Opinion & Analysis

Why women should be empowered

A 2000 study found that women are the key to food security in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of south Asia. Photo/REUTERS
A 2000 study found that women are the key to food security in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of south Asia. Photo/REUTERS 

At the recent Food Security Summit in Rome world leaders unanimously renewed their pledge to eradicate hunger.

The South-South Summit in Nairobi this week renews commitment to reducing hunger as one of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), dubbed “a blueprint for a better world” by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.  

But what if the blueprint, admirable as it might be, is just too complicated?

Developing countries are supposed to meet the MDGs by 2015. 

They involve halving levels of hunger and poverty, reducing infant and maternal mortality, improving environmental sustainability, empowering women and increasing gender equality, reducing HIV/Aids infection rates and providing universal education. 

Progress has been slow and, in sub-Saharan Africa in particular, many goals will not be met.

So here’s an idea.

What if the UN and its member states scrapped the eight MDGs and instead focused on an admittedly radical hypothesis: Girls Rule! 

What if, instead of eight MDGs, each with multiple targets, countries focused on Goal No.3, Empowering Women--particularly poor women? 

This could actually hasten progress on the seven other MDGs.

A 2000 study by the authoritative International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) found women are the key to food security in places like sub-Saharan Africa and parts of south Asia. 

This study found that allowing women more education and raising their social status, taken together, accounted for 55 per cent of the total reduction in child malnutrition among the families surveyed. 

These factors were considerably more important than increases in the food supply.

A 2004 World Bank study found “ample empirical evidence that higher female education reduces child mortality.”

As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at a 2003 International Women’s Day celebration: “When women are fully involved, the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier and better fed; their income, savings and reinvestment go up. And what is true of families is also true of communities and, in the long run, of whole countries…”

A decade ago a World Bank study reported that income that women earn is more likely to be used productively, in terms of promoting family well-being and health, than men’s income. 

More recently, Tony Blair’s well-publicized Commission for Africa reached the same conclusion. 

The Commission found that relative to men, women who have some economic resources invest more in education and in the health of their children. 

These investments in schooling can pay enormous dividends.  

The IFPRI study includes findings from Egypt which showed that when the level of a mother’s education was increased from zero or only some primary education to a full primary education the proportion of the population living below the poverty fell by over 30%.

Improving their skills and increasing economic opportunities for women turns out to be an important strategy for poverty alleviation.  

One way to develop skills, build capacity, and increase economic opportunities for women is to help women entrepreneurs.

Throughout the developing world women create and run businesses.

Most are small to medium-sized businesses that help support a family and may employ a few family members, friends or associates. 

Changing the legal and social environment to make it easier and less costly for women to open businesses, purchase and transfer property, and get credit will spur entrepreneurship and women’s empowerment.

Lucia Quachey, President of the Ghana Association of Women Entrepreneurs, puts it this way: “When a woman has a regular source of income, she becomes very confident and takes her own destiny into her own hands and her self esteem increases, this is empowerment!”

This empowerment has broad positive effects on human development.   

With five years left to go to meet the MDGs and disappointing progress to date, it is time to refocus the efforts of the UN and developing nations on approaches that work. 

Women’s empowerment will directly alleviate poverty and its ills, so let’s build on what the evidence tells us:  Girls can rule!

Boudreaux is senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, USA, and advisor to the Accelerating Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) Alliance www.acceleratingwomen.org