The World Is Finally Realizing How Gender Equality Is The Key To Economic Growth

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When the world talks about feminism, female empowerment, or even girl power, we don’t often associate money with that. We think of the right to vote, the right to access certain types of reproductive healthcare options without the interference of religion or politics, and we think of the way the media damagingly portrays women and girls as physical objects to be consumed by the opposite sex.

But there have been a lot of conversations surrounding equal pay, paid leave and the right to an education for girls, especially in countries where an educated girl is seen as a waste of time and marriage potential. The thing about feminism that should be most prominent especially in the 21st century fight for gender equality, is economics. When women are empowered, economies become stronger.

It may not be top of mind with a lot of world leaders, economists and key decision-makers, but it’s time to face the music. We’ve recently seen a huge step up in this area with the enactment of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals by world leaders who are building on the Millennial Development Goals created by the United Nations in 2000. Heads of state from around the world have agreed to implement key initiatives to improve the lives of those in their countries in order to create more sustainable and thriving futures.

Of of those goals, which many think is the pivotal one, is gender equality. You can’t have gender equality without economics. And it has to start young. For many of us in the Western World, we are lucky enough to be afforded many privileges other girls around the world do no. Education is the foremost of these privileges. It is estimated that 66 millions girls globally today are not in school. In poverty-stricken areas, or regions where religious extremism is the law, girls are prevented from school and boys are given priority when it comes to opportunities in life.

But this is what is keeping poverty alive. Studies show that for ever addition year of secondary school a young girl has, her earning potentials increase by 10-20%. Which is why initiatives such as the Obama Administration’s Let Girls Learn program are important – they lay the groundwork for women to be empowered economically as they grow up.

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At a recent event as part of this initiative, Michelle Obama was joined by Charlize Theron, Sophia Bush, and former Australian Prime Minister (and the country’s first female PM) Julia Gillard, for the “Power of an Educated Girl” event hosted by Glamour Magazine (who have created their own girls’ education program called The Girl Project) and the Levo League.

“We want this to spur and inspire you to not take your education for granted. Because let me tell you, there are millions pf girls around the world who would give anything to be in your position. It’s imperative—and it’s my passion and my mission—that every girl on the planet has the same opportunity that I have and my daughters have. Get that education because it will be the key to your future,” said the first lady to the audience of young girls in attendance, encouraging them to realize how important school is to their economic future.

Other studies show that education is the difference between life or death. Educated girls are more likely to marry later, and have less health problems.

“Education is actually saving lives. The Global Health campaign has said that education is a social vaccine against HIV. When girls stay in school they are less likely to become infected. In my country, girls are more than eight times more likely to become infected than boys, and what that tells me is that girls are being left behind,” said Charlize Theron who is originally from South Africa.

Education for the younger generation is certainly the key to their futures, but what about adult women today who never had that chance? The good news is many world leaders and global organizations are learning how powerful it is when they equip women with the ability to start businesses and earn their own money, especial in regions where women are not seen as equal to men and are forbidden from doing anything independent.

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A couple of initiatives that have recently been launched are showing glimpses of how the global conversations about poverty are going to be shifted thanks to the way they are targeting women. UN Women and the EU Commission have just launched the ‘Khadija’ network in conjunction with the Arab Network for Economic Empowerment of Women, as part of their Women Spring Forward for Women Program.

The Khadija network aims at providing comprehensive solutions for women’s economic and political empowerment. The EU Commission has dedicated $8.2 million to the UN to help fuel three specific agendas: 4 million for the political and economic empowerment of women, 3 million for program combating violence against women and female genital mutilation, and 1.2 million to support the state-affiliated National Council for Women (NCW).

Egypt is a main focus for the initiative as it is the most populous country in the Arab region, yet they rank well below the worldwide average in terms of participation in economic and political life. The initiative wants to help women be represented more in the public business sector by setting a quota of 25%, and in the private sector, a quota of 50%.

