Grandmothers as changemakers
BY DR. LYNSAY FARRELL
Have you heard of the “grandmother hypothesis?” Humans are among only a few species whose females live well beyond their reproductive years (alongside Japanese aphids and orcas). To try to explain this, anthropologist Kristen Hawkes observed how the presence of grandmothers among hunter-gatherers in Tanzania led to decreased child mortality and increased maternal support. She hypothesized that the success of human evolution had much to do with our species’ unique relationship to and presence of female elders. Indeed, it’s clear that up until the present, grandmothers continue to play a crucial, and sometimes invisible, role in the caretaking of families and communities around the world. In the US, 42% of working parents use grandmothers as their childcare. Beyond families, grandmothers drive volunteerism and use their soft power to influence in small and big ways.
“It’s clear that grandmothers hold a unique social status as family and community leaders and their traits like empathy, compassion, trust, wisdom, and reliability are nearly universal around the world.”
Organizations are recognizing the potential of grandmothers in supporting community connection and development. In Zimbabwe, the Friendship Bench program trains grandmothers to provide community-based therapy and has successfully addressed depression when state-run support was lacking. Grandmas2Go, a nonprofit in Oregon, trains older women to mentor at-risk families while keeping aging adults active and engaged. These examples showcase how grandmothers are the key to strengthening the community fabric and restoring community resilience.
Grandmother Project: Change Through Culture
The Grandmother Project (GMP) promotes positive change for women and children in Senegal through an intergenerational and grandmother-inclusive approach. Their “Change through Culture” approach capitalizes on the community leadership role that grandmothers can play in social change. For example, by engaging grandmo5thers as leaders in their girls’ holistic development program, GMP saw significant improvements in early marriage, female circumcision, and teen pregnancy. The preferred marriage age for girls rose from 15.6 to 17.3 years, and the percentage of grandmothers who considered circumcision a cultural obligation dropped from 86% to 5%.
As many societies are navigating aging populations, there continues to be a necessary reframing of what it means to advance in age. Older people are engaging in third, fourth and fifth acts – constantly pivoting and reskilling well into their later years to adapt to our changing world. One of the keys to the success of organizations like Friendship Bench or Grandmas2Go is a recognition that grandmothers are partners for change. They are not just default caretakers or a population needing care. They know their communities and understand how to get things done. They have time, experience, and wisdom. And they are already doing work in many communities as volunteers and caretakers. They are the “unsung heroes of the American Economy” as Fortune magazine pointed out earlier this year and pillars of the social safety net for many families as well.
Humans are hard-wired for social connection but are now navigating an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. Who better to help us reconnect and re-engage than female elders who are keepers of culture, community healers, and providers of care? It’s clear that grandmothers hold a unique social status as family and community leaders and their traits like empathy, compassion, trust, wisdom, and reliability are nearly universal around the world. By recognizing the importance of grandmothers’ leadership and highlighting their key role in society, Grandmother Collective aims to show that we can tap this abundant and powerful resource to improve our world.
Learn more about and join the Grandmother Collective movement HERE.