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Why global development is a women’s issue

By Judith Pryor
Vice President, Overseas Private Investment Corporation

The developing world faces a multitude of challenges from poverty to food insecurity to insufficient electricity, all which limit the lives of millions of men and women. But in my time working to support global development at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), I’ve come to understand that many of these challenges have a disproportionate impact on women.

Research shows that women in the developing world are less likely to have a bank account and less likely to be able to obtain a small business loan. Women represent more than two-thirds of the world’s illiterate. And, while women make up the majority of the agricultural labor force in many developing countries, they are often unable to manage or own the land on which they work. These are all disparities that limit not just the lives of women, but also the potential of the developing world to advance and thrive.

On International Women’s Day, I’m reminded of this great need to empower girls and women. I’m also proud of the difficult work that OPIC is doing to address these disparities and give women the tools they need to improve their lives.

Often these tools are financial. Access to some basic financial tools like small business loans – tools that those of us in the developed world take for granted – can be a pathway out of poverty for a family as well as a source of employment for a community.

I say the work is difficult because there are many logistical challenges that come with providing small loans to individuals in emerging markets. As a small agency with a staff based almost exclusively in Washington, D.C., OPIC is not always able to work directly with the women most in need of financial services.  But we have formed effective partnerships with banks and microfinance institutions that have extensive networks on the ground. Many of these institutions are focused on lending to women and underserved populations.  The financing we provide often results in hundreds or even thousands of smaller loans.

In Latin America, for example, we have a longstanding relationship with Global Partnerships, a Seattle nonprofit and major microfinance lender which seeks to improve the lives of people living in poverty – a disproportionately female population – by providing loans along with other services such as education, training in micro entrepreneurship and even healthcare. Global Partnerships investments have served more than a million people in 10 countries and about three-quarters of its borrowers are women.

Dona Chila and her pharmacy

Here’s a picture of just one of those loan recipients: Dona Chila, who went through a training program provided by a local partner, to become a volunteer community pharmacist serving the 2,500 residents of her small community in Honduras.

There are many other stories like this one, of women receiving support to start or grow a business that generates income for their family, supports the community and often creates jobs. We also work with the nonprofit social investment fund Root Capital, which has disbursed more than $600 million in loans to rural farmers in Latin America and Africa, most of whom are women. By helping to connect these small-scale farmers to global markets, Root has helped them earn more money from their crops and employ more women in agriculture jