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Azliza Asri Sustainability Institute (Singapore)

On February 13, 2008—the AIESEC POL team held a forum with leading members of Singapore Management University (SMU) faculty and women leaders from the non-governmental organizations (NGO) sector here in Singapore.

The aim of the forum was to gather like-minded students from SMU & Junior College students who are interested to learn more about the issue of poverty; to understand in greater detail the complexity of the issue from SMU faculty (John Donaldson—SMU Assistant Professor of Political Science), aidha President (Dr. Sarah Mavrinac) & the National Committee for United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) Singapore General Manager (Sreyashi Sengupta). Staggering & depressing facts about the state of the poor in the world today set the discussion on poverty - with almost 48% of the world’s population living on less than $2/day as according to the World Bank recent statistics, students are given a glimpse of the challenges facing impoverished communities around the world. Consequently, there are approximately 4 billion people living at the “Bottom-of-the-Pyramid” & it is a challenge for these communities to meet their basic necessities on a daily basis. Furthermore, according to the Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit (BAWB), one person dies every 3.6 seconds from malnutrition & related causes. Economic development factors such as educational opportunities, gender equality, access to basic sanitation, children’s well-being along with stable governance seemed to contribute to a communities’ ability to manage its poverty levels. Coincidently, women’s ability to gain educational opportunities is highly correlated to the rate of her children's success in the community (ie. literacy, health levels, economic viability for the mother & family). Gender equality is, thus an important factor to look at when needing to understand the complexity of communities’ ability to remove themselves from the cycle of poverty. Women usually are able to take better care of the finances for their children’s education or to source for the family daily food necessities (ie. Rice, water, cassava, sugar or flour). Additionally, women tend to be in a better position to alleviate their family’s poverty levels because of their nurturing personality.

Sreyashi from the National Committee for UNIFEM Singapore shared with the audience a story in India of a women’s struggle to gain some income while working on a farm (4 hours walking distance from her home) even till her last days of pregnancy. She endured a painful experience while giving birth to her child in a situation that didn’t allow her the choice that women in developed countries have - clean sanitized surroundings. UNIFEM’s work is about empowering women through programs, workshops & campaigns - ‘Say No to Violence against Women’, ‘Day-off’ or the ‘Stop Child Sex’ campaigns. These campaigns are aimed to raise

awareness on these issues while also providing funds for participation through these programs too. aidha - a non-governmental organization that started in 2006, provides financial education to migrant workers in Singapore. Domestic helpers usually from Indonesia & the Philippines would take up classes such as career & money management, technology & communication, and advanced entrepreneurship & management classes. These classes are designed to develop participants’ skills & knowledge so that they are able to create small businesses (ie. hair salons, sundry shops) upon their return home - as a way to find means for financial independence. These programs not only provide these financial skills & knowledge to the ladies but also build on their self-esteem that empowers women in their lives.

The topic on poverty is a complex issue that requires understanding from many differing factors & not one that can be easily understood, but also not one without a solution in due time. It is an issue that requires thorough understanding of its complexities’ culture, native language & religion - especially, when carrying out development work on the ground.

Additionally, Dr Mavrinac shared with the audience her experience in the Philippines last July when aidha was carrying out its research work. She shared her thoughts with the audience that we cannot fully realize the depth & gravity of communities living in poverty despite our years of research or immense reading on the topic much better than the communities who are living in such conditions on a daily basis. Our thoughtfulness, complete open-mindedness & a humble understanding of their struggles along with a sense of sincerity in wanting to aid these communities eradicate poverty is probably a best first step. Despite such grime facts on the issue of poverty, Donaldson also encouraged the audience to see that the possibilities in alleviating poverty are present & abundance. It might not be an easy-enough task but in due time it is possible to reduce the percentage of communities living below the poverty line. This is especially true with the presence of NGOs such as UNIFEM & aidha; that are determined in delivering the strategies, programs & tools necessary to alleviate poverty, specifically - to the women in the community. Likewise, Sreyashi also believe that achieving gender equality is key to alleviating poverty.

It is the ‘double dividend’ that is present in the notion that gender equality will improve the lives of both mother & children. Women with better educational experience tend to favor & are able to provide better quality of life for her children. The education, knowledge & skills that these women are able to achieve are trickled down to her children - they become more confident in their decision-making (especially, in financial matters that are inclusive of the family’s well-being), better nourished children & the like. Moreover, women with higher literacy rates do enter the formal labor sector

that translates to contributing to a higher Gross National Product (GNP) of a country.

In Singapore, Madam Halimah Yaccob - head of the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) Women’s Development Secretariate (WDS) has set up &

chaired a national panel to get more women back to work. In times of economic turmoil & uncertain inflation rates, the move to attract more women back to work under the SGD$3 million fund has boosted employment rates with the inclusion of women back to the labor sector to an all-time 17-year high according to the Straits Times dated November 17, 2008 issue. To date, Singapore’s labor sector includes an increasing percentage of individuals with tertiary education - up 13% from 25% in


“Some 835,000 women are now in the market, compared to 818,000 a year ago, mainly due to the efforts by the government and the unions to get more women back to work.”

Alleviating poverty in regions around the world is a great possibility - one that can be achieved with much hope & perseverance in due time.

Poverty Around the World

United Nations Millennium Development Goals (UNMDG 2015) Reduce by half the proportion of people living in extreme income poverty (living on less than $1 a day) Ensure universal primary education Eliminate gender disparity in primary & secondary schools (by 2005) Reduce infant & child mortality by two-thirds Reduce maternal mortality by three-quarters Ensure universal access to reproductive health services Implement national strategies for sustainable development in every country by 2005, so as to reverse the loss of environmental resources by 2015 (“Attacking Poverty: Opportunity, Empowerment & Security” - World Development Report