The importance of providing economic resources to women worldwide is widely documented as a significant factor in human development.
Women face a wide range of discrimination stemming from cultural and institutional norms ranging from early marriage and violence against women to reduced access to schools, loans, and even public spaces. These factors were documented in the recent United Nations report “Human Development Report 2014, Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience.”
These inequities result in poorer human development overall. The number of malnourished children averages 60% higher in countries where women do not have the right to own land and 85% higher in countries where women do not have access to credit.
The movement toward improving access to education and business opportunities has a number of powerful advocates, including Malala Yousafzai, who cofounded The Malala Fund to increase girls’ access to educate their children worldwide, and Mama Sarah Obama, President Barack Obama’s grandmother and founder of The Mama Sarah Obama Foundation, which helps poverty-stricken families in Sub-Saharan Africa feed and educate their children. And while awareness is increasing, the solutions aren’t always obvious or easy.
While cultural norms and institutions must be overcome, there are also many “hidden” barriers that aren’t immediately evident when leaders wish to solve these problems. On November 19, business leaders, dignitaries, activists, celebrities, entrepreneurs and supporters gathered at the first annual Women’s Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations to discuss the wide range of challenges that women and girls face, especially in cultures where their value is marginalized.
“One of the biggest challenges is getting fees [paid] for the girls to go to school, since many of their parents died from HIV/AIDS,” Obama said via a translator during her conference panel. Since taking it upon herself to make sure that poverty didn’t stand in the way of education, some of the children she’s helped go to school have become doctors and lawyers, she says.
Attorney and University of San Francisco Assistant Law Professor Thomas A. Nazario founded The Forgotten International, a foundation that works on alleviating the suffering caused by poverty in the U.S. and worldwide. He found that even obscure issues can be barriers to girls attending school. At a New Delhi, India, school he visited, bathroom facilities were two holes in the ground in back of the school. He says girls would simply stop coming to school because of the ridicule they faced from boys when they used the bathroom, especially after puberty. In some areas, access to clean water, child labor norms, or lack of trained educators all stand in the way of providing education overall, and limited resources are often directed at boys first.
Barriers and challenges also exist in the United States. During high school in the Bronx, Elizabeth Murray was shoplifting food and sleeping in hallways after her mother died of AIDS and her drug-addicted father moved to a homeless shelter. She hid her situation from educators and friends while she completed school. Murray’s story, which includes successfully completing her undergraduate degree at Harvard, is an inspirational anomaly told in her bestselling memoir, Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard, and the Lifetime Television movie, Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story.
Murray partially credits her success to a form of “privilege,” despite her circumstances. Her father had attended college and discussed books and education with her. They spent hours at the New York Public Library, where he didn’t always return the books he checked out. (“He had several aliases there,” she says.) Murray believes that many people who try to move out of poverty through education have trouble acclimating to the new environment and its demands, which is a problem that needs to be addressed.
“There’s a problem with the ‘If I did it, anyone can do it’ narrative. You’re being pulled out of what you know and moving into another world. It implies that if you don’t succeed or if you struggle, it’s a reflection on your character,” Murray says.
These are the kind of stark realities and barriers to access that many don’t immediately think of, says Eileen Buckley, senior manager of corporate responsibility at London-based global business consultancy PwC. Effective solutions require cultural understanding and sensitivity.
“In our efforts, we’ve failed forward, but we learned to talk to the right stakeholders and not try to solve what we think are the problems,” she says.
By looking for these everyday barriers, these leaders were able to add basic solutions to reduce obstacles and incentivize education. Such solutions included providing a bucket of clean water to students each day they attended school, providing teacher training materials, providing fees for school costs and books, and supporting grandparents, who are often overlooked caretakers and influencers.
Countries like Malawi and Namibia have established policies and financial resources to help women start businesses. Malawi First Lady Gertrude Mutharika, a trained nurse and politician, detailed some of her country’s efforts to help women and girls. She has launched the Beautify Malawi Trust to help women learn how to earn money through recycling opportunities. Namibia First Lady Penehupifo Pohamba, an educator and politician, discussed how her country is working to abolish all discriminatory laws that affect women and established the Ministry of Equality and Child Welfare to help address issues of inequality and access to education, among others. However, both women emphasized that the role of government must be supported by the private sector to be successful.
Clearly, the issues are complex and vary significantly from country to country. However, there is an array of people committed to finding solutions by creating partnerships between key government and private resources delivered with cultural knowledge and sensitivity.