Nearly 2.5 billion people live on less than $2 a day, and I am astounded and truly horrified that in 2012, women represent 70% of this number. Knowing this statistic, it’s not a surprise that women disproportionately suffer from the chronic effects of poor nutrition, insufficient healthcare and limited educational opportunity. Historically, women face discrimination in all facets of life, significantly impacting their ability to participate as equal members of society.
Consider these alarming statistics:
- Women do 66% of the world’s work and receive only 10% of the pay.
- Women spend 90% of their income on their families, while men typically spend only 35%.
- Two thirds of the world’s illiterate people are women.
- Women are owners of just one-hundredth of the world’s property, yet they make up the majority of farm laborers.
These facts represent some of the terrible issues of oppression that were highlighted in the powerful documentary series Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, which premiered this week on PBS. In Half the Sky, authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn address several of the gravest injustices against women, including gender-based violence, maternal mortality, and sex trafficking, along with ways that we can combat these offenses. One of the solutions highlighted is the economic empowerment of women and I am thrilled to recently have joined Opportunity International, a nonprofit organization at the helm of offering a solution that can lift women out of poverty and inequality.
At Opportunity International, we provide small business loans, access to savings, insurance and training to over four million people working their way out of poverty in the developing world. While our services are available to all entrepreneurs, 93% of our loans are made to women, who consistently show inspiring resilience and determination to change their own world and the future of their children and communities. Representing over half of the global population, it makes sense that if we want to change the world, we need to start by providing women with economic opportunities. Putting aside the important and justified social arguments of gender equality, there is an enormous economic case for empowering women and opening the doors to opportunity.
Through more than 40 years of experience, Opportunity International knows that when a woman gets a microfinance loan and training, she begins to build her business–anything from a produce stand or clothing stall to a mobile phone charging station or beauty shop. Starting her own business helps a woman generate an income and gives her the flexibility to raise her family, while also providing her with a sense of control over her own resources. In addition to the personal benefits, when women participate in the formal economy, the overall community economy grows as well, making it a real win-win.
We all know it’s difficult to bring about change, especially when it’s something as immense as ending global poverty and creating gender equality. But this is where we start; economic empowerment gives women a voice and the resources to control their own lives and, inevitably, their own futures. This solution must be made a priority not only by Opportunity International but also by companies and NGOs operating around the world.
Earlier this month, I took my first official trip with Opportunity and visited our programs in Ghana. I knew it was going to be an exciting, emotional, and life-changing event, but I had no idea until I met with our staff and clients there, just how thrilling, moving and touching it would be. I was so impressed by the women working the fields, opening shops in the market and raising their children. After a couple of decades working in the private sector, when I spent time in Ghana, I immediately realized the women I met are not looking for something to be given to them; they’re looking for an opportunity to make their lives and the lives of their children better. That’s what we all want–no matter where we are.
I am proud to say that Opportunity International is part of the growing “Half the Sky Movement” to invest in women. After meeting with our female clients in Ghana, now more than ever, I am excited to be a part of this organization as we move into the next chapter; a chapter that will be filled with progress and change as we get closer to breaking the cycle of poverty for women and men around the world.