International Women’s Day 2012: Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi on addressing the often “subordinate status of girls and women”

By Danny Fisher

This Thursday, March 8, is International Women’s Day 2012. With its service projects in Cambodia and Vietnam, where the vast majority of farmers are women, Buddhist Global Relief is marking this 101st such event with a video in support of Oxfam America’s GROW campaign (see below). GROW seeks to foster a means of development that “contributes much more to human well-being, and ensures that everyone on the planet will always have enough to eat”; women in Cambodia and Vietnam (and elsewhere), then, have a crucial role in making this a reality—and what better year to highlight this than the year in which the theme for IWD is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures”?

I caught up with the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi – the well-known translator of Pali Buddhist texts into English, and the founder of Buddhist Global Relief – to ask him about BGR’s efforts on International Women’s Day 2012 and the link to the GROW campaign.

For this year’s 101st International Women’s Day, Buddhist Global Relief has issued a video in support of Oxfam America’s GROW campaign. Could you explain how Oxfam America and Buddhist Global Relief are working together to improve the condition of women?

In 2010, BGR participated in three meetings convened by the Center for Interfaith Action’s Global Initiative for Faith, Health, and Development. The purpose of the meetings was to prepare a “strategic framework” to enhance the impact of the faith sector on health and development. From these meetings a document emerged that establishes guidelines for interfaith action in addressing poverty and health issues. At this meeting, we met the representative from Oxfam America, Elizabeth Carty, and found there was a good fit between the aims of our two organizations.  In fact, last year Oxfam America appointed our executive director, Kim Behan, to be one of its “Sisters on the Planet Ambassadors,” an honor she shares with congresswomen and movie stars.

Oxfam connected BGR to organizations in Cambodia and Vietnam that have been implementing their “System of Rice Intensification” (SRI): a new, more ecologically sustainable approach to rice cultivation that uses organic inputs and reduces dependence on pesticides and chemical fertilizers. It dramatically boosts yields, even doubling them, without need for external inputs. It thereby increases the amount of rice available for farming families to eat and generates extra income to spend on other household needs. Our Cambodian partner is the agricultural and health organization called Rachana. Our Vietnamese partner is the International Cooperation Center of Thai Nguyen University.

These projects are relevant to International Women’s Day because the great majority of farmers in Cambodia and Vietnam are women. Yet it’s an established fact that in poor countries, whenever food is scarce, women are usually the first to go without, even though they do most of the cultivation. The consequences for maternal and child mortality rates are serious. Thus the BGR projects, by promoting more productive methods of rice production, are likely to result in better nutrition for women, thereby improving their own health and protecting the health of the children they bear and nourish.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.”  Would you say something about how BGR’s mission of “combating chronic hunger and malnutrition” relates to this theme?

When BGR started, we thought the best way to combat chronic hunger and malnutrition was to provide poor communities with the means to grow more food. While this is certainly important, in time we learned that directly addressing the problem of hunger is only part of the solution. A more adequate solution must go to the root of the problem, and one of the deepest roots of poverty and hunger in traditional cultures is the subordinate status of girls and women.

The passage way out of this quagmire can be summed up in two words “education and training.” In poor countries, when the family suffers from poverty, girls are forced to drop out of school, or completely denied an education, in order to work at home. Without an education they can only do the lowest menial work and, very often, they have no alternative but to enter the sex trade.

Over the past three years BGR has sponsored several projects that give girls a chance to continue their schooling. For example, in Cambodia, where only 11% of girls can get a secondary school education, we’ve partnered with Lotus Outreach International on their program called Girls Access to Education (GATE). We provide an annual grant to supply extra rice to the families of 50 poor girls on condition that the families permit the girls to remain in school. We also support the education and vocational training of girls in Vietnam, in partnership with the Vietnamese Red Cross; among girls from the Dalit community in Nagpur, India, in partnership with Bodhicitta Foundation; and in Sri Lanka, in partnership with CENWOR, the Centre for Women’s Rights. All these projects give the girls prospects for a brighter future.

To learn more about BGR and our projects, visit www.buddhistglobalrelief.org.

You can also read our past interviews with Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi here, here, and here.

VIDEO: