The World’s Women

Australian volunteer Tamara Lee writes about how ODAM’s work is helping to promote women’s rights.

Since 1996 ODAM has improved the lives of thousands of South Indian women and their families by addressing rural poverty and climate change, while promoting women’s empowerment, child welfare, education, health, and safety.

It is with ODAM’s  goals in mind, that I’ve taken an interest in the recent release of The World’s Women: Trends and Statistics – a report by the United Nations. After reading the report, I was encouraged that ODAM’s programs are still very necessary and effective, and I was challenged –personally – to continue supporting that the empowering work of NGO’s like ODAM.

I recall my first visit to ODAM’s Girls School and Hostel, when I learnt about the challenges facing rural families in remote Tamil Nadu. I learnt about the impact of poverty on these people, and of the ‘traditional’ practices that have continued in order to help them survive. Traditionally girls have been considered a burden on their families because of the dowry system. Girls as young as 5 are illegally contracted to work in factories and will remain there until they turn 18.

Traditionally girls have been considered a burden on their families

Families believe this is the best they can offer their daughters, as the salary provides the girl with a dowry that will secure her marriage. Life in the factory is vile, oppressive and in no way supportive of ‘normal’ childhood development. ODAM rescues girls from these contracts, provides them with an education, gives them time to play, rest, and grow healthy. I am convinced that while ODAM is only a small NGO, it’s making huge progress towards the Beijing Platform for Action goals for empowering women.

2010 was the fifteenth anniversary of the United Nations Fourth Conference on Women which resulted in The Beijing Platform for Action, the pre-eminent international guideline for improving the status of women. As a result of the conference, participating Governments expressed their commitment “to advance the goals of equality, development and peace for all women everywhere in the interest of humanity”.

International Women's Day

The Platform for Action outlined an agenda for the empowerment of women, and for removing the obstacles for women’s participation in all spheres of private and public life. It also reaffirmed that the human rights of women and girls are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights.

ODAM rescues girls from work contracts

The World’s Women has been published every 5 years since 1991 and the latest edition provides a comprehensive report covering eight key areas: population and families, health, education, work, power and decision making, violence against women, environment and poverty. It is very encouraging to note the progress we have witnessed over the past 15 years for women’s empowerment, and the report is quick to highlight these developments. However, it also outlines the critical need to continue our global commitment to these issues.

While the report contains data from all corners of the globe, we take particular note here of the issues affecting the women of Tamil Nadu, here are some relevant facts relating to ODAM’s programs:


  • In today’s world, there are 57 million more men than women. A surplus of men characterizes the world’s most populous countries – China and India – hence the large surplus of men worldwide.The girls talked about being social workers


  • There is progress – albeit slow and uneven – in the literacy status of adult women and men around the world. However, reflecting the persistent disadvantages they face, women account for two thirds of the world’s 774 million adult illiterates – a proportion that has remained unchanged over the past two decades.
  • Nearly 35% of  the world’s illiterate population live in South-Central Asia, this is primarily a reflection of the situation in the populous countries of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.
  • While the overall progress in primary education over the past decade is encouraging, major barriers still stand in the way of progress: 72 million children – 54 per cent of them girls – are out of school, while secondary enrolment lags even further behind.
  • India is one of the countries where girls comprise more than 60% of out-of- school primary age children. Many barriers stand in the way of children’s schooling, including poverty; child labour, unaffordable school fees; lack of basic facilities and discrimination.


School students dancing at International Women's Day

  • Agriculture still accounts for more than half of the employment of women in Southern Asia, the majority are in a vulnerable situation as they are either own-account workers or contributing family workers.
  • Informal employment is a greater source of employment for women than men. It is noteworthy that in India and Mali nearly 90 per cent of women not employed in agriculture, work informally as street vendors, tailors or construction workers.
  • Like their adult counterparts, girls are more likely than boys to perform unpaid work within their own household. In the less developed regions, girls as young as 5 take on many household chores, including care-giving, cooking and cleaning, Although some boys also do housework, girls generally work longer hours. Analysis shows that school attendance declines as the number of hours spent on household chores increases – and declines more steeply for girls than for boys.

To conclude I’d like to mention just one of the examples of how ODAM is working to break the poverty cycle. When my friend and I went back to the school to teach for a second time we noticed a big change in the beliefs and attitudes of the young girls. On our first visit we facilitated lessons on ‘what I want to do when I finish school’. Many of the girls talked about being mothers, wives, or field workers.

On our second trip, the girls talked about being social workers, police women, teachers, doctors and bus drivers…… the change was remarkable. We heard it with our own ears – through education, and interaction with the broader community, the girls at ODAM’s school and hostel believe they can get employment outside the family’s fields .Perhaps this is one of the most critical steps in breaking the cycle of poverty.