A chilling global reality is that wherever men have a hard time finding work, women have an even harder time. The one thing that remains constant no matter where Samasource goes is that when we target women, we see total transformations for all. Women make up 60 percent of the world’s chronically hungry. Their labor force participation is only at 55 percent, with participation as low as 25 percent in the Middle East and North Africa. When they do work, women continue to earn, on average, 10 to 30 percent less than men for paid labor, yet they are the sole breadwinners in one in three households around the world. In many countries, women are discouraged or forbidden from pursuing an education; in fact, women make up the majority of the world’s illiterate adults. Women in the United States were 35 percent more likely to live in poverty than men in 2015. But as of 2011, only 7 percent of all philanthropic donations were given to organizations that addressed the specific needs of women and girls, and the Foundation Center estimates that less than 10 percent of total foundation giving goes toward this group. Yet women are likely to reinvest an average of 90 percent of their income back into their families, whereas men are more likely to reinvest only 30 to 40 percent. What does that mean? If you really want to lift all boats, raise the women’s boats.
Generally, when women have paychecks, they spend them on family expenses, specifically on health care and education. Multiple studies have shown that when women do better, their babies and children do better, reaping the benefits of improved maternal health, better nutrition, safer housing, and early education. Those good head starts in life can add up to exponential improvements in a family’s overall health and income over the course of generations, the benefits of which can spread out over an entire community. Research and impact reports that Samasource has published bear out the same conclusion. One study we conducted with a researcher from the London School of Economics and Political Science in a center in the village of Rukka, in the Jharkhand state of India, revealed that while access to employment and the development of new computer skills raised the “confidence, dignity, and self- respect” of all the participants in the program, the women (who worked in all-female centers) reported that they had actually gained status in their homes as a result of their employment. They experienced other shifts as well:
They felt they could have a say in making purchasing decisions.
In a region where women are often sold into brothels, families treated them with more respect. In fact, one worker’s father- n- aw offered to watch her children so she could keep working.
They were able to help their children with their studies.
They “found a voice to express their thoughts, ideas, and concerns” and believed they were now considered “valuable members of their family, community, and the workplace. . . . They have also started recognizing and participating in various political situations affecting their lives, such as speaking up when they believe they are being unfairly treated.” At times they seemed astonished at how much their lives had changed: “I thought empowerment was only in the books. A job really empowers you.”
There are plenty of women’s empowerment programs, but the best kind of empowerment is cold, hard cash given directly to low-income women. These organizations are doing important work to support women, but many of the problems they aim to fix, from gender-based violence to inequality to a lack of access to education, are rooted in cultural and religious beliefs about women and their worth. Those beliefs are exceedingly hard to change. Imagine that you were a member of one of these cultures—would you want to listen to anyone who tried to persuade you, even in the most respectful way, to rethink your entire worldview because they consider it backward and self-defeating? Trying to change social mores from the outside hardly ever works. Change has to come from within the community. And when women get jobs and gain economic agency, that change starts to happen. The world starts to look dramatically different and the barriers that traditionally hold women back, from the threat of violence to social structures to legal obstacles, fade when women earn as much as men (or, for that matter, any money at all). Digital work is a hammer that can hit many different nails. Give a woman the tools to raise her economic position, and she raises her value to her family and community. Money transcends religious and cultural barriers. We have found this holds true even in the most conservative areas where we have introduced our program.
Excerpted from Give Work: Reversing Poverty One Job At A Time by Leila Janah, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Leila Janah, 2017.