TOPICS:Help eliminate poverty — invest in women

Those familiar with the issue of poverty might know that although women perform two-thirds of the world’s unpaid labour and grow more than half the world’s food, they represent 70% of those living in poverty. But what is just coming into focus is that women represent an underutilised resource in alleviating that poverty. When government and philanthropic dollars are invested in financially disadvantaged women, the potential impact is vast.

Research shows that investing in women’s education and leadership in Africa can increase agricultural yields by more than 20% there. It is estimated that for every year beyond fourth grade that girls attend school, their wages rise 21%. And in 2001 the UN reported that eliminating gender inequality in Latin America would increase national output by 5%. On top of that, evidence from micro-credit lending indicates that women have superior repayment rates, invest more productively, and are more risk-averse than men in similar situations.

Through programmes administered by an international alliance of nongovernmental organisations known as the Women’s Funding Network and by other international organisations including UNIFEM, experience illustrates the effectiveness of investing in women. These programmes support training and better working conditions for women. They also build entrepreneurship and support asset-building and financial literacy for them. A hallmark of this work — and key to its effectiveness — is empowering women living in poverty to help direct funding.

In Washington, programmes funded by the Washington Area Women’s Foundation have helped low-income women in and around the area collectively increase their assets by $17 million in 2-1/2 years. Consider Christine Walker, a single mother and university student earning less than $35,000 annually. She watched her personal debt mount even as she pursued the degree that would lead to a better-paying job. Thanks to two programmes funded by the foundation, Christine learned how to save $4,000 in just six months.

Another programme supported by the Washington foundation enabled Sharan Mitchell to train in construction. Within three months she was helping to build Washington’s new baseball stadium and earning a steady paycheck. On the other side of the globe, a UNIFEM-supported programme in Taiwan proved a lifeline for a domestic worker from the Philippines. As part of the programme, the participants formed a savings club. Eventually they pooled their $19,000 in savings and bought a rice mill.

One of the participants managed the mill, which soon employed four full-time workers and four part-timers. This woman has risen from domestic worker to manager, benefiting her family and those around. And she and the women who invested with her in the mill are owners of an asset. When a woman prospers, a family prospers. When families prosper, communities prosper. — The Christian Science Monitor