The question of how to help the poor is the subject of endless debate. But there’s a topic within the debate that should inspire universal agreement: the importance of reducing the toll of poverty among women and girls. In a world where females comprise the majority of the over 1 billion people living in extreme poverty, and 1 in 3 American women are either poor or living on the brink, it’s clear that something must be done. Here are three reasons why this issue should be as big a priority for men as it is for women.
- A $17 trillion stimulus: According to a 2012 global report, women face higher unemployment rates and more precarious work situations than men. And an estimated half of the world’s employed women work in informal, unregulated jobs. This number swells to 80% in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. It’s therefore not surprising that women make up about 60% of the world’s working poor, despite their lower rates of participation in the labor force. What’s more, even when women have a formal job, they earn 10% to 30% less than men, on average. A recent ActionAid report found that this gap in wages and employment opportunity amounts to a staggering USD $17 trillion globally, and closing both gaps could boost women’s income by up to 76%. In the developing world alone, same pay and job opportunities as men would represent USD $9 trillion in additional income. To put that in perspective, it’s more than the combined GDP of Britain, France and Germany, and far more than the total amount of development aid currently provided to lower-income countries (around USD $ 134.8 billion). Correcting even a small portion of this imbalance could have a major impact on developing economies.
- Helping women impacts those around them – and the larger economy: Compared with men, women devote two to 10 times the amount of time to caring for children, the elderly and the sick. Women also invest on their families, a far higher percentage than that invested by men. This gives them a unique role in the health and future prospects of families and entire communities, and makes anti-poverty interventions that target women especially effective. And since women’s work as caregivers nurtures and sustains the human capabilities of others, they help supplement (or replace) the support provided by public social programs, while driving long-term economic growth. To take just one example, giving poor women and girls greater access to education can make their children 50% more likely to survive past age five.
- It’s not as hard as it sounds: Achieving gender equality in income alone sounds like a heavy lift – let alone achieving it in legal rights, educational opportunities, political representation and other areas. But while cultural resistance, economic realities and the demands of caring for a family may prevent complete parity for the foreseeable future, even modest progress on a few fronts could have a major impact. For instance, in regions like Africa where women are heavily involved in agriculture, giving them equal access to productive resources would increase countries’ food output by up to 4% – enough to pull 100-150 million people out of hunger. Providing even some schooling to girls can by half. And increasing the number of girls in school by just 10% boosts a country’s GDP by an average of 3%.
In recognition of these payoffs, global development organizations are addressing gender inequality, and making exciting progress. But there’s one area in the fight against inequality that has generated surprising momentum: the effort to spread financial inclusion to women.
Just 37% of women in developing economies have access to a bank account, limiting their economic opportunity and increasing the risks of operating entirely in cash. In response, many financial inclusion efforts have adopted a particular emphasis on women. The most notable of these is microfinance, which has grown to serve over 90 million borrowers, over 70% of whom are women. Advocates of the approach point out its potential to increase women’s influence over household expenditures and assets, reduce their vulnerability to unexpected expenses, and allow them to pursue income-generating activities. Though the overall social impact of microcredit is disputed, it’s clear that the efforts to deliver small loans to poor women have, at a minimum, brought access to formal finance to millions who were previously excluded.
But increasingly, another financial tool has claimed the attention of the global development world: mobile finance. As the revolution in mobile connectivity has brought financial access to millions of previously excluded people, everyone from Bill Gates to Barack Obama have recognized its potential for poverty alleviation. However, there’s a growing awareness that, in contrast to microfinance, women may be in danger of being left out. Pointedly, although 246 mobile money services have emerged in 88 countries, only 32% of the providers in a recent survey were aware of the percentage of their users who were women. And in many places, women have less mobile access. For instance, there are roughly 300 million fewer female mobile subscribers than men worldwide, and women in developing countries are 21% less likely to own a mobile phone than their male counterparts.
Providing women with mobile financial access has a number of demonstrated benefits – from greater privacy and control in household expenditures, to greater economic empowerment in rural areas. For the mobile finance revolution to fulfill its potential and truly make a dent in global poverty, it will have to increase its focus on women – a goal that people of any gender should gladly get behind.