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Walk in her shoes with Julia Newton-Howes
11 February 2013
A research scientist by training, Julia Newton-Howes believes it’s not only possible to eradicate extreme poverty but that it will be done in our lifetime.
As a student in London studying science – because she was good at it at school – an interest in politics, Africa and economics began to develop.
“I was passionate about development and what that work could mean for people and communities, but I wasn’t able to see how I could make a career out of it,” she admits in words smudged by the accents of her Zimbabwean childhood, an English tertiary education, and her years working as a research scientist in Australia before making the move into development with AusAID and, eventually, the role with CARE.
The initial move into development, following some years in science and having reached senior levels, was a step back in responsibility, she acknowledges, but it was where her heart lay and she has never regretted the decision.
“My work at CARE focuses on women and girls because of the high levels of disadvantage they face. We know, from evidence-based assessment of our development programs and ongoing experience in communities, that when you help one woman out of poverty, she will bring four others with her,” explains Julia.
In March this year, from 18 to 24, and following International Women’s Day, CARE Australia will mark a second year working closely with Westpac’s CEO Gail Kelly on the “Walk In Her Shoes” fundraising challenge.
The association kicked-off through a lunch hosted by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, at which Julia and Gail were guests. (Julia deeply admires both the G-G and the CEO for what they do as woman and for women.)
“The talk [at lunch],” she explains, “had turned to why women are still dying in child birth and especially in developing countries.
“CARE is global, we’re in 87 countries, but we do a lot of work in Africa. I think that fact – Gail’s instinctive recognition of the issues faced by women and girls in Africa, which she would have seen on a day to day level growing up in South Africa – along with CARE’s sound data and evidence around the plight of women and girls in developing nations and our global experience of bringing about societal change to really make a difference in those lives, resonated with Gail.”
You might be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that the Savings and Loans groups supported by CARE in various countries around the world, including Malawi in Africa, could also have had a certain innate appeal to a banking boss.
“CARE collects and analyses data on how the Savings and Loans groups perform and change lives. We work with poor rural communities and about 70% of the people are women with no access to funds, or financial services and information. CARE’s role is to provide training and support and an understanding of financial issues, not the capital,” says Julia, pointing out the importance of the community led project model.
“Solutions for communities are context specific and must be treated as such. Self-determination and human dignity must never be underestimated,” says Julia, going on to explain that “saving is an important step toward eradicating poverty, because if people can save even 20c per week then they are moving to a situation of being able to outlay say $20 or $50 dollars and make a substantial investment, rather than having just one or two dollars to spend and having to buy very small amounts. This means they have greater choice; perhaps to increase their income through careful spending of their savings.”
Saving is also incredibly important to her personally, because “it provides choice”, says Julia, whose mother left Zimbabwe in around 2004 “with a suitcase”, hyperinflation in the country’s economy pretty much having wiped out anything financial. It’s a situation that makes her acutely aware of why women need to contribute to, and remain on top of, their superannuation.
Growing up, Julia remembers a time of wild, outdoor adventure. Her home, now surrounded by urban sprawl, once stood in bushland. It was the perfect spot to play with her brother and neighbouring children. Rocky outcrops and trees provided natural cover; creeks gave up the joys of catching tadpoles. She admits to still wanting every so often to climb a tree but understands the risks involved, including running up against rigid social expectations: “They receive very little discussion or thought, but social expectations are one of the major barriers to fulfilling potential, especially for women.”
The scenario in Australia, for example, goes like this: “we expect our daughters to go to school, go to university and then to get married and have children and maybe come back to work a few days a week. Unfortunately for returning mothers workplaces often provide fewer opportunities for working mums.
“What is that all about,” asks Julia, incredulously?
“If we look at the model in Nordic countries,” she continues, “the whole question revolves around role models, both men and women, as important contributors in all aspects of society. Women and men are both able to contribute equally to the workforce and to raising a family – the expectation is that each will take an equal amount of time out to be a parent.”
“Here, social expectations focus on women’s roles as mothers and carers,” says Julia, who goes on to point out, that in many of the poor communities in which CARE works, social expectations also revolve around ‘good’ women not speaking back, or speaking out at a community meeting, forming constraints around achieving potential that end up being discriminatory.
“People in Australia often ask me whether we see a lot of resistance from men in the traditional communities in which we work. Actually, often men are as unsatisfied with the rigid social expectations they face as are women. Men and women working together provide a more diverse team and stronger teamwork the evidence shows and leads to happier more prosperous communities. In communities and families where everyone is able to discuss the different priorities they may have and to balance them in relation to overall outcomes and benefits, we see continued success, development and growth.”
“Walk In Her Shoes” raises funds to support CARE’s aid and humanitarian relief projects.
“One of our CARE Australia staff came up with the concept, about five years ago. It appeals to people in a range of ways,” Julia says with some pride, explaining the idea has now been rolled out in Canada, Norway and the UK and that CARE International is considering its global applicability.
“This year we’re hoping to raise $1.2 million. Our wonderful supporters raised about half that in 2012,” says Julia.
Walk In Her Shoes highlights the distances many poor women walk as part of their everyday lives: collecting water, firewood, reaching their fields or taking a sick child to a health clinic.
“The burden of walking prevents girls from going to school and women from earning an income and participating in community decision making, leaving them trapped in the cycle of poverty,” explains Julia.
(In a twist of good fortune, the concept, when considered in the context of our sedentary Western existences, has inbuilt health benefits, increasing our levels of activity, providing CARE with another win-win.)
Julia, who joined CARE Australia from AusAID, where she had been the Assistant Director General and very involved in the finance side of government aid as well as the formation and implementation of better government policy in relation to poverty and its elimination, is quick to point out where CARE provides her with the further opportunity of working with communities.
“To eliminate extreme poverty, something I believe we will do in my lifetime, you have to work at the community level. It’s an overlooked and critical part of the fight against poverty, which is not intractable as many of us would like to believe,” says Julia.
Access to clean water, health, education, a decent environment, jobs, microfinance opportunities, are all important parts of the process, she agrees, but working closely with communities is critical to addressing discrimination which too often goes hand in hand with poverty. The fundamental question for the people in the communities is ‘how do we get there from here?’
The answer to that question, she says, is really context specific, and the key to it is to have a structure in which the people themselves can articulate what they’re experiencing and how they see it may be resolved.
“After all, the people who are working the hardest to alleviate poverty are the people themselves. We are there to support them in that worthwhile endeavour,” she finishes.
[Julia Newton-Howes is an Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence.]
You can play a part by registering for the “Walk In Her Shoes” challenge at: www.walkinhershoes.org.au