Wanna save the world? Empower women

There’s a factor in economics — when assessing the economic impact of an intervention or event — called the multiplier. The concept is a pretty straightforward one, even if there are a thousand different ways to quantify it in different contexts: The effect of a cash injection or rates change, for example, is not only equal to the money put directly into a system, but also the additional spending, the ripple effect, it causes. A simple example is an event, like an arts festival, that brings more money directly into a town, and that additional income within the town stimulates further spending.

As it turns out, women are a big multiplier. Research has shown, when we economically empower women, they spread the wealth (and other benefits) around to their children, their families, their neighbours and wider communities.

A 2010 study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that women and girls with their own income reinvest an average of 90% of it into their families and communities. Men, on the other hand, average around 30% to 40% reinvestment. The reasons behind this are varied, but it seems women are generally more community-minded, and as primary caregivers more incentivised to invest in the next generation.

Winnie Maluleke

Winnie Maluleke (pictured above) is a one such woman. This Pretoria-based entrepreneur left a salaried job to start her own up-cycling business called Voilà — turning old t-shirts and material cut-offs into accessories and other garments. From the outset of establishing her small business, her desire to give back was built into her strategy. Every item sold includes a portion of the price earmarked for good: from funding reusable pads to a girls education fund. “I want girls to have self-respect and a sense of their own beauty and potential,” she tells me.

Both of Winnie’s parents were teachers, and she grew up with an understanding of the power of education and the belief that she could achieve what she put her mind to, but she knows that many girls don’t have the same backing in their lives. Her mission is to provide this for her own children and the girls she reaches through her business’s charitable endeavours.

Gender inequality is a problem for everyone
It goes without saying that women’s empowerment is fundamentally good for women, but feminism-led policy work isn’t about the upliftment of women at the cost of men; it is about equality and the general good.

When we educate women, their children live longer, better lives. According to CARE, children born to an educated mother are 50% more likely to live past the age of 5, and twice as likely to go to school. Women earn 10% to 20% higher for each year of schooling completed, meaning that some countries miss out on over $1-billion PER YEAR by failing to educate girls to the same level as boys.

Why are girls falling out of the schooling system? Because girls have up to six times the domestic workloads compared their brothers. According to UN Women, “In sub-Saharan Africa, in households without piped water, women and girls carry 71% of the water collection burden.” And the unfair distribution of labour is literally killing us: according to the World Health Organisation, “over 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels” — that’s more people killed by cooking smoke than by malaria and HIV/Aids. The vast majority are women and children.

And when the world’s poorest women aren’t prepping food and carrying water, the world shuns them for a fact of biology outside of their control: Girls throughout the developing world miss up to a week of school every month because they don’t have access to sanitary ware — yes, basic pads and tampons.

Many governments provide free condoms in public bathrooms and schools to fight the HIV/Aids pandemic, but as far as I can tell, there is no single government in the world that provides or subsidises sanitary ware for girls on a national scale. There have been government–funded interventions (and corporate-backed donations), but most are short-lived or patchy in distribution. There is a lot of talk about reducing the myths and stigma surrounding HIV transmission (a necessary and important move to fight the spread of this disease), but where are the same efforts to tackle the shame and indignity associated with something as basic and integral to life as menstruation?

Let me spell it out for you: Half the world bleeds once a month but we can’t bring ourselves to talk about it (to deal with its effects, like reduced school attendance) in our schools, offices, parliament and other public spaces, because some think it is “a bit icky”*! The mind boggles!

The solution is right in front of us
Companies with more women in leadership outperform “non-diverse firms” (McKinsey 2010). Countries with better gender equality have happier populations (World Economic Forum 2010; Happy Planet Index 2011.

This is why women’s empowerment is one of the 17 proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These SDGs were one of the main outcomes of the Rio+20 Conference in 2012, which build upon and replace the Millennium Development Goals for the post-2015 development agenda. In late September, the UN will host a summit, convened as a high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly, to formally adopt the SDGs.

For more information, visit the UN’s Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform

To get involved directly in the empowerment of women and girls, GirlEffect.org is a great resource. They also offer advice on how we can support the cause as teachers, policymakers, donors and citizens (see Question 5 in their FAQs).


*Intentional understatement. I appreciate there are systemic cultural taboos at play here, but we have power to change the dialogue around this.

The writer does not work for any of the organisations mentioned above.

Pic: Jennifer Bruce/AFP