By Angelia Miranda
Women carry so much of the world’s burdens. Across the globe, women and girls overwhelmingly shoulder the burden of unpaid and labor-intensive household duties. For those who work in factories and on farms, the work in the home doesn’t go away—the women simply wake up earlier. As development organizations and agencies increasingly identify women’s economic freedom as the key not only to empowering women but also unlocking benefits that uplift whole communities, it seems that women now also shoulder the burden of saving the world.
Empowering women economically and realizing its subsequent benefits for communities is easy in theory, but much harder to implement. On February 7th, Global Washington hosted an all-female-identifying panel to share their insights and expertise on using women’s economic empowerment to catalyze their leadership and improve rights for all. This panel was moderated by Teresa Guillien, Managing Program Director, Resource Media. Speakers included Anna Banks, Chief Marketing Officer, Fair Trade USA; Mara Bolis, Associate Director of Women’s Economic Empowerment, Oxfam America; and Dar Vanderbeck, Chief Innovation Officer, CARE.
In the Hands of Women
When women are given the agency to decide how dollars are spent, they spend them in ways that benefit not only themselves but also their families and communities. However, the first hurdle is often ensuring that the money reaches women in the first place.
“Even if women do the majority of the work harvesting the crops,” said Anna Banks, “when the men are the ones taking the crops to be sold, the money goes directly into their hands and doesn’t always make it back to the family.” Fair Trade USA overcomes this hurdle by incentivizing gender equity in their programs. In order for communities to participate, they have to set up a Fair Trade Committee that decides how the income goes back to the workforce. If 50% of the workforce is women, then 50% of the leadership committee must also be women.
When women have designated leadership roles and decision-making authority in how money is spent, the impact is clear. Anecdotal evidence from Fair Trade USA showed that in India, women put their extra income towards building and sustaining a daycare where their children would be safe, educated, and fed while the women worked. In Ecuador, women bought washing machines to spend their weekends with family, rather than at a faraway river washing clothes.
Mara Bolis brought stories of the power in liberating a woman’s voice through financial stability and social support.
Five years ago, she met a Guatemalan participant in a women’s savings group. The group, part of the Oxfam program Saving for Change, provides women with training to manage their savings on their own terms and conditions. She told Bolis that before joining the group, she had never said her own name aloud because there was no need. After a few years of being part of the women’s savings group, the other women gave her a nickname: The Tiger. “It still gives me shivers,” Bolis said.
Unlocking Their Sphere of Influence
In Côte d’Ivoire, where land ownership is structured around men, a woman was given a portion of land to farm by her husband. She became a coffee farmer and started a virtuous cycle that transformed her economic situation and empowered her to take on leadership roles in her community.
With this example, Dar Vanderbeck pointed out that women’s economic empowerment is just one aspect of larger structural change. Development efforts should be about freeing men to become their whole selves, just as it is about freeing women to become their whole selves.
“It’s important to ground [our work] in a vision of a world where everyone, no matter their gender, race, class, where they were born, or their body, can live a life of dignity,” said Vanderbeck. “We focus on the benefits that women can provide everyone else, and not that it’s just the right thing to do.”
When women own the land themselves, they gain the capacity to claim seats at the tables where decisions are made, serve as leaders in communities and political spaces, and understand that their opinions have value. “Income comes and goes,” said Bolis, “But the internal change brought about by economic and political empowerment is what sustainable development is.”
Putting money into the hands of women is just one part of helping women balance the double lives they lead in the workforce and the home.
Banks and Bolis both emphasized the importance of short-term domestic relief. Before women can participate in politics and lead committees, support for immediate base needs such as childcare and travel is crucial. By addressing this, development agencies and the greater community can help women overcome the barriers that keep them from financial stability and engaging in community leadership roles.
In Support of Women
Women may very well be the key to saving the world, but they don’t have to shoulder the burden alone. A piece of advice that the panel gave to those fighting to improve the conditions for women but who feel blocked by institutional barriers was to “build a network of allies.” Banks urged them to “find the people across the aisle and in privileged spaces who are sympathetic, empathic, and get them to help open the doors.”
Efforts of women’s economic empowerment do not always lead to huge inroads. For those working on the ground to shift cultural norms and historically patriarchal structures, it can seem the like the end is so far out of sight. Banks remarked that she often feels “like an eye-dropper in the ocean of what we’re doing.”
Moderator Teresa Guillien pointed out that even when it comes to the world of women working in development, “we still have a long way to go.” She continued, “We need to work on stuff here at home, while we’re also working on these important issues. We get double the work.”
“But we’re used to it,” Banks replied.
Underlying the stories, pain points, and frustrations of these actors working for women’s economic empowerment was an overwhelming sense that, as Vanderbeck put it, “the unimaginable is ordinary.” In the wave of #MeToo, Time’s Up, the Women’s March, and the record number of women serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, practitioners of social change and justice are coming out of the woodwork to imagine and create a new reality.
“We are all in this together,” Bolis concluded, “And that makes me really optimistic.”