Financial empowerment is the way forward

Investing in the economic and financial empowerment of women globally is the clearest strategy to reach equality, writes World Vision Australia CEO Tim Costello.

Not long after I started at World Vision I visited a village in a remote part of northern Pakistan where we had undertaken a water project. I was accompanied by our then head of international programs, an Australian woman who for several years earlier had lived near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Conny Lennenberg.

In line with local custom, I met with the men while Conny met with the women. When we got together afterwards to compare notes, I happily shared how positive and enthusiastic the villagers were about our work and how beneficial the new well had proved.

Conny wearily rolled her eyes at me: Tim, those men wouldn't know where the well is, let alone whether it's good or not.

She went on to relate the women's feedback. The well was in the wrong site, too far away and involved getting across some difficult terrain. The maintenance equipment was wrong and the well was insufficiently protected from animals and the elements.

In that society, water is women's work, and if you really want to understand what's happening you have to start by listening to the women.

If you're not looking through a gender lens, I was reminded, then you're not seeing reality.

Tim Costello

Of course I should have known better from the outset but it's easy to believe the first thing you hear. It is all too easy to see success and progress on the surface while failing to notice that not everyone is sharing the benefits. It is easy to neglect how gender operates as a complex of social processes that systematically disadvantage girls and women.

These processes vary across societies but everywhere they operate through political, cultural and economic dimensions, and often they are deeply entrenched.

Addressing gender inequity is at the heart of human development, and few positive changes prove sustainable unless the gender dimension is taken into account.

As in developed countries, gender issues at the community level intersect with those in the public square. The absence of women in political representation and in business leadership reinforces disadvantage and disempowerment at the local and household level. We should be very concerned that our own region, the Asia-Pacific, has some of the lowest levels of women in Parliament of anywhere in the world.

Many development interventions have had proven positive impact, ranging from programs aimed at stopping family violence to those aimed at enhancing women's economic position.

Investment in girls' education is critical. In country after country it has been shown that women who complete more education do better across most indicators of wellbeing. Educated women usually marry later and exercise more choice in reproduction; they tend to have fewer children, and to space their children. They are more likely to access modern healthcare, they enjoy better nutrition, and they are more likely to seek education for their own children.

But if education provides the foundation for improved life outcomes for women, economic and financial empowerment are equally critical.

Microfinance has probably received more publicity than almost any form of development intervention. Microfinance institutions make small loans that enable poor people, mostly women, to start or expand business ventures that improve their incomes and economic security.

While microfinance has achieved some impressive results it is not a magic bullet, and many other innovative programs are being developed to improve economic outcomes. These include value chain analysis to identify ways to maximise producer returns, identifying ways to incorporate value-adds to farm products, and better market research.

Savings clubs and business mentoring have also proven highly beneficial in helping women develop the skills and confidence to pursue economic opportunities.

Development assistance is often misrepresented as handouts rather than a hand up, but the best development programs are clearly focused on lifting people's capacity for enterprise and self-sufficiency. It is very much about people being empowered to take control of their own decisions and destinies.

Economic and financial empowerment for women is the most effective tool that exists for human development and overcoming the distorting and debilitating effects of poverty.

When we invest in education for girls and empowerment of women we are making the best possible investment for a better future.


Originally produced by Guardian Australia Brand Partnerships to a brief agreed with and paid for by ANZ.