Khadija wants to encourage businesses in the public and private sector to be committed to providing more job training opportunities, as well as providing loans and participating with donor communities and international organizations to help make the quotas possible.

There are specific cultural issues that have to be addressed in Egypt, such as the disenfranchisement of women in Bedouin communities where women’s rights are not even in existence, and the problem of women going to jail for being in debt because of a flawed justice system that doesn’t allow them to work to pay it off.

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The European Union firmly has its sights set on gender equality around the world. Aside from the Khadija network launch, they have developed a new framework titled “New framework for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: Transforming the Lives of Girls and Women through EU External Relations (2016-2020)”.

The aim is to support partner countries in the developing world in order to comply with the aforementioned Sustainable Development Goals.

“Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights. We want to provide our partners with the effective support they need in order to fight violence against women and girls, and at the same time to empower them socially and economically, so that women can participate actively in the political, social and cultural life of their countries,” said the EU Representative/vice-president Federica Mogherini in a statement, echoing a line from a famous speech Hillary Clinton gave in 1995 in Beijing at the International Conference for Women.

The EU has dedicated €100 million which will be invested into the four pillars of the framework: fighting violence against women and girls, economic and social empowerment, strengthening voice and participation, and shifting institutional culture.

We are beginning to see a pattern emerge in almost any female empowerment initiative that gets launched nowadays – the idea that without any form of economic viability, women will never be empowered.

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In India, a really cool economic initiative for women has started to gain headlines around the world. A bank called Bharatiya Mahila is the first of its kind, and it specifically caters to female clientele. It was launched in November 2013 with an initial $161 million in funding and is dedicated to the “economic empowerment of women.” The name literally translates to “Indian Woman Bank.”

CNN Money reports this bank is a well-overdue need in the nation counted as the largest democracy in the world, whose population is soon to overtake China, as only 43% of women had their own bank account in 2014. Not only do many women not have bank accounts in their names, but in 2013 the rate of female participation in the workforce stood as a low 27%.

“Indian girls and women fare worse than Indian boys and men on health outcomes — including child mortality — educational attainment, and labor market outcomes,” said Kalpana Kochhar, a deputy director at the International Monetary Fund.

The Bharatiya Mahila bank provides loans for women to start small businesses even if they open an account with a zero balance. Men are welcome to open accounts at the bank also, but it is only women that get concessions such as financial literacy workshops.

The first branch was opened in Lucknow, but since its launch it now has 80 branches. They aim to have a total of 150 branches by March 2016 because clearly something is working. Currently they have 155,000 customers, and 85,000 women have taken out loans.

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In a country where sexism is rife and women are not always considered equal members of society, having economic empowerment is key. There have been initiatives proposed elsewhere around the country where bank accounts can only be registered in a woman’s name with her biometrics recorded so that her husband or her family have to rely on her in some way financially.

But the message is the same across all of these programs and movements – economic empowerment is absolutely vital in achieving gender equality. It doesn’t make sense without the financial aspect. We know there is still a long way to go, as the No Ceilings campaign started by the Clinton Global  and the Gates Foundation have shared in their inaugural report.

They are sharing their report findings by utilizing social media with the hashtag #NotThere and giving all of us a glimpse into the aspects that we need to focus on to ensure economic empowerment for women everywhere. These aspects are the same as those identified in the Khadija program, the new EU Commission Framework initiative for Gender Equality, the Let Girls Lead program, and many more: education, violence, cultural constraints, and access to employment opportunities.

A 2007 Goldman Sachs report concluded that closing the gap between male and female employment would add 9% to US GDP, 13% to European GDPs and 16% to Japan’s GDP. The World Bank reports that if women in the Middle East and North Africa were fully integrated into the workforce, average household earnings in the region would increase by 25%.

The evidence is all stacked in favor of investing in women. Together all these programs and initiatives are really sending home the message that money really IS power, especially in the case of female empowerment. Economists are constantly sharing statistics and data that women women are empowered financially, economies and GDPs improve. Whether you care about feminism or not, the bottom line is that girl power is not just a trend, it is the key to growth.

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