Chris Koney’s column: how empowered women are changing the world (I)

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For those of us working in and supporting international development initiatives, we know that investing in and empowering women and girls is popular and ubiquitous. It is no surprise to us that the Sustainable Development Goals include not only gender-specific actions and statistics, but also an entire goal dedicated to gender parity.

The fifth Sustainable Development Goal is bold, broad and important. It challenges the world to: “Achieve Gender Equality and Empower All Women and Girls”. It’s a goal that I, as a woman, believe in wholeheartedly. And it’s one that seems to be particularly relevant as women and men are rallying for more equal rights, from wage disparities to family leave policies.

It’s a goal that motivates Opportunity International’s work as well – we are proud that 9 out of 10 clients are women, and with our tools and training, they are working their way out of poverty. It seems that the development world generally agrees it’s a good idea to invest in and empower women and girls. Opportunity International agrees, and I agree personally, too.

The question is: why?

Clearly, there are the immediate issues of parity, equal treatment and human rights. These go together without saying, and surely provide enough justification for women-centric programming in and of themselves.

These are the factors that shape Sustainable Development Targets, such as “Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.”2 We fight for goals like this for no other reason than the fact that it’s the right thing to do. Women deserve fundamental human rights, and the Sustainable Development Goals highlight this human responsibility to treat one another with respect and honour.

But beyond simple human decency, there are other factors at play that make gender equality such a significant priority for those working in development around the world.

As it turns out, women are one of the most powerful investments we can make in building a better future.

The need is great

Between the initiation and completion of the original Millennium Development Goals from 2000 to 2015, the world made significant progress toward gender equality. But despite ongoing initiatives designed to target major issues like education inequality, access to healthcare, job creation and equal pay, women continued to face notable (and measurable) disadvantages. Then, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made these inequalities even more severe. Women account for 70 percent of health and social workers, women bore additional household burdens during the pandemic, and lockdowns increased violence against women and girls – in some countries domestic violence increased by 30 percent.3

These sobering statistics provide the impetus for change. They illustrate the needs that continue to present themselves, and the challenges that remain despite improvements over the past three decades.

Imagine you are a girl born in the developing world.

From childhood, you will face hurdles that will hinder your education, development and advancement. Because your family has limited resources, when it’s time for you to start school, your parents decide to educate your brothers instead of you – a reality in the 30 percent of countries still fighting for gender parity in primary school. Because you don’t go to school, you don’t learn to read and write, making you one of the 496 million illiterate women around the world.

As you grow, because you are home more often than your brothers, you are given a disproportionate share of the household chores and responsibilities – tasks like walking miles to fetch water, and caring for younger siblings. When a man approaches your family requesting marriage, your parents oblige and you are now one of the 41,000 girls under age 18 to get married that day. There will be 41,000 more the next day, and the day after that.

Without access to adequate family planning, contraception or healthcare, you get pregnant early. Because only half of pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa have access to prenatal care, you face an unmonitored pregnancy, made more complicated by trauma or mutilation you may have suffered earlier in life. Thankfully, you give birth to a healthy baby despite limited medical care, but now you need to support not only yourself, but this new life as well.

If you are lucky, you might find a job that empowers you to support your family. But even then, you are at a disadvantage compared to your male counterparts. Women in sub-Saharan Africa earn some 34 percent less than men for equal work7. Women are also much less likely (26 percent less) to be employed than men, and for those who do find work, 70 percent of it is in the informal economy, leaving women unprotected in cases of theft, sexual harassment and discrimination.

More likely, you will remain at home, responsible for a majority of household tasks and unpaid work such as childcare. Women in the developing world spend three times longer on household responsibilities than men, amounting to US$10trillion worth of unpaid labour.9

Yet despite your prominent role in the home, you may not have any control over household spending. About one third of married women in the developing world have no control over major household purchases, making them passive observers of their own well-being. And chances are high that you not only lack autonomy within your home, but you are also entirely excluded from the formal financial sector. Women living on less than US$2 per day are 28 percent less likely to have a formal bank account than men living in extreme poverty.

Because you are living in poverty in the developing world, you are probably living in a rural region where you are dependent upon agriculture to survive. Already removed from the formal economy and financial sector, you also don’t have your own cell phone – the device that connects you to the broader economy and world. Women are 14 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone (200m fewer women than men), which is particularly problematic for rural workers who rely upon these devices for banking and other mobile services.

Meanwhile, you are disadvantaged on the farm itself. Despite making up 60 percent or more of the agricultural labour force in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, women like you don’t actually own the land on which they work. In sub-Saharan Africa, they only control 13 percent of agricultural land holdings.

Because you are a woman, you face systemic, cultural and legal issues, and as a result are more likely to lack access to essential agriculture value chain services, including connections to suppliers of quality inputs, like seed and fertiliser, extension service providers, and off-takers who purchase crops at fair market value. Due to these constraints, you, and women smallholder farmers like you, produce about 20 percent less than your male counterparts.

You return home after a long day on the farm to a house full of children – children who will face the same struggles you faced today, and the same struggles your mother faced years ago. How do I feed my family? How do I educate my kids? How do I choose who goes to school and who doesn’t?

And the cycle starts all over again.

This is how women remain excluded – from education, from the formal economy, from banking, from equal rights. Despite working tirelessly, women face hurdle after hurdle, amplified by their geography and generational norms.

Without opportunities to break free from this cycle, women are trapped in a life that they may not have ever chosen – a life that disadvantages not only themselves, but their families and their communities too.

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