Article
Change
5 min read

Chasing the rains: why gender equality matters in development

An encounter with a Maasai woman, leaves Jane Cacouris pondering another encounter at a well.

Jane Cacouris is a writer and consultant working in international development on environment, poverty and livelihood issues.

Girls stand in the northern Kenyan scrubland holding water bottles.
Girls stand in the northern Kenyan scrubland holding water bottles.
Tucker Tangeman via Unsplash.

Rural communities living within Kenya’s vast, desolate and beautiful arid and semi-arid Lands have suffered over the past two years from the drought that has hit the entire region. Rainfall during the “rainy seasons” has been in decline, and with more than 80% of Kenyans reliant on agriculture to survive; livelihoods and food security are at risk. Livestock numbers have depleted, and the cattle that are still alive are underfed and unproductive. Women and girls, their skin shining with perspiration as they carry yellow jerry cans strapped to their heads, trek for up to tens of kilometres a day.  

They are in search of life-giving water for their livestock and families, returning home each day with shoes and feet scuffed with sun-scorched red dust. This is not an image from decades ago… before we started working towards global sustainable development goals and COP targets. No, this is happening right now in our world.  

Speaking to a Maasai woman living in a remote part of rural Kenya on a recent work assignment earlier this year, I asked her about the impact the drought was having on her community who are mainly rely on nomadic cattle herding to live. She explained that the men were leaving for months on end in search of pasture for their cattle; “they are chasing the rains” and leaving women to run the households and try to make ends meet, looking after children and extended family.  

But the women at home lack authority to make any decisions; about the land, about supplementing income with other employment, or about crops or food choices. They are disempowered by the social and cultural norms within their strict patriarchal Maasai society, and unable to stem the cascading flow of worsening poverty.  

Extreme weather events also increase the work burden of women and girls and their ability to perform their everyday tasks. They must walk further to collect firewood and water due to dwindling resources. 

ccording to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, people in poverty are more susceptible to climate change than wealthier people. Their livelihoods and assets are more exposed and they are more vulnerable to natural disasters that bring disease, crop failure, spikes in food prices and death. The World Bank estimates that without immediate action, climate change could push 120 million more people into poverty by 2030. And of those, the threat of climate change on agriculture in Africa could push 30 million people into extreme poverty.  

Gender inequalities present in many countries and societies exacerbate this already existing vulnerability of the poor to climate change. And women and girls are disproportionately affected by climate change. For example, an increase in child marriage has been observed in communities as a means of coping financially when a disaster occurs, such as a drought or flood. Families raise much needed additional funds through dowries. Extreme weather events also increase the work burden of women and girls and their ability to perform their everyday tasks. They must walk further to collect firewood and water due to dwindling resources. Women often lack land rights that are passed down through generations along patrilineal lines, as is the case in Kenya. Women’s access to climate emergency funding - in areas where such funding is available – is therefore limited as they don’t possess the collateral, in the form of land rights and ownership. In short, women and girls fare significantly worse than men and boys when it comes to the impacts of poverty and climate change on wellbeing.  

So what does Jesus think about gender inequality?  

Jesus treated all people with equal love and respect. Gospel writer Luke, records that He talked with respect about the Samaritans who were seen by the Jews as racial inferiors, he reached out to prostitutes, and to lepers who were social outcasts.  He without doubt had a special sensitivity to those on the margins and towards those who are poor.  

And Jesus goes one step further. He also demonstrates a radical approach to gender equality in the Bible. For example, John, the writer of another gospel, describes his encounter with a woman at a well. As Jesus passes through a town on his journey through Samaria, he is tired and stops to sit by a well. When a Samaritan woman approaches to draw water, he asks her for a drink, and begins a conversation that leads to Jesus showing her that he is the son of God. This speaks about gender equality in several ways.  

First, Jesus spoke to the woman at a time when it was forbidden for a man to talk to a woman in public, even a wife or daughter. Jesus was also a rabbi which would typically create multiple barriers between him and the woman; in terms of race, gender and lifestyle. But these things were not barriers for Jesus. He spoke to the woman as a human being. He demonstrated equality.  

