Nothing yields greater benefits than putting financial resources directly into the hands of women leaders on the ground. Even mainstream groups from the World Bank to the Gates Foundation have recognized this important fact. Yet, just as the world embraced the potential of women, a global financial crisis hit, threatening to undermine investments in women.
What we know: Women and girls bear the brunt of hardship. According to the World Bank, the economic slowdown will cause an additional 22 children to die every hour. A worst-case scenario predicts an additional 400,000 child deaths per year. In parts of South Asia and Latin America, the struggle is for food or lack thereof, with girls paying the price. Cultural and practical realities lead most to prioritize sons over daughters. And, according to UN estimates, child mortality will rise five times higher for girls than for boys.
While 1.2 billion (40%) of the world’s women work for pay, few are literate or highly skilled, thereby clustering them in low-wage jobs with no job security. A decade ago, most women in the developing world worked in agriculture; today most provide direct services, such as domestic work and childcare. Making matters worse, women earn on average one-third less than men. Worldwide, women make up about 70% of those living on less than a dollar a day; add children, who disproportionately depend on women for their care, and you have the majority of the world’s poor.
As president of the Global Fund for Women, I hear first hand about these harsh realities and am deeply worried as government and charitable resources shrink. But I also regularly hear stories of ordinary women coming together and developing new strategies to meet this crisis head on. These stories show us the vast potential women hold for healing our sick economies. Most women in the developing world are quick to point out that they have been enduring an economic crisis for generations. Up until now their effective strategies have gone mostly unnoticed and unsupported by the international community. It is time for this to change. At the Global Fund, we see an incredibly diverse and resilient movement of women’s organizations who are already advancing inclusive and sustainable economic solutions.
One of the more exciting models I’ve seen is the Bangladesh Centre for Worker’s Solidarity, which organizes workers in Dhaka’s Free Trade Zone and others working in informal industries, such as domestic, construction, hospitality, and food services. Three garment workers founded the Bangladesh Centre to challenge their harsh working conditions: 12-hour days without sufficient light or ventilation, earning between 66 cents to $1 a day. In Bangladesh, 75% of the country’s export income is generated by the garment industry, which employs 1.6 million workers, of which 90% are women. Women established their own trade unions within factories to collectively bargain for fully paid wages, maternity leave, daycare centers, adult literacy courses, and safe labor conditions.
In Kenya, the Rosemoja Women Group has started to give rural women small loans to help women’s self-reliance so they can own, buy, and control land in support of girls’ education. Their loans have enabled members to open small stores and to invest in more profitable farming practices.
Confronted with the biggest economic crisis in 70 years, we must make hard choices. But it is clear that cutting support for women through decreased public investment in social services or funding by philanthropic institutions will only make things worse. Certainly, women are not to blame for the current financial mess—to the contrary, a recent study showed that banks with at least 30% women in senior management positions were far less likely to have made risky and unsustainable loans. The silver lining here is that the world has a chance to increase support for the projects of women leaders across the globe. In 2007, Al Gore won the Nobel Prize for pointing out the “inconvenient truth” about climate change. Now it is time we recognize this “irrefutable truth”: Investing in the well-being and full empowerment of women is the single most effective strategy for a more peaceful, prosperous, and equitable world. ●