s flagship projects “Live Your Dream” and “Dream It, Be It”, emphasising that “education is the key to unlocking economic empowerment for women and girls”. SIA’s projects have focused on reaching indigenous women and girls across Canada and rural parts of the US by working in partnership with those communities. Since 2014, the “Dream It, Be It” project has reached 98,000 girls, helping them to overcome obstacles to achieve success.
Jalila Mouqfia, President of SI Africa (SIAF) then gave an insightful overview of SIAF’s work which ranges from the provision of laptops and computers to children and young women in rural parts of Zimbabwe, to kids coding classes in Morocco, and the provision of grinding machines in Cameroon to 325 rural women. These machines have helped to preserve foods like cassava and corn, reducing food waste during harvest season and economically empowering women. In Uganda, SIAF has been supporting a project which empowers girls to remain in school while on their period, by debunking myths surrounding menstruation, and teaching them how to make reusable sanitary napkins.
SI Europe’s (SIE) projects were outlined by President Carolien Demey and Sandra Gonzalez Sköld. Perhaps one of the most unique projects was “Clear Water from Women to Women with Sunwater”, which uses solar energy to purify polluted water. It is an outstanding example of how we can leverage innovation and technology to change lives. Another vital SIE-led project works in Chernihiv, Ukraine, which has been ravaged by shelling in the last year of war. The project, called “Clean Wells Means Clean Water”, began in 2020. It works to clean and replenish wells, which are the main source of safe water for many people in Chernihiv. Given that 1 in 3 Ukranian women lived in rural areas before the war broke out, and many have since been displaced, this project places a strong emphasis on supporting women and girls living in these areas, as they now face an ever-greater complexity of daily challenges.
Next, we heard from Meenakshi Dhanda, on SI of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s (SIGBI) project called “Women: The Silent Rural Powerhouse”. She emphasised the importance of grassroots projects given that the feminisation of agriculture across India, where the project is located, has made women even more vulnerable to economic, social and cultural marginalisation. SI Delhi partnered with a nearby village which offered women the opportunity to learn new skills and connect with one another. Many of them have since become entrepreneurs while others now hope to pursue education. She closed by saying that “when women lift women, change happens”.
Finally, Christine Johnstone, President of SI South East Asia Pacific (SISEAP) highlighted some of the interesting projects being implemented in her Federation to support rural women and girls across the 13 countries SISEAP operates in. A focus on rural areas is critical for this region given that 107 million women live in remote areas. Christine underlined the need to “think locally, act locally” by identifying context-specific needs and opportunities. That’s why SI Ba (Fiji) held a health awareness campaign, as Fiji has the second highest global mortality rate for breast cancer. Over just two days, 400 people received general health checks, pap smears, breast screenings and prostate checks. In the SI Region of Malaysia (SIROM), a region disproportionately affected by climate change, the club provided clean water to the remote Penan Village of Long Tanyit in Sarawak. SIROM held a workshop in partnership with Spark Foundation on disaster mitigation and sustainable farming. Christine emphasised the positive results of empowering women to become more self-reliant in disaster affected areas.
Moderator Leigh Ellwood-Brown, SI Director of Advocacy, closed the event by expressing the feeling of having been taken on a “tour around the world” where we learned about incredible grassroots projects that SI Club members are organising and participating in to educate, empower and enable rural women.
It was truly fascinating to learn the diversity of these projects, the opportunities brought forward by science, innovation and technology, and above all, the power of community and partnerships to deliver lasting impact. Local projects like these hold the potential of creating a lasting cycle of change because empowered women and girls can share their skills and knowledge as leaders within their own communities.
The positive results from these projects underscore the fundamental role that education plays as a driver for sustainable development, peace, and equality.