Second, Jesus is vulnerable with her, asking her for a drink because he is thirsty. Here is a man asking a woman for help, openly admitting he needed something from her.  

Third, Jesus ignores The Talmud, a Jewish commentary on the Pentateuch, that taught it was immoral to teach a woman the Law.  

“Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water”.  

He discusses theology with her. Jesus did not regard his Jewish racial identity or being male as superior. Jesus clearly demonstrates through his actions in this passage that all who trust in Christ are equally God’s children, valued without differentiation or discrimination based on race or gender.  

As Jesus shows in this passage in John’s gospel, he doesn’t consider women feebler, less capable or less intelligent than men. Throughout the Bible, he continually recognises their value. In parallel, much evidence shows that greater gender parity in the world today would make it a richer and more sustainable place for human beings, biodiversity and the environment. Improved nutrition, food security, livelihoods and health come from greater access, benefit-sharing mechanisms and employment opportunities for women.  

For example, when women have greater control over household resources, spending patterns shift towards catering more for families’ food and education. According to the OECD, in Kenya and Malawi, levels of malnutrition are found to be lower among children in female-headed households. An NGO project that worked with women in agriculture across six countries found that when women were given ownership of land and when women’s participation was improved in farmer’s collectives, income from agriculture increased between 40 and 165 per cent. If vulnerabilities caused by poverty are reduced by supporting and recognising women as equal to men, this translates into households and communities that are less vulnerable and more resilient to the effects of climate change. It is all connected.  

Humanity can not “chase the rains” forever. In our race to find more stability and sustainability in this changing world, perhaps it’s time to take Jesus’ lead and really recognise and value women equally to men, both as people, and for the contribution they can make to lives, livelihoods and our world.  

Interview
Change
War and peace
11 min read

Eye witness: life and death in Gaza’s European Hospital

Returning plastic surgeon Tim Goodacre reports on the struggles, the despair and the dignity of the people and the medics of Gaza during their long nightmare.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Medical staff stand beside a bed in which a man lies with an amputated leg.
Medics confer about a patient in Gaza's European Hospital.
Tim Goodacre

Tim Goodacre is a vastly experienced plastic surgeon who recently spent two weeks in a hospital in Khan Younis treating the extensive injuries of the people of Gaza. I caught up with him to ask about his experience there.  

Graham: Let me start by asking what was it like getting into Gaza? What was the process and how difficult was it to actually get in in the first place? 

Tim: We went in as an emergency medical team under the under the auspices of the World Health Organisation, which is coordinated with UN OCHR. It was easy obviously to get to Cairo. Then we joined a convoy, a group of cars convening in the small hours of the morning in Cairo and then being escorted across the Sinai desert. We got to the border in time for dusk. What was staggering at that stage was seeing the number of lorries lined up, waiting on the Egyptian side to get in. They were two deep on one side, one deep on the other with a thin passageway through which we could drive through for mile after mile after mile of these lorries. 

Was this humanitarian aid sent from other nations? 

Absolutely. It was aid labelled from different countries or agencies. Crossing Rafah the next morning was all pretty haphazard and chaotic, but we met our driver on the other side. We then had to travel to Khan Yunis on the coast road because it was the safest part of the south Gaza strip. We went through a route called the Philadelphia Road, which is a gap between the two borders. As we drove along, we immediately were jumped on by some young lads who had put razor wire across the road. We picked up two of them who hung onto the car each side, with our window s firmly shut. As we sped along, they were our ‘protectors’, taking a pitiful sum to ensure that we would not be stopped at further razor wire and our vehicle plundered. It was our first experience of the lawlessness that's inherent at the moment in Gaza. 

All along that side of the road there were people putting up new tents after a recent further mass displacement, as far as the eye could see. It made a huge impact on me - the devastating plight of the people who were there. It looked like those pictures of Glastonbury or Woodstock, where as far as you could see, the rolling fields or sand dunes or whatever were totally covered in makeshift dwellings. It was pretty cold and windy. And subsequently, while we were there, it rained an awful lot and your heart just went out to these people.  

So these were people living in tents and temporary shelters? 

