For a sustainable future!

“I have always maintained that no nation can ever be worthy of its existence that cannot take its women along with the men. No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men”Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, speech at Islamia College for Women, March 25, 1940.

Women empowerment has become a significant subject of discussion globally in recent years and is one of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by

United Nations to eradicate poverty, hunger and disease by the year 2015. Unfortunately, the process of empowering women is painfully slow owing to various reasons, including deeply-rooted societal prejudices in many countries which hinder women’s progress. Isn’t it ironic that women work for two-thirds of the world’s working hours and yet their total earning is only 10 per cent of the world’s income. Resultantly women are far poorer than men. As reported by United Nations Entity for Gender Equality & Women Empowerment (UNIFEM), women constitute 70 per cent of the 1.3 billion people who live in absolute poverty in the world.

To counter this huge imbalance, women need equal access and control to financial resources, access to education, decision-making power, equal employment opportunities, share in political power, recognition and acceptance of women as an important player in the process of development. These are the core components for achieving key development objectives including poverty alleviation and economic growth. But, gender inequality in all these sectors has placed women at a drawback in comparison to men, deteriorating their potential to participate in and benefit from the comprehensive development procedures. Considerable progress has been noticed in recent years in literacy rate and share in paid work; however, deeply entrenched discriminatory customs have kept women away from the decision-making platforms, further resulting in constant gender disparity and instability. Investment in women’s empowerment is direly needed to improve economic, social and political advancement specifically in the context of sustainable development. The difference this can make is obvious when we examine the overall growth and improvement in quality of life achieved by countries which have empowered their women to become equal members of the society with men.

According to the Gender Diversity Benchmark for Asia 2011 Report, a comparison of percentage of women representation in total workforce shows that China has the highest percentage of women represented in the total workforce (50%), followed by Malaysia (47%), Hong Kong (45%) and Singapore (43%). Considering the overall economic growth of these Asian countries, the total percentage of women in workforce is a clear indication that empowering women not only results in attainment of improved living but also enables countries to achieve their economic targets and grow further.

Empowerment is a combination of improvement in literacy level, employment opportunities and health, and greater involvement in decision-making. All this leads to financial independence of women which facilitates them to achieve respect in the society and gives them the confidence to work harder and progress further. Results of a study show that women spend more of their income on their households; therefore, increasing their income automatically results in higher well-being of the whole family. On an average, 55 per cent of women’s increased income is used to procure household items, 18 per cent is spent on education and only 15 per cent goes for buying garments, contrary to popular belief that women tend to spend most of their income on themselves.

A similar report by the World Bank states that women tend to reinvest in the household at rates of 90 per cent of their earned income. So, giving women access to savings and credit can improve family health, nutrition, and education, thus contributing to the overall development. Women also have higher punctual loan repayment rates – the reason being that many microfinance institutions view them as more creditworthy clients.

Microfinance emerged in the market when the formal financial system failed to reach the poor communities and today, the service is recognised as a strong medium for empowering women especially, as it allows women to make their own choices to invest and to achieve their own set of goals. There are numerous Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) and NGOs providing microfinance to the needy all over the world, with a primary focus being service delivery to women. Many microfinance organisations have strategic alliances with corporate sector where companies provide funding for the loans and MFIs and NGOs execute microfinance projects.

In developing countries like Pakistan, empowering women through microfinance is an ideal strategy to promote gender equality for achieving development targets for the sustainable future of the country. A local example of such organisations that are operating to promote women empowerment through microfinance is Kashf Foundation. The foundation has been working in Pakistan since 1996 with a mission to alleviate poverty by providing quality and cost-effective microfinance services to low-income households, especially women, in order to enhance their economic role and decision-making capacity.  It is the result of the efforts of this foundation amongst others that around 57 per cent of the active borrowers of microcredit today in Pakistan are women.

For the corporate sector too, it is important to support women empowerment as a way of holistically strengthening society. Thus, cooperation between a socially responsible company and a microfinance institution has the potential of making a substantial positive socio-economic impact. An excellent recent example of such collaboration is the provision to Kashf Foundation of Rs 8.6 million grant by The Coca-Cola Foundation specifically to provide microcredit to women and encourage entrepreneurship. Some 350 female entrepreneurs will directly benefit from this corporate assistance. Effectively this means that at least 350 families will cross the poverty threshold.

The grant will be available not only for the long-term clients of the foundation but also for those women who are in their first loan cycle. Ranging between US$ 170-600, depending on the unique needs of each client’s business, the loans are given on an annual basis, to be fully repaid within a year in 12 monthly instalments. Before loan disbursements, the staff at the Kashf Foundation ensures the feasibility of business of each potential client and all clients are given basic training in financial literacy to be able to make informed financial decisions.

Such corporate intervention for women empowerment is indeed to be lauded. In this case, Coca-Cola has further built on other similar initiatives it has regularly been undertaking for promoting gender equality through different CSR programmes. One such initiative is collaboration with Pakistan Red Crescent Society for rehabilitation of flood victims. The project, in the ongoing second phase this year, introduced innovative and cost-effective practices to two quite different women empowerment activities aimed at livelihood generation – traditional honey production and sewing practice for the women of the target area, Swat. The project ensures revenue generation for women trained in sewing, stitching, tailoring and in packaging honey as well as those who are the bee-keepers. This project’s aim is to advance socio-economic development providing the opportunity to the beneficiaries to continue to earn livelihood even when the financial support to the project eventually comes to an end.

Government and corporate sector should consider carrying out strategic alliances with MFIs for better economic growth; as such potential partnerships are a guaranteed step towards poverty alleviation and female empowerment. Thus, further investment in empowering women should be prioritised to reduce disparity as this will ultimately lead to the sustainable socio-economic development of the country.

This article was first published in The News (You Magazine) on January 03, 2012

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