On March 8, we again celebrate International Women’s Day: an annual opportunity to recognize the progress made by women globally and to highlight the many injustices they still face around the world. The United Nations has declared the 2013 International Women’s Day theme to be “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women.” Though ambitious, this is not something that we can afford to continue to neglect and ignore.
Women bear a disproportionate burden of the world’s poverty. Statistics indicate that women are more likely than men to be poor and at risk of hunger because of the systemic discrimination they face in education, health care, employment, and asset control. Poverty also makes them more vulnerable to violence and affords them little power in decision making.
According to UNDP, women perform two-thirds of the world’s working hours, produce half of the world’s food, but earn only 10% of the world’s income and own less than 1% of the world’s property. Click on the image below to see how female participation in the labor force has evolved over time.
Labor Force Rate, Female (1990 – 2011)
Women are regularly paid less than men for the same work, and more women than men are employed in the informal sector where the pay is low and there is no social protection leaving women very vulnerable to exploitation. And, except in areas that microfinance has successfully reached, women suffer persistent discrimination when they apply for credit for business or self-employment.
There are many forms of deeply unjust gender-based violence that need to be confronted and dealt with, including human trafficking, denial of access to family planning services and the neglect of maternal and child health, discriminatory laws on land ownership and inheritance, and traditional gender norms that leave women illiterate and make it difficult for girls to access education.
The form of violence that the Microcredit Summit Campaign has made it our mission to tackle daily since 1997 is extreme poverty, which disproportionately affects the world’s women. According to some calculations, while women make up 50% of the global population, they account for 70% of the world’s one billion poorest people.
Our focus during the first years of the Campaign (1997-2006) was to reach the world’s poorest, and especially the women, with microcredit and other financial and business services on a massive scale. At the time, that in itself was a major revolution against the status quo: MFIs giving loans to women while banks would only give loans to men.
In 1997, only 7.6 million of the world’s poorest had received a microloan; by the end of 2011, that number reached 124.3 million. Of those microfinance clients being reached globally today, almost 83% are women. That is 102.7 million women who have circumvented the discriminatory financial system that still primarily serves men. Read more from this year’s report.
Potential Poorest Clients that are Women (December 31, 1999, to December 31, 2011)
While much remains to be done in terms of ensuring full financial inclusion for the poorest, and especially for women, we can still look back at the past 15 years with a sense of accomplishment in terms of the global scale of the microfinance movement and the number of women that have gained access to financial services.
With scale and maturity, however, new challenges appear. Over the last few years, the Campaign has increasingly shifted to focus on making sure that the ways in which women are being reached are in fact transformative and empowering for them and their families. We have long highlighted interventions at our Summits and in our reports that go beyond microcredit, addressing other needs of very poor people, including health integration services, microinsurance, mobile technologies, client protection, and other cross-sectoral collaboration.
A comprehensive suite of financial and non-financial services are needed if we are to truly break the cycle of poverty and violence against women—and more so for those surviving at the lowest end of the pyramid.
Through conversations with industry leaders focused on gender mainstreaming over the last few years, including Weman and Red Lader, we have also come to realize the importance of the ways in which those services are delivered. As there is a general bias towards men in development programming, gender issues tend to be ignored unless they are specifically addressed.
We must work on bringing a gender lens into the development of all programs aimed at assisting and empowering women, considering women and their needs at every step. For example, if you build a community center, will there be suitable toilets for women? If you hold a meeting, is it at a time of day at which women are able to attend? For every dollar that is spent, how much of it benefits women?
These are all issues to consider in program development if we are to truly keep our promise to end violence against women.
Resources for further reading:
- Women’s Empowerment Mainstreaming and Networking for Gender Justice in Economic Development: www.wemanglobal.org
- UN Women’s Report on “Making the MDGs Work Better for Women” (available in English/French/Spanish). Download.
- UNDP’s Report “A User’s Guide to Measuring Gender-Sensitive Basic Service Delivery” (available in English/French/Spanish). Download.
 “Women are less likely than men to participate in the labor market in most countries”, World Bank, 09/04/2012, http://data.worldbank.org/news/women-less-likely-than-men-to-participate-in-labor-market
 The Campaign defines “poorest” as those individuals (A) living in the bottom 50 percent below the poverty line established by the national government of the country in which they live; or (B) living on less than the equivalent of US $1.25 per day (as calculated using the purchasing power parity, or PPP, exchange rate method)