Manuel Bueno

What is the BoP Sector Doing to Improve Gender Equality?

gender and povertyAlthough gender equality is a desirable aim in itself, there are also underlying economic reasons for female empowerment. In the words of the 2007 Global Monitoring Report (partially devoted to gender issues) from the World Bank: “Improving gender equality reduces poverty and stimulates growth directly through women’s greater labor force participation, productivity, and earnings, as well as indirectly through beneficial effects on child well-being.”

Plainly speaking, improving the status of women has two effects. On the one hand there is a short term economic effect, since women seem to be better investors and bookkeepers than men–and there are many studies out there to prove it.? Some examples of the many around are the following:

(For a good recent summary of empirical analyses of the role of gender equality and women’s empowerment in reducing poverty and stimulating growth see “Gender equality, poverty and economic growth“, by Morrison, Raju, and Sinha. World Bank, 2007)

Additionally, when women have a greater economic say, a bigger portion of the household budget will tend on average to be invested in children’s well-being. Again, there is abundant empirical evidence supporting that increased female control over resources leads to better child development outcomes, including educational attainment and nutrition and thus reduced child mortality. For example:

  • It is estimated that the mothers? income has 20 times the marginal impact on child survival as the fathers? income.
  • Furthermore, female income’s effect on nutrition was found to be between four and eight times as large as male income’s effect (for more details of women’s effects on children wellbeing, check out the ?Engendering Development – Through Gender Equality in Rights, Resources, and Voice? by the World Bank, 2001)

Last, but not least, when women have greater economic power they have greater control of the decisions that affect their wellbeing. This results in less domestic violence (which includes sexual abuse), lower rates of AIDS/HIV infection and better access to sexual and reproductive health services (it is estimated that one woman per minute dies from complications of pregnancy, child birth or abortion).

In this line, last October the World Bank launched a new initiative that really caught my attention: ?The Adolescent Girls Initiative?. Adolescence can be quite a tricky time for the female population in emerging countries. They lie at the intersection of childhood and adulthood. By helping these young women to stay in school, and resisting early pregnancy and marriage, the program aims to break the cycle of poverty that condemns many of them to a future of economic irrelevance. An additional objective of the program is to stimulate the inclusion of women in the job sector.

The inclusion of women in the formal economy, thus allowing them to increase their incomes, seems to be an easy way of generating sustainable development, not only via business enterprises, but also through inter-generational development. Working mothers raise healthy and well-educated children: a double win-win, apparently. Thus, this looks like an ideal opportunity for sustainable business models in emerging countries.

What has the BoP business community done so far to improve the status of women in emerging countries so far? Unfortunately, not much. Many microfinance organizations loan exclusively to women (either individually or in groups) both as a way of reducing the risk of default (since women are more reliable debtors) and as a way of generating that social wealth that belongs to their mission. Outside the financial services sector, it seems that the BoP business community still has to wake up to the formidable opportunity that empowering women represent, such as through specially targeted educational programs (see article 1 and article 2) or training them to offer preventative health care to their own communities.

I would like to ask our readers here, do you know of any business model targeted to BoP women? What opportunities for businesses do you perceive in this arena? What additional risks may there be in targeting BoP women as collaborators, employees or customers of a particular product or service?