Giving women financial empowerment is the best way to lift communities out of poverty, according to a debate organised by the charity MicroLoan Foundation. Anne Gulland reports
Writing in the Guardian recently, journalist Hadley Freeman argued that the word “empowerment” has been debased. Far from being a term to describe hard-won feminist rights it is being used to describe any act that a woman does – from taking a naked selfie to spending £300 on a pair of designer shoes. Frequently hijacked by big business and celebrity culture the word has been turned into a kind of catch-all “you go girl” marketing slogan.
Freeman’s argument certainly rang true so it was refreshing to listen to a debate last Wednesday, about female empowerment organised by MicroLoan Foundation, a charity providing business loans and training to women in Malawi and Zambia, where there was no mention of selfies or designer shoes. The question the debate posed was, Women’s empowerment: the single most important factor for ending poverty in Africa?
Sevi Simavi, CEO of the Cherie Blair Foundation, provided the most compelling definition of female empowerment I’ve ever heard. For her, it is: living without fear of male violence; being able to make reproductive choices; being able to take part in the political process; and having financial security.
“If a woman has all that I would define her as an empowered woman,” she said.
Simavi listed a range of examples to show how giving women political, reproductive, sexual and financial empowerment benefits whole communities – not just women.
A report by the Clinton Foundation showed that states in India where women are in political office have better quality drinking water. When a woman has money 90% of that money[i] goes to the family, whereas for men it is just 30 to 40%. And when a woman controls the family budget a child is 20% more likely to survive.[ii]
However, for Myles Wickstead, visiting professor in international relations at King’s College, London, enabling women to be financially independent is not a silver bullet. He invoked the five Ps of the sustainable development goals: peace; people; prosperity; planet and partnership.
“My contention is that we need to address all these issues at once if we are to have real sustainable development. Women’s empowerment is a crucial part of that but it’s not the only part. There’s no single silver bullet to make development progress. We need to do a whole lot of things to make it work,” he said.
Simavi agreed that it was a complex issue. “But women’s empowerment is the closest thing we can get to a silver bullet. We know that empowering women has a multiplying effect. When you empower a woman you benefit their families and communities,” she said.
Poonam Joshi, director of the European office of the Global Fund for Human Rights, argued that female economic empowerment was closely linked to violence against women and the two issues should be tackled together. She cited a study by accountants KPMG, which documented the economic impact of gender-based violence in South Africa[iii]. In 2012-13 gender-based violence cost the country between 28.4billion and 42.4billion rand – equivalent to between 0.9 and 1.3% of GDP.
However, the problem of violence does not have to be an intractable one, said Joshi.
“We have a growing body of evidence that there are interventions that work to stop violence against women,” she said.
“For an organisation like MicroLoan Foundation, the way they provide credit would be conducive to creating a space where they could have conversations about violence,” she said.
It was left to Maya Mehta, a capital markets lawyer at BNP Paribas and founder of BNPP MicroFinance sans Frontières, to raise important questions about empowerment – and to remind us that the “you go girl” model does have its drawbacks. She spoke of a project in Kenya where women set up a rural savings bank. But the woman who collected the money and walked home in the dark with the key to the bank was suddenly made more vulnerable by this empowerment.
“Empowerment requires long-term engagement. How long do you stay with these women along the journey?” she asked. Clearly MicroLoan Foundation understands the importance of long term commitment as it became apparent that they work with women over long periods, building skills and developing their businesses.
Mehta also urged men to get involved in the debate.
“How do we get men to recognise that this is about their sisters, daughters, mothers and wives? We don’t want to fuel resentment and emasculation,” she said.
Joshi agreed that for some men the idea of female empowerment was a “zero sum game.”
“If you gain power, I lose it,” she said.
However, perhaps the best answer to that is a project in Uganda where women were encouraged to talk about power and control and the impact of violence on their lives. Men were included in the programme, with one telling Joshi of its impact on his relationship, “My sex life is great now!”
At the end of the debate Nas Morley, director of fundraising and communications at MicroLoan Foundation, described meeting Selina, one of the women the charity supports, on a recent trip to Malawi. Clearly moved by the experience Morley described how microfinance is more than just about economic empowerment – the charity gives women choices on how to help their family and gives them hope, dignity and status in their communities – empowerment in the broader sense
“We can’t simply ignore the plight of those living in desperate poverty simply because progress might be slow. I came back from Malawi full of hope – all the little things we do will amount to something transformational,” she said.