“We’re the first generation of people who do really know what the cure for poverty is. It eluded people for a long, long time. The cure for poverty has a name, in fact. It’s called the empowerment of women.” – Christopher Hitchens
For better or for worse, our planet has no government. Each country is free to decide how much effort to put into eliminating poverty and eliminating gender inequality. Causes of poverty can differ from country to country, but empowering women and girls is one cause that transcends borders, impacting all nations. In rich and poor countries alike, a key to poverty alleviation is in convincing people that they will benefit from empowering women.
70% of the world’s poorest people are women. In many countries in Africa, Asia, and South America, a majority of the population lives in poverty, unable to meet basic needs for food and shelter. As unbelievable as it might seem, one in three people in the world today survives on less than $2 a day. In the United States, 1.5 million households live on $2 dollars a day and 70% are women. Some people find themselves in such desperate straits, they’re driven to donate plasma as much as three times a week.
Contrary to some beliefs, the existence of poor countries and poor populations is not an economic benefit to anyone. When billions of people are not able to reach their potential, we see slow growth. Monopolies are able to drive up prices without improving services while the majority of the labor force (i.e. a country’s possibilities for innovation) is stuck in poverty, working in traditional agriculture or the informal sector.
Informal employment is more common for women than for men. The low pay and lack of legal protections makes women vulnerable and open to exploitation. As many as three million women die each year because of gender-based violence, and four million girls and women are sold into commercial sex trafficking annually. One woman in five is a victim of rape or attempted rape during her lifetime. Gender-based violence takes more of a toll on women’s health than traffic accidents and malaria combined.
What are ways we can help empower women and alleviate world poverty?
1. Increase the supply of accessible, affordable healthcare information and services for women.
From providing gender-specific emergency care kits to women affected by conflict and natural disaster to helping women obtain positions of influence in their communities, Oxfam addresses a range of issues with women’s rights at the heart of everything they do.
2. Improve supplies of clean water, to reduce time spent gathering (often foul) water and reduce illness caused by foul water supplies.
Population Services International’s WASH program (water, sanitation, and hygiene), brings clean water supplies to families in 30 countries across Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. Read more about the surprising impact of clean water for girls.
3. Support top charities that are educating and empowering women and girls.
Living Goods directly empowers women to set up and run their own micro-franchises. Women sell contraception, malaria nets, medicines, and hygiene products—and keep 15 percent of the profits for themselves. These women learn how to run a business and bring vital medical and health supplies to their communities.
Photo by BigBrotherMouse – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
4. Help improve opportunities and incentives for young women to have children only when they can assure their well-being.
By 2020, Population Services International projects that 120 million women and girls will have gained access to contraception through their family planning services.
5. Improve farmers’ training and equipment to facilitate natural resource management, help increase crop yields and conserve the environment.
One Acre Fund helps women farmers boost their farming productivity.
There is no lack of evidence that the empowerment of women is effective in bringing countries out of poverty. Currently women are too often not able to reach their potential in critical growth-driving careers as engineers, doctors, innovators, scientists, and entrepreneurs. The more people we educate and empower, the more likely we will find the next Einstein or Borlaug. The person who could find the cure for your son/daughter/father/mother’s disease may be a girl in Nigeria, forbidden to get an education.
Diversity brings different perspectives, which is invaluable in problem-solving. Diversity diminishes blind spots in decision-making and breaks down institutional bias. When there is any portion of a population that is not empowered because of an attribute such as gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other traits, they are not able to contribute fully to the socio-economic growth of their country or the planet. When these groups are empowered, we will see a flourishing of creative solutions and global innovation.