Skip to main content

Achieving gender justice for all

By Maria Vlahakis


Women and girls sitting on a mat in Mozambique | VSO VSO/Ginny Lattul

Women and girls bear the brunt of global poverty. Of the almost one-billion people living in poverty, 6 out of 10 are women.

Held back by society and traditions at each stage of life, women face more obstacles in accessing the vital resources and services that could help them break the cycle of poverty.

Education, employment and assets can all be used to escape poverty. But all over the world, women and girls still struggle to access to these vital resources. Women are systematically excluded and denied a voice in the decisions that affect them, because of their gender and other inequalities related to age, race, disability or sexual orientation.

Gender equality is still an issue all over the world, and particularly in the countries where VSO works. You only have to listen to their stories to understand the impact that gender and other inequalities have on women’s lives, and how it makes all of us poorer.

A girl’s burden

School girl in Ghana VSO/Faye Goldman

Rita says that domestic responsibilities interfere with her studies and performance at school.

Take 17-year-old Rita from Tampaala, a rural part of northern Ghana. She became an orphan at 10 years old. Extended family were happy to take her in, but in return she is expected to shoulder a larger portion of domestic labour.

“School relieves me of my work at home. There, I have to perform the normal chores of every girl on a daily basis – fetching water, cooking, washing bowls and farming if it is the rainy season.”

Rita Antanaa, 17, student at Tampalaa Junior High School

The weight of duty

She’s not alone. Girls in Ghana are less likely than boys to progress to secondary school. They may be expected to stay home and do housework, childcare, farming or to get married. One in five Ghanaian girls is married before her 18th birthday.

“I feel my performance [at school] is reducing. Even though our teachers teach us well, it is very difficult for me to improve because I don’t get the time to learn at home.”

Rita is still going to her school, which is supported by VSO’s Tackling Education Needs Inclusively programme. Now, 94% of girls involved in the project who complete their primary education go on to attend junior high (compared to 72% of all pupils before the project).

Facing additional barriers at every stage

India is another of the many countries where girls stand a worse chance of getting a decent education than boys. Just look at gulf between the literacy rates between men and women: 75% to 54% in the last census (2011).

Young woman in Ranchi India supported by VSO VSO/Nattasuda Anusonadisai

Suhani, 20, never completed her basic education

Suhani, 20, from India’s Jharkhand state never finished her education. At the age of 13 she was taken to a brick factory where she was sold as indentured labour. It was two yearsbefore Suhani managed to return to her village. 

"I did not want to work but they made me. I wanted to go to school. I don’t know if you would understand but it was such a sad time for me.”

Doors closed to women

Because Suhani never finished her basic education, the doors to most jobs are barred to her, as they are for many Indian women: only one in three across the nation is in formal employment.

Half a billion Indian women are not in formal employment. The effect if even just one in ten of those women were in work would be staggering.

VSO’s Aaghaaz project has so far supported 1,000 slum-dwelling women like Suhani to find formal employment through skills training and other forms of support. Suhani is now employed as a maid, using her income to support her family as the main breadwinner - she is even paying the college fees for her older brother, whose education was prioritised and who hopes to become a police officer.

Family in Ranchi, Jharkhan, India supported by VSO VSO/Nattasuda Anusonadisai

“I think I’m in a good place now. I learn how to be a good housekeeper from the hotel and I’m making money to look after my family. This is a great opportunity and I’m trying my best.” - Sushna, pictured with her mother and brother

Keeping women down harms us all

Gender combines with other inequalities, such as age, race, disability and sexual orientation, to fuel poverty and exclusion around the world.

In 2015, 80 world leaders came together at the UN to make a historic agreement - we can’t end poverty without ending gender inequality.

By closing the gender gap, hundreds of millions fewer would be trapped in poverty.

Listening to women

We must listen to the voices and experiences of women and girls like Rita and Shushna. We have to understand the specific challenges and discrimination they face in accessing education, using health facilities, making a living and having a say in their own lives.

VSO is committed to putting gender equality at the heart of our organisation - our programmes, projects and practices. That means understanding and meeting the different needs of everyone in the communities in which we work.

We can’t improve education or health systems, until we understand the underlying power relations that deny so many women and girls access to resources, services, opportunities and rights.

Taking action

Our experience shows that when they do have fair access to these, it’s not only women themselves but whole families and communities that thrive. Women must be empowered to create their own change – and men engaged in that change too– only then can the most harmful, deep-rooted social norms be overcome.

This International Women’s Day, please read and share the stories of change from empowered women around the world.

Latest posts