A researcher working for CARE International sent me an expert survey. The questions began, “What is your definition of women’s economic empowerment?” I thought long and hard. I finally answered:
An economically empowered woman is one who can leave home if she has to.
Many people probably answered that economic empowerment is about being able to educate children, feed families, or invest in communities–all those things we hope women will do with their money once they have it. They will do those things, I am sure. However, the question of empowerment should look first to what economic engagement does for the woman herself: does it help her get an education or realize a dream?
These aspirational things are important. But at the most basic level, economic empowerment is about having personal sovereignty. It means not having to stay where you are unsafe or treated cruelly because you don’t have the means to take care of yourself.
You can sign the world-changing petition in this video by clicking through here.
We are learning that a primary condition of economic empowerment–and therefore personal sovereignty–is being able to have and to control your own money. These are definitely two separate things. Too many times in field work, we see women who can’t leave abusive environments, whether they work or not, because their family members (usually, but not always male) take their money away. This is such a common problem that many employers and governments are now looking to find ways to help women control their funds, to put a practical, secure step between their earnings and the grasping, sometimes violent, intimate. One of the most vivid illustrations I ever saw of the need for such services was a factory in Sri Lanka, where the management watched with the dismay as operatives walked to the gate on payday where a crowd of men demanded their paychecks. The company finally put an ATM in the shop so that women might have more success keeping their own earnings. We know now that the likelihood of that cash being put to the best ends (education, nutrition, and so on, especially for children) is substantially increased if the woman can keep that money under her own control. It’s not enough for them just to earn the money. Access to the financial system plays an important function in the push for women’s freedoms.
There are many countries around the world where women have rights they cannot claim because they do not have the means to leave the village, to secure outside help, or in any way enforce what is legally theirs, whether it is safety or property. There comes a point where we must realize that legal rights are paper fictions that only become meaningful if those who hold them can claim them. That often takes money–and access to financial services.
Standing on the basic premise that access to the financial system is an important means for securing women’s rights, as well as their well-being and ability to help children and communities, the Power Shift Forum is asking the world to help put forward a call to action that will place women’s financial inclusion on the new Sustainable Development Goals framework. You can help secure economic autonomy–and with it better access to rights–by signing on this link. Yes, you will have to log on. Yes, it will take a minute. Try to remember how long many women have to wait–in Denver or Dakar, in London or Lagos–for one small window toward freedom to open. And then bite the bullet, take the two or three minutes to log on, and help open thousands of windows.
We now have a nice video (above) of the first signatories to this important call to action. As you watch, you will see that this petition began with clout. Now it needs numbers. Please help. I promise to get the full petition to Queen Maxima of the Netherlands, currently the UN special advocate for financial inclusion, and both co-chairs of the Open Working Group. It will be real if you give us your support.