Invest in a Woman, Grow the Economy

Article Date

02 March 2011

Article Author

By Gillian Gaynair

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Private companies are increasingly partnering with nonprofit organizations to help women in developing countries access opportunities that can help lift them out of poverty. They’re finding that their efforts are not only good for women, but good for business, too.

She’s a farmer in Kenya, whose maize crops help feed her family while her labor supports a larger commercial farm. But she seldom reaps the full benefits of her work.

She’s a garment factory worker in India who wants to move beyond her entry-level position – not just for herself, but to better support her family, too.

Invest in a Woman, Grow the Economy She’s a mother in Cambodia who makes traditional bamboo handicrafts. If she could market her work to tourists, she believes she could afford to send all her children to school.

Each represents the reality of life for many women in developing countries. Women work hard – in fields, factories, markets – but their contributions to economies are often undervalued or unnoticed. Their chance to develop skills that many people today take for granted – opening a bank account, making personal decisions, negotiating with others – is elusive.

In developing countries, many women’s ability to reach their full potential is often stunted by barriers to opportunities that could set them on a path to a better life. In the labor market specifically, women’s status is significantly inferior to that of men. They tend to be concentrated in the informal economy, working as day laborers on farms and construction sites, domestic servants or petty traders. While such informal sector jobs can make up more than 50 percent of the labor market, they often are characterized by lower pay, less security and few opportunities to advance.

More than ever, the world now realizes that when women are denied the chance to contribute to economic, political and social life, the entire society pays a price. Meanwhile, research demonstrates that in countries where women’s participation in the labor force grew the fastest, economies experienced the largest reduction in poverty rates.

The global private sector is taking notice of such results. Corporations are increasingly realizing that giving women in developing countries opportunities to cultivate skills and access education is good for business. Indeed, research shows that companies with operations in developing markets that invested in helping women and girls experienced higher profits.

And when the private sector partners with governments and nongovernmental organizations, they can make a significant difference in women’s lives and the global economy. By applying their individual strengths together to tackle the entrenched barriers women face – a lack of basic rights, incessant gender gaps in access to education, technology and health care – they can help plant seeds of transformative change.

To be sure, such collaborations are no silver bullet. Economically empowering a woman – that is, to help arm her with the skills, knowledge and confidence to earn a viable income and determine how to use it – is not the only way to address longstanding gender inequalities. But it can catalyze a powerful ripple effect in a woman’s world: An economically-empowered woman has more control over her life. She’s more confident; she knows she can rely on herself to make sound decisions. She has more bargaining power with her husband on such matters as when to have children. She’s better able to protect herself from violence and disease. She has options.

All of that, taken together, helps her to be a more productive citizen and lead a full, rich life.

Gillian Gaynair is ICRW’s writer/editor.

This story was included in a USA Today special insert on March 4. Published by Mediaplanet, an independent publisher of focused reports, the insert (PDF) highlighted issues affecting women around the globe, innovative programs for them and expert voices, including ICRW’s Anju Malhotra.