In The Dispossessed, a non-fiction book that documents poverty in Great-Britain in the early 1990s, Northern Irish novelist Robert McLiam Wilson dedicates some of his reflections to the fate of women in poverty. Throughout his investigations in London, Belfast and Glasgow, among the poorest populations suffering the full brunt of Thatcherian liberalism, Wilson becomes convinced that women face a double penalty. They suffer from the uncertainty and precariousness of their situation, just like the rest of their families; they work hard to try and make a living, just like the rest of their families; but they are also in charge of managing the household budget, keeping expenses low and making a home for everyone. And that, they do on their own. They also have very little time to rest and get away from their everyday lives, in contrast with their husbands who keep some of their pay to go out and drink with their friends. Wilson witnessed this everywhere he went: the double penalty endured by women in poverty.
He saw these things in a developed country, at the dawn of the 1990s. Twenty years later, the same observation can be made everywhere in the world, everywhere there is poverty. But precisely because of that, because of the responsibility they bear among their families and communities, women also have a crucial role to play on the road out of misery. This is why many social businesses and social programmes put a good part of their efforts into what is called “women’s empowerment”: giving these women the tools and abilities to make a better living for themselves and the people around them, turning the double penalty into an opportunity for development.
Poor among the poor
The situation of women in the underprivileged world nags. They account for 70% of the planet’s poor. They accomplish two thirds of the world’s working hours, according to the United Nations Millennium Campaign, but only earn 10% of the world’s income and own less than 1% of the world’s properties. They also account for two thirds of illiterate adults. In many countries, women see their human and civil rights completely denied. In some, they do not even exist in the eyes of the law outside of the authority of a father, a brother or a husband. Yet, it would be in these countries’ best interests to provide better living condition for their female citizens. As Economy Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen explains,
countries that have expanded opportunities for women and girls in education and work in recent decades have largely achieved greater prosperity and moderated population growth while limiting child mortality and achieving social progress for all.
This explains why many organisations work to empower women: the United Nations Development Programme, for instance, “focuses on gender equality and women’s empowerment not only as human rights, but also because they are a pathway to achieving the Millennium Development Goals and sustainable development.” As UNDP Associate Administrator Rebeca Grynspan states: “Women are central actors making the case for the sustainable development triple-win strategy” – that is to say economic growth, social development and environmental sustainability. So then, what should be done?
A little field experience is always a good way to assess what is doable, successful and replicable. All three of Danone’s funds – Ecosystem, livelihoods and danone.communities – support projects, all over the world, that specifically target women. In February 2012, Ecosystem dedicated a newsletter to the subject and detailed the main strategies that can be used to empower women. First, there is training: learning a new job, acquiring new knowledge is the first step towards independence. Many micro-distribution programmes are thus developed primarily with women, such as Jita or Grameen Danone, two danone.communities projects in Bangladesh that train women to be local, door-to-door salespeople. In Mexico, the Ecosystem project Semilla does exactly the same thing. Then, there is offering them leadership positions in management and decision-making processes, to make sure that, through parity, women control their own destinies. Finally, there is providing them with an income and increased opportunities: women then become financially independent from their husbands, have more money to attend to everyday necessities (mainly food and energy), and have more time to dedicate to their families and themselves. Their children can go to school and benefit from the education their mothers were deprived of. This approach is fundamental to the Ciater project, in Indonesia, which won the 2012 Dan Award for social innovation. It helps milk producers develop their activity, and empowers their wives “with entrepreneurship training and education that enables them to manufacture milk-based products and set up a business to sell them.”
The benefits are many, on both social and economic levels: women feel prouder, more powerful, they find a new role in the family, become financially independent and adopt entrepreneurial behaviours. And since they are very influential within their communities, they start people around them on the path to development: awareness on health and nutrition issues and general skills skyrocket in communities were the women have been trained and educated. Also, activities they undertake can provide a real change in the everyday life of hundreds, as in the Barefoot College project (this example is not one of the Danone funds’ projects): it started in India and trains women to become solar-power engineers… through sign language. No written material is needed, no words either: the method can be used with illiterate women from all over the world, and they do not even need to speak the same language to learn and work together. In their home villages, they are then able to set up solar panels and small power plants that provide energy for the whole community.
As women’s capabilities are enhanced, they see themselves as taking part in a larger process of transformation, and thus act as social ambassadors to foster and to ensure that development benefits their communities
writes Lourdes Arizpe, Chair of the Board of the UN Research Institute for Social Development in the Ecosystem newsletter. This is the whole idea of women’s empowerment, and a crucial lever for development. Educated and independent women have better control of their health and that of their children: they play a bigger part in demographic transition. Educating girls and women and ensuring that they can provide for themselves is the first, indispensable step in guaranteeing equality all over the world, but also in nourishing the hope of a way out of poverty for millions of people.