This week, SB OverSeas’ Maria Rosales stepped out of her role as volunteer coordinator for Brussels and Lebanon and into the role of interviewer. She spoke to S&D MEP Linda McAvan from the UK about advocating for women’s rights and the relationship of EU institutions with NGOs like SB OverSeas that work on the ground.
First published in the Brussels Express on 30 November, read how it went, directly from Maria:
I recently heard an anecdote from Linda McAvan that brought a chill down my spine. It’s best told in her own words, so you can hear it for yourself and picture the scene in your mind, as I did.
Many years ago I went to a very remote part of Kenya, right in the North, near the Ugandan border, and it was a very poor area, people literally had nothing. We went with a member of Parliament for that area from Kenya. The project was to look at problems of poverty in the area and also to look at issues of drought and climate change. There was one or two schools in the area, not many. The teenage girls from one of the schools were doing a dance for us and their parents were watching them. The girls were making these signs with their hands for them and I said “what are they doing?”. They replied, “oh they’re singing about cows”. “Oh, and what are they singing?”, I asked. When you are in that part of Kenya and you get married, your father gets a dowry. Well, because of climate change and drought in that area, the girls were getting married younger and younger. The traditional culture of being married at 16, 17 or 18 was being destroyed, and the girls were being married younger because the fathers were desperate for money as their cows were dying, and they needed to buy cows. So the girls who were dancing, they didn’t want to be taken out of school to be married and they were singing to their fathers “please don’t take us out of school, let us finish”.
A girl’s lament in a Kenyan village about a disrupted education might sound like a distant, isolated cry, but if you zoom out of this scene you will see that there are many more girls like her singing in the village, throughout the country, in other countries of the African continent, and in countries facing similar challenges spread over Asia, the Americas and Europe. What struck me about this story was that it showed how issues of poverty, climate change and inequality are linked and can become a self-reinforcing cycle unless tackled accordingly. As the anecdote showed, social and environmental problems are often linked: the consequence of the girls being taken out of school and being married too young is that they would have children too young, which could lead to obstructed birth, in turn bringing them health problems for life. Repeat this a few times and it becomes a cycle, carried on and often exacerbated from one generation to the next.
Linda first got involved in British politics with the Labour party when she was 17 and has now been an MEP for 20 years. She has supported SB Overseas for several years. Linda first heard about the NGO from a former member of her own staff, who got involved in a clothes collection organised by them, filling Linda’s office with mountains of clothes for days, and which was later sent to refugees in Lebanon. This same member of staff also took part in SB Overseas’ Lebanon Volunteering Programme, where she taught English to refugees in one of the organization’s three schools. Seeing the situation in Lebanon with her own eyes made her want to do more, so she spoke to Linda to see what could be done. Linda then organised a fundraising dinner in her own constituency for International Women’s Day and has supported SB Overseas since.
As a recent member of SB Overseas, I wanted to meet her and hear more about her work in the fields of international development, gender equality and climate change. I was quite nervous about interviewing somebody with a political trajectory as impressive as Linda’s. Just to give a few examples, she currently Chairs the European Parliament’s Committee for International Development and the Fairtrade Working Group. She also serves in the Inter-groups on Western Sahara and on Children’s Rights. So to break the ice – or just my own– I started by asking her:
What got you into working with international development and gender equality?
Linda: I’m somebody who has been involved in politics for a long time, but I suppose the question is, why do you get involved in politics in the first place? I first got involved in the Labour Party in my country when I was 17 so I was quite young. And I suppose I got involved because there is a lot of injustice in the world. If you think about it, some of the issues that I’m dealing with now, like International Development and Fairtrade, are about making sure people share the wealth of the planet. These are issues of international justice and solidarity, so that’s what brought me into politics. Once you’re elected you look for ways to make an impact with the values you bring, you want to make changes, to deliver them on the ground. So international development, women’s issues, gender equality, anti-discrimination, environmental issues are part and parcel.
Linda has often discussed the need for a gender perspective in the EU’s development policies, so I asked her about her role bringing these two policy areas together.
How do you see the role of an MEP in the juncture between EU development policy and gender equality or women’s empowerment?
It was in reply to this question that Linda used the anecdote about the Kenyan girls. She went on to illustrate the fact that women are often the ones bearing the burden of poverty, trying to provide a livelihood for their families. So logically, “if we want to have a society which functions better, we have to take care of gender equality”. To Linda, gender equality is a question of international justice and is best illustrated by the UN Sustainable Development Goals’ holistic approach to sustainable development, where challenges related to society, trade and the environment are tackled together and not in isolation. In fact, the motto “nobody should be left behind” is at the heart of Linda’s work. My next question focused on the link between high level policy-makers like Linda and NGOs like SB Overseas, namely:
From your experience in these fields, how do you see the connection between the role of high-level policy-makers and the role of non-governmental organizations working on the ground?
Linda: Well, politicians make laws, but there has to be a political climate within which those laws are made. In my country, for example, they were moving to renewable energy and people complained when they built windfarms. Well, we need voices to say “actually, we need to build windfarms, we need to move to new ways of using energy”. I don’t think grassroots organizations should underestimate how powerful it is when you get a message from the local people who are your voters. Local organizations are very important because politicians can’t legislate unless organizations create a climate so that there is a consensus on why we should change certain issues. Grassroots organizations create pressure. For example, if there is a movement saying “we don’t want refugees here”, then several voices can say, “actually, have you met refugees? Come and meet them.” That’s what organizations like SB Overseas do, they bring the human angle to it.
As time was passing quickly and Linda had an important meeting to get to, having probably already skipped her lunch break to meet me, I asked her whether she had a final message for organizations like SB Overseas.
Linda: I think that the message is not to underestimate the work that you do and the impact that it has. You know, to reach out to people here, to newspapers or organizations, but also to reach out to politicians. Whether it’s local politicians, in the local communes, in Brussels, members of the Parliament nationally, or MEPs (…) The fact that people have paid holidays, the fact that people have sick pay, maternity pay… all these things had to be campaigned for and fought for and they shouldn’t be taken for granted, they can be taken away. Change can happen because people come together to make change.
Marco Cagnolati contributed to this report.