 Well, not really. They're barely tents. They're just finding flimsy bits of wood, putting them up and nailing them together. And these are not just the very poorest of the poor. This is everybody. Many of them were people from very well-to-do houses whose families have been displaced. I've worked in many parts of the world where there's poverty, but I’ve never seen so many people displaced.  

One of the things that's remarkable however is the relative cleanliness, the desire to maintain dignity in the most appalling circumstances. But a young lad who’s now a young doctor (who I have worked with for a decade now) came to see me and he was the most dejected person I've ever met. He said to me ‘they've taken away my dignity’. The abject pain in his face was something that I won't forget.  

You’ve been to Gaza many times before. What was different about this time? And you've seen it in the aftermath of previous wars and conflicts. What was what was particularly different this time? 

 It's utterly different – it’s the displaced population with nowhere to go and seeking shelter. When I first went in 2014 after Operation Protective Edge, I was taken to a huge neighbourhood of northeast Gaza, which had been flattened and at the time the impact on me was extraordinary. When I’ve visited subsequently over the last decade, they will show you this bombed out building and that flattened area, but I've never seen such vast numbers of displaced people. On the second day we moved into the European Gaza Hospital (EGH), which is where we were going to stay for the two weeks we were there. Inching slowly along amidst endless hordes of people walking around, seeing the dejection, despair, the hopelessness with nowhere to go - this for me is what defines this whole episode and makes it very different from others. This is in no way a diminution of other conflicts and human tragedies, but when there was bombing in Baghdad or in Kiev and Ukraine, people might go into underground shelters - there are places they can perhaps go to escape. Even in massacres such as in Darfur or Congo, there are places to run to. There is nothing like that in Gaza. 

Was there a pattern to the kind of medical emergencies and wounds that you were having to deal with? 

 The vast majority of injuries were the impact of high explosives, so we naturally saw quite a lot of burns, although the majority of severe burns alone were being managed by the Red Cross team also at EGH. Some of them were people who had been crushed and pulled out of buildings which had collapsed. But that was that was the minority. The majority of our cases were direct results of bomb blasts. Every time you hear a bomb, somebody is being killed, yet many others are caught on the fringe of that. Shrapnel travels at astronomical speeds and hits people in in a completely random way. These injuries are devastating. There were scores of people coming in with limbs missing. Seeing somebody with a leg off at the thigh, a leg off below the knee, an arm ripped off was all too common. It was hard to take in - you have to become somewhat immune to the backstory behind each dreadful injury, and concentrate on the carnage in front of you, to be able to deal with the constant onslaught of cases. 

How were the medics coping with it? You were there for two weeks. They are there for months, presumably on end? 

 I think it's incredibly important that we don't focus on the visiting medics. I usually peeled off at about 9pm or so in the evening - I had to go to bed and had to have a rest, but there were people trying to work through the night. What I want to focus on is the local people, particularly a young colleague, Ahmed, who was 36 years-old. He was statesmanlike in his ability to pull things together. His family are actually mostly in Dublin as they've got Irish passports. I cannot tell you how much admiration I have for that young Gazan man who shared his room with me.  

He has been managing to create a team who work alongside him, since many of the staff who had worked at the hospital before (some of whom we had trained over several years in limb reconstruction) were not there. That is because they might not be alive, or having to support their displaced families, or simply are afraid to travel in daily to the hospital, or whatever. It is a huge demand on individual doctors to leave a family group (who invariably try to stay together, so that if they are bombed, they all die together and do not have to be a sole survivor.) to then work away from such possible loss of all their family members. It's an incredible sacrifice to be working in medical care when your family are all huddled together in a place where they may all lose their life, and that gets to them in the end.  

The orthopaedic side is almost on its knees. Most of the system in the hospital is utterly on its knees. There were early years medical students who had been taught quickly how to manage wounds and to skin graft. They haven't got any pay, but some people have given a little money to my colleague’s account to try and give them some support. There were IT students and all sorts of others pulling together. How people can work in in such adversity and make things happen is quite a testament to the to the strength of humanity.  

It all begins to play on your mind, and you start thinking is there another one coming? And you get no warning when the attacks are unleashed. 

What was it like living under the bombardment, which was presumably pretty constant during your time there? 

