As economists worldwide grapple with the hard reality that 46 million more people will be added to the global poverty count this year, women and men in these affected communities already are doubling their efforts to soften that landing for their families.
They are working twice as hard to earn money and put food on the table. But if you look closely, you will see women entrepreneurs standing front and center.
We know from our research that in times of recession, women–ironically–hold an economic advantage over men. When unemployment is high, women devise new and innovative ways to earn incomes in the informal sector of the labor market by gathering and selling wood for charcoal, for example, or collecting waste for recycling or taking jobs as domestic workers. Such innovation and resourcefulness should be seeds for economic success. Too often, however, their efforts reap only meager incomes and unstable work that does little to propel them past poverty.
If we are smart, we will recognize women’s value as economic agents and entrepreneurs and invest, particularly in these hard times, to unleash their potential to stimulate economies and drive economic growth.
Women: Powerful Economic Force
Women are a powerful economic force. As income earners, food producers, and caregivers, their labor is central to the health of economies at the household, community, and national levels. In India’s economic transformation of the past 15 years, for example, the World Bank finds that states with the highest percentage of women in the labor force grew the fastest and had the largest reductions in poverty.
Women also are more likely to work for, buy for and share their gains—economic and otherwise—with their families and communities. We have seen time and again in the countries where we work—anecdotes supported by more than 30 years of research—that women invest their incomes and benefits from health and education back into the welfare and opportunities of their children and their communities at large.
Consider the diligence of Reshma,* a poultry farmer in Madhya Pradesh, India, who watches over her newly born chicks for several days—sometimes forgoing sleep—to ensure the chicks’ survival and that of her agricultural business. Or Lusajo,* a mother of four living in the slums of Dar es Salaam, who used the loans that she received from a finance organization in Tanzania to grow her welding business, and in so doing, increased her monthly income by 50%, built a small house to rent out and sent her daughters to secondary school.
Countries, donors, and businesses that invest in women entrepreneurs are more likely to exponentially increase the results of their investments—a multiple dividend, if you will. And those that ignore the proven potential of women as economic agents put themselves at a significant disadvantage for future economic growth.
World Is Taking Notice
International Center for Research on Women, of which I am the head, is not alone in calling for investments in women: the World Bank calls it Smart Economics; the Nike Foundation calls it the Girl Effect. And many others, including corporate and foundation donors as well as our many partner organizations, already are investing in girls and women. In the US, the new administration has elevated the importance of women’s role in economic development by creating the position of ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues and establishing the White House Council on Women and Girls.
These are all important steps forward. But we have some distance yet before we cross the victory line. Women in developing countries still face more obstacles than men in labor markets, receive lower wages for the same work, and have less access to credit, land, education, and other productive resources.
As global poverty deepens, we have a choice: to be dismayed and overwhelmed by it or to be more resolved than ever to do something to change it. We know where to start. Start with women. And we know how to start. Start by prioritizing investments in women’s and girls’ education and business training; and access to credit, markets and land; and by giving women the opportunities and rights they deserve to realize their own vision of economic success.
Most important, we know when to start—now!
*Women’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.
About Geeta Rao Gupta
Geeta Rao Gupta is president of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), a leading global authority on women’s role in development, and passionate advocate for women’s empowerment and the protection and fulfillment of women’s human rights. Rao Gupta also is an internationally renowned expert on women and HIV/AIDS, and is frequently consulted on issues related to AIDS prevention and women’s vulnerability to HIV.