Poor women’s suffering has long been a sure-fire way to pull on the heartstrings of rich donors, but in recent years there has been a newfound appreciation for the role that these women play in breaking the cycle of poverty and stabilising fragile societies.
It has been said that women who are closest to the world’s most pressing issues are best placed to solve them. Women are economic factors: they produce and process food for the family; they are the primary caretakers of children, the elderly and the sick; and their income and labor are directed toward children’s education, health and well-being.”Women hold up half the sky,” in the words of a Chinese saying, yet that’s mostly an aspiration: in a large slice of the world, girls are uneducated and women marginalized. Most aid programmes are just trying to make poverty tolerable rather than working to eliminate it. What is now needed is empowerment of women in ways to enable them to work out their own path out of poverty.
As women participate in the economy, they also become more involved socially and politically. Within their communities they may advocate for changes that will better their own lives and those of other girls and women. Even the power of example is important. More families pay for their girls to attend school if they see women putting their education to use. More importantly, a loan in the hands of a woman has a better chance to change not just her life, but to improve her children’s opportunities and her society’s prosperity .
Yet women face significant constraints in maximizing their productivity. They often do not have equal access to productive inputs or to markets for their goods. In addition to economic factors, the rigidity of socially ascribed gender roles and women’s limited access to power, education, training and productive resources constrain full development of their potential. The women need a raft of services to move the economic ladder.
Over years of wandering the villages, I have been compelled to revise much of my received wisdom about what our rural priorities should be. We must be challenged to see the reality of poverty and vulnerability through the eyes of a particular individual, typically a woman, and to understand how that person strives to overcome it. This way we can at least get some feeling of her daily worries and needs.
Research has uncovered that by serving a girl at the vulnerable crossroads of adolescence, development programmes can have the greatest impact not only on that girl but can empower her to be a catalyst for change in her family and community. Thus, by ignoring them, the nation has lost the opportunity to impact a generation. Moreover, once that window of adolescence closes, the doors have opened for another broken generation. One must remember that it is easier to build a healthy generation than repair a broken one.
Societies that invest in and empower women are in a virtuous cycle. They become richer, more stable, better governed, and less prone to fanaticism. Experience worldwide shows that when women have opportunities, the yields on their farms increase along with their incomes. Natural resources are better managed. Nutrition is improved. Livelihoods are more secure. Further, when a woman receives money, her extended family usually benefits. This is because profit percolates down and brings about the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of people. Thus, the most powerful catalyst for lasting social change is created. When women access financial services, investments in child-education and health tend to rise; households save more and cope better during times of distress. When women are reached, they gain the courage and skill to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty, child health and nutrition improve, infant mortality declines, agricultural productivity rises, economies expand, population growth slows and cycles of poverty are broken.
Providing women with more and better opportunities to fulfil their social, economic, and political roles is now deemed so essential for reducing poverty and improving governance. Hence, women’s empowerment has become a development objective in its own right. In order for a woman to be empowered, she needs access to the material, human, and social resources necessary to make strategic choices in her life. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that if women in rural areas had the same access to land, technology, financial services, education, and markets that men do, agricultural production could be increased and the number of hungry people reduced by 100-150 million.
Not only have women been historically disadvantaged in access to material resources like credit, property, and money, but they have also been excluded from social resources like education. Aid has often been most effective when aimed at women and girls. When policy wonks do the math, they often find that these investments have a net economic return. This spending creates a powerful ripple effect throughout society and across generations.
The society has always made paternalistic decisions to “protect” these women, thereby eliminating their ability to solve issues that they face. Why couldn’t they decide for themselves how to manage their own situation? Why couldn’t they be equipped to decide how they can take their own decisions? The key levers for change, from the ground up, are clearly female education and women’s access to income.
In the new development discourse, women have been recognised as key actors in efforts to alleviate poverty and achieve social transformation. Effecting comprehensive change from a woman’s point of view calls for a transformation of gender relations, not merely superficial attention to “women’s needs”.
Women the world over work tirelessly to end the poverty and hunger in their lives. But it can take much more than hard work. They need new tools to create their own paths forward. They need opportunities that can overcome economic, cultural and gender barriers. It needs multi-sectoral cooperation to create breakthrough ideas and breakthrough solutions that can break down economic, social and technical barriers.
For all the interventions, the fundamental logic is plain: if poverty is to be eradicated, there is a need to start with girls and women. They are the ones who have the grit to lift families out of the pit. People who have pioneered successful social programmes recognised this potential and sought to evoke it.
Empowerment has many dimensions—social, economic, cultural, political and personal. When every part is treasured, the good unleashed is greatest. This is the unique philosophy of the new movement for empowering females. “Women hold up half the sky”, in the words of a Chinese saying. The wisdom has dawned upon the world too late .
Ela Bhat, the founder of SEWA emphasises the creative role of women in leading social change: “Women have always proved themselves the better fighters in natural disasters and times of crisis. It’s in the female sex that I see hope for the future. Women should be at the heart of all economic and social reforms. I believe poor women in particular are the key. … They have a resourcefulness, a natural intelligence, that ensures survival. ….. If we help them take the initiative, if we give them access to capital and the means of production, then one day they or their daughters will be able to leave behind their meager huts and their life of poverty. That’s the way our society will develop and our economy will grow: one woman at a time.”
Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org