As a kid, I remember seeing the Virginia Slims commercials targeting women with the slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” on the television of our home in rural Georgia. It was 1968, a time when cigarettes could still be pitched on TV and the women’s movement was in full swing on the way to passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972. Forty years ago, only 1 in 3 American workers was a woman; today, it’s 1 in 2. In many ways, American women have come a long way. If only this were true in the rest of the world.
According to the United Nations, more than 2.8 billion people, close to half the world’s population, live on less than the equivalent of $2 a day. Women with children constitute the majority of the poor in many countries. In addition to struggling for basic necessities such as food and shelter, these women are more vulnerable to forced labor and violence. To improve lives and strengthen families, we need to create better economic opportunities for women.
It’s not just a moral imperative to promote equal opportunity, it’s a smart business decision. Closing the gender gap can increase a developing country’s GDP by up to 16 percent, according to the 2012 Global Gender Gap report by the World Economic Forum. That means more jobs, more spending and a healthier economy.
In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, said: “The single greatest point of untapped leverage in the world today is a woman who could be an entrepreneur.”
Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen communities increasingly leverage this untapped resource. The number of female entrepreneurs holding a job has increased by more than 500 million. Women are also establishing businesses at a “higher rate than men in many emerging economies,” according to a 2013 development report by Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Yet despite this progress, women continue to face barriers to entering the formal economy. The greatest challenge facing women in places like Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo is not lack of knowledge or skills, but a lack of access to banking and training. Her ability to start a business, support her family and contribute to the local economy hinges on her access to financial services.
That’s why we find it so critical to focus an enormous amount of attention and resources on women. In fact, 91 percent of our clients are women who receive an average loan of $178 to start or expand a small business. They are then given financial literacy and leadership training and support along the way. These loans are not handouts, but repaid and then recycled into more loans. It’s a sustainable model that works.
Since 1971, we at Opportunity International have provided more than 21 million loans valued at $6 billion along with other financial services and business training to help individuals break the cycle of poverty. Access to financial opportunities transforms their lives and strengthens their families and communities. Today, the organization supports nearly 5 million people in 22 countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe.
I recently returned from Rwanda to meet with clients and see our programs in action on the ground. Seeing the faces and hearing the voices of the women and children we are helping is always very moving and uplifting—like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Our clients have the same hopes and dreams for their families as you and I. Their positive attitude and determination to work hard to improve their lives—often in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges—is the best evidence anywhere of the true power of the human spirit.
The spark to ignite that spirit is often as simple as a small loan and, perhaps even more important, it’s someone to actually say “Yes” and believe in them. This is particularly true for women who have never had access to financial services or training in developing nations and cultures that have always favored men.
On this International Women’s Day, please invest in opportunity and join us as we work to transform lives, strengthen families and improve communities. For most women around the world, there’s still a long, long way to go.