The Far-Reaching Benefits of Women’s Economic Empowerment

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The Far-Reaching Benefits of Women’s Economic Empowerment

By Aissata Traore 

Nour Haddad’s* family struggled to make ends meet. With the average teacher’s salary in Lebanon around $900 a month, supporting a family of ten on her husband’s income alone was a challenge. Nour wanted to open a flower business to help support her family. But with limited resources, little family support, and a culture that reinforces women’s role as homemakers, she had few options.

Nour’s story is not unique. We know the numbers by now:women grow half of the world’s food, but only own two percent of its land, and their labor force participation rates continue to trail men’s. When they do participate in the economy, they often face discriminatory laws and practices. From needing a man’s permission to open a bank account, to being legally required to obey their husband, women are often playing a game with the cards stacked against them.

Nour was lucky; she turned to a bank that was partnered with IESC’s Lebanon Investment in Microfinance program and received a business loan. Her enterprise quickly grew from one to five stores. Her earnings financed her family’s new home and her daughters’ university studies.

For Nour, starting a business enabled her to assert her independence, support her family, and build her confidence. But not all women have that opportunity. So how can development help women like her find the tools they need to overcome gender inequality’

“A woman is economically empowered when she has both the ability to succeed and advance economically and the power to make economic decisions.” 
– International Center for Research on Women, “Understanding and Measuring Women’s Economic Empowerment” (2011)

The first step is to stop thinking that ‘gender’ equals ‘women.” Gender is about how society defines people’s roles and responsibilities based on sexual differences. What that means is that empowering women goes beyond giving them loans or tools for their farms; it requires tackling the underlying reasons that people lack equal access to resources. This view of gender highlights the significant role that men have to play in advancing equality. Changing societal relationships can’t happen if half the population isn’t on board. That’s why development organizations have a responsibility to examine the status and roles of all genders in our programs.

Recently, IESC conducted a gender analysis for our Mali Finance for Food Security and Women Entrepreneurs Program. We asked men and women about everything from their experiences in business, to which family members make financial decisions. Talking to all genders, and learning about the relationships between them in the home and economy helped us understand what drove differences between their businesses. We learned, for example, that 70 percent of men lived in a home where a wife did most of the domestic work. Though women didn’t feel burdened by chores, their comments revealed that housework is a woman-specific burden that limits their economic potential. By identifying the root causes of gender inequalities in business, we can now implement a program that tackles the causes of these imbalances, and not just the symptoms.

Gender inequalities affect almost all aspects of women’s lives, making it impossible for one organization to tackle them all simultaneously. The pervasiveness of inequality, however, is a blessing in disguise. It means that all development organizations, no matter which sector they work in, can promote gender equality.

This is good news, because we know from experience that empowering women in one domain or sector can advance equality in many others. Increasing women’s financial contributions to the home, for example, increases their voice in household decisions, lessens their vulnerability to domestic violence, and contributes to keeping their children in school longer. It gives them the power to assert their independence and agency in the home and broader community. That is why it is vital that all development organizations examine their programs’ impacts on gender relations, regardless of whether or not their work is woman-focused.

Women who have the tools and freedom to participate in the society and economy on equal terms with men are models for future generations. They reshape gender norms and ideas about what women are capable of. When development organizations do their work right, they can replicate Nour’s story, showing us that gender equality is not just good for women; it’s good for all of us.

*Name changed to protect privacy

This blog was written as part of IESC’s International Women’s Day 2016 campaign. To view all posts related to this campaign, click here

In Lebanon, A Coastal Bakery Flourishes

Naji in his bakery, which he has expanded with microfinance loan from IESC USAID
Naji expanded his bakery business with a loan through the Lebanon Investment in Microfinance Program.

Ever since Naji returned from Brazil to settle in Jbeil, Mount Lebanon, he has worked to share his passion for baking with the local community. Naji wanted to expand his bakery and cater to the summer tourists who flock to Jbeil for its coastal beauty. But in order to expand, he needed capital.

After learning about the Association d’Entraide Professionnelle (AEP), a microfinance institution supported by the Lebanon Investment in Microfinance Program, Naji applied for a loan and received $4,000. Naji used the loan to purchase an ice cream machine that would appeal to summer tourists and local residents. He also purchased a delivery car, which helped him to expand the reach of his business opportunities.

Due to these enhancements, Naji’s monthly net income increased by 20 percent and the bakery’s popularity flourished. Naji is very proud of his achievements. ‘The loan made my life much easier and came at the right time and occasion,’ he said.

In 2009, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) started the Lebanon Investment in Microfinance Program, implemented by the International Executive Service Corps through the Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance. The LIM program is designed to increase access to finance in rural areas of Lebanon by supporting microfinance organizations.

View this success story in PDF format

Busy with Bees in Lebanon

Leyla probably doesn’t think of herself as being in “agribusiness,” but that’s the way she spends most of her working and waking hours.  She’s the major breadwinner in her family of five in a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, and keeps her family’s  income stream flowing by growing olives and other crops as well as beekeeping.

Beehives in Leyla’s Field

Recently, she took a big step forward by applying for and getting a loan from a microfinance institution Al Majmoua.  Al Majmoua is a part of the USAID-funded “Lebanon Investment in Microfinance” program implemented by IESC and VEGA (Volunteers for Economic Growth).

Leyla’s loan was triggered by a need to counter the loss of a large number of bees due to changing weather conditions.  As she weighed her options and looked ahead, she worked out a loan package that included the purchase of a delivery truck, upgraded her ability to cultivate fruit trees, restored her bee population and honey production, and helped bolster her olive oil business.  Her $5,000 loan is putting her farm on a firmer financial footing and has already increased her family’s monthly income from $500 to $700.

Since its start-up in 2009, the Lebanon Investment in Microfinance (LIM) program has provided 11,024 loans to small businesses in Lebanon.

*Personal names have been altered to protect the privacy of our partners