Like a vast number of professional women in the developed world, I have never felt that my life was threatened, my wealth was not in my control, nor that I would not be listened to on important matters.
I won the lottery of life at birth and keep winning the lottery of life every day. Sure, I was born a female in the 1960s and have spent my career in a male dominated environment. I may have had to develop a very thick skin, but I’ve never experienced poverty – I don’t know what it’s like to not have three meals a day, fresh water come out of a tap, quality education and a wonderful home to live in. Taking it one step further, I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman living in poverty.
This year’s International Women’s Day theme of #Balanceforbetter creates a forum for discussing what do we need to address the gender imbalance to create something better, and how are we going about it. Yes, the United Nations website talks about a gender-balanced boardroom, a gender- balanced government, even gender-balanced media coverage. These are important to ensure we can create environments in which both men and women are seen as valued contributors, equally empowered and supported to create a brighter tomorrow.
But the one area that we can impact today is gender-balance in wealth.
Women are the majority of the poor due to cultural norms and values, gendered division of assets, and power dynamics between men and women. Indeed, women and girls bear an unequal burden of unpaid domestic responsibilities and are overrepresented in informal and precarious jobs. In most societies, gender norms define women’s role as largely relegated to the home, as mother and caretaker, and men’s role as responsible for productive activities outside the home. These norms influence institutional policies and laws that define women’s and men’s access to productive resources such as education, employment, land and credit. Women own only 15 per cent of the land worldwide, work longer hours than men and earn lower wages (the current pay gap in Australia is 14.1%).
Girls and women in poor households bear a disproportionate share of the work and responsibility of feeding and caring for family members through unpaid household work, and in rural and remote areas this is compounded with firewood, water and fodder collection, caring for livestock etc. The drudgery of women’s work and its time-intensive demands contribute to women’s ‘time poverty’ and greatly limit a poor women’s choice of other, more productive income-earning opportunities.
Women in poor households, in addition, will often sacrifice their own health and nutrition, or the education of their daughters, by recruiting them to take care of siblings or share in other household tasks. Evidence shows that the gender gaps in nutrition, education and health are greater in poorer households.
Women are economic actors: they produce and process food for the family; they are the primary caretakers of children, the elderly and the sick; and their income and labour are directed toward children’s education, health and well-being. In fact, there is incontrovertible evidence from a number of studies that mothers typically spend their income on food and health care for children, which is in sharp contrast to men, who spend a higher proportion of their income for personal needs. Indeed, when I asked a group of farming cooperative members in rural Odisha last November what they did with their first crop paycheque, a man proudly stood and told me he’d bought a TV and a motorbike, and the woman then stood and said she’d put most of the money away for her children’s education.
Opportunity is currently providing nearly 6 million microloans. These loans provide a means to also distribute health, sanitation and nutrition education to around 5 million people, train more than 500 rural-based basic health care providers, train 1.5 million people in how to avoid sex trafficking and more than 100,000 people in opposing domestic violence and provide education loans that impact over 400,000 children.
But what is crucial to mention is that, of our 6 million microloans, 95 per cent of them are to women. Women who have been given access to the financial means, financial literacy and support to start small business they can manage. The people who are providing the health, sanitation and nutrition training to 5 million are all women – women who have been educated, empowered and are now a loud voice to create grassroots improvement in health outcomes. And women play incredibly important roles in our sex traffic prevention, domestic violence mitigation and education improvement programs.
Providing a microfinance loan to a woman who is going to work hard to create a small business that allows her to generate an income is empowerment at the very least. But we also know that she will invest in the next generation, and, to be frank, is a really good credit risk, and that makes a lot of sense. In fact, our 98 per cent repayment rate ensures we have a sustainable model that keeps growing. Our support services are designed to address those issues that not only impact repayment rates, but weren't being adequately addressed by the wider community.
By focusing on providing microloans to women, we are opening the door to economic participation; by providing health, nutrition and sanitation education using our microloan distribution network, we are impacting health outcomes, and by providing education loans and schools training we are creating the opportunity for more children to be in schools and getting a better education.
At Opportunity we believe in creating opportunity for those that would otherwise not have the opportunity. We’d love you to be part of our story of empowering women who are currently living in poverty. By supporting our microfinance partners, our health programs, our women’s safety programs and focus on education, we can work together to create a balance for better.