There may have been the odd period of four or five hours when there was no sound of close bombardment at all, although during that time there was probably small arms fire going on somewhere. But otherwise, it was relentless. One became somewhat used to the bombs in the distance, but when they're close by… Every time one of these bombs goes off, there are people dying. And that really that played on your mind. So huge numbers were seeking shelter anywhere in the vicinity of the hospital. If you can imagine a hospital corridor where every route is full of makeshift shelters, and you just go up around a stairwell and on the corner of each stair, there will be a family which will be hanging drapes up, trying to find some sort of privacy and dignity among the utter destitution.  

I found it very difficult to sleep during those times. The hospital is in a quadrant, a square. On one corner there was a supermarket which latterly was hit by an F16 delivered weapon. You could hear the sound of the rocket go off alongside the scream of the low flying fighter jet, and the whole building shook. There's also the incessant sound of drones. It all begins to play on your mind, and you start thinking is there another one coming? And you get no warning when the attacks are unleashed.  

It made me realise what soldiers undergo when they get what used to be called shell shock. There, even if you're not injured yourself, this constant shocking damage gets to you. I knew we had the knowledge that after a short time, we would be getting out - but it made me realise how tough Ahmed and others working there have to be. It will be having a devastating impact on the population, and for a nation.  

I imagine the psychological effects of that are going to last for a long time in the lives of these people. You don't get over that quickly. If you live with that level of tension, thinking any moment now, I could die, that must stay with you and the marks of that stay for a long time. 

I'm sure that's true. I'm not an expert in PTSD and things like that. Ahmed is a Muslim and said to me more than once that when you believe in an afterlife, you believe that your time will come at some point, and you accept that. We don't know when it is or where it is, but it will come. I have frequently wondered whether any of the fighter jet pilots have ever experienced themselves what it’s like to be underneath the impact of one of their weapons? Having felt somewhat what it is like to be on the other side of such an onslaught, I do wonder whether very many of those involved in ordering conflict really have any kind of understanding of what devastation feels like, when there is nowhere to run? I fear for what this conflict does to the humanity of both sides. 

I genuinely don't feel brave, I don't. I'm not the kind of person who sees lights in the sky, but I know it was God’s calling to go there. It was simply the right thing, 

Did you see any sign of hope or anything that gave you a sense of the way out of this? 

 The sense of hope is within the people who are there. There are many people who say they still really don't want to leave. They feel this passionately. It's their land. They do want to see a new Gaza. I tried to be somebody who lifted spirits. Communities can be rebuilt and there may be a new future which will come from the dust. I've been in touch with people in my University Medical school in Oxford to see whether we can do something about getting these young people's education continued.  

You can imagine there wasn’t a lot of laughter in the whole environment, but on the few occasions when I did gather together with my colleague’s small group of young students and volunteers, usually late into the night, we would eat whatever food goodies they had to hand, and their sense of fun would burst out. Together there was a very strong sense of community amongst them. 

How did your Christian faith inform the way you interacted with the situation? How did your Christian faith help you process what you were seeing and experiencing there? 

 I must say it was a deeply spiritual time for me. It was absolutely powerful to me to know that God cares and loves each and every one of these people. I longed to organise a football game with the kids. I was told that they had tried to do that, and it had become too dangerous. So there seemed to be no organisation around looking after the well-being of the children, their education, or the deeper impact on them of this war. People were jammed into the hospital, obviously because it was seen as a safe space, and it was humbling to think that us (as foreign workers) being there made them feel somewhat safer. It humbled me immensely.  

I felt nothing but a sense of privilege in being a witness to all this. I was reading the Psalms regularly in daily prayer. There's also something about that land being the place where God himself suffered in Christ and went through his own agony, and that the Holy Family escaped through Gaza to Egypt.  

I genuinely don't feel brave, I don't. I'm not the kind of person who sees lights in the sky, but I know it was God’s calling to go there. It was simply the right thing, a privilege and an honour to have such access which comes with having my particular background of skills and past history with Gaza. God is over all these matters, and we are compelled to respond. 

 

Tim Goodacre is a Reconstructive Plastic Surgeon based in Oxford, with extensive experience of working in diverse environments outside the UK. He is immediate past Vice President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.