This month the world celebrates International Women’s Day – a day that recognises just how valuable, capable and resilient women are.
Through Opportunity, I have met time and time again, incredible women who, when given the chance, go on to do amazing things. The key word here is chance. There is no doubt in my mind that what holds so many women back, is that lack of opportunity. The first steps to creating a gender equal world, is ensuring that women have the same opportunities as men – opportunities in health, education, employment and business.
Each year International Women’s Day (IWD) has a theme. This year it is 'Each for Equal'. It is an interesting theme because it makes you stop and re-read it a few times. It makes you think.
Each for Equal speaks to the individual – that we are each responsible for our own thoughts and actions every day. We have the power to choose and with that choice, comes power.
We have the power to choose whether or not we will accept gender stereotypes, gender-based violence, sexism, gender bias in the workplace, in the home, in the media, on the sporting field.
We have the power to choose action over submission; speaking out over silence; or being collectively individual.
We also have the power to choose to end poverty.
The vast majority of our work involves women. In fact, 95 per cent of our small loan recipients are women. There are several reasons for this but primarily, it is the women who are most likely excluded from the financial markets, but once they have been given the opportunity, go on to run successful small businesses, become decision makers in their family because they are income-earners, and ensure their children—boys and girls—receive an education.
I recently spent time with 13 women in a small village outside Udaipur, India who had a profound effect on me. Together they had borrowed small loans to pay for bores so they could irrigate small agriculture plots. But the ground was so rocky and mountainous and all I could think about was how backbreaking it must have been for them to prepare that land, let alone successfully grow and harvest vegetables.
"I got back into the truck and cried."
All their husbands worked as contractors in the city. There were no men in the village the day I visited; they would only return for two or three days every month and then head back to the city. The women were left on their own to eke out an existence and look after their children.
The women lived such basic lives. There weren’t even any toilets in the village – they just weren’t considered necessary. It was just the circumstances with which they lived. Most of the women were illiterate, ‘signing’ their loan repayment books with an inked thumbprint.
I sat down and spoke to them about how they carried vegetables on their heads for eight kilometres to market. Yet they were so enthusiastic about it, that they could do that and by doing so, earn the money to send their children to school.
What struck me was how they saw their work and their children’s education as their children’s journey out of poverty, not their own. It wasn’t about them but only about how they could break the cycle of poverty for their children.
I got back into the truck and cried. I cried because of the circumstances that the women were in but also because of the hope and dignity with which they were changing their circumstances and that of their children.
Those women were each making an individual choice to make a collective difference. Their choice was to take a small loan. By doing so, they could irrigate their agricultural plot. By selling the vegetables, they could send their children to school – in many cases, the first generation in the village to be educated.
Those children will grow up and have a much greater chance of finding secure and sustainable employment. Because of their education, they will also lead healthier lives.
But it all started with a small loan. And that can be our ‘collective individual’ choice; supporting Opportunity can be how we help women living in poverty. It is how we can be each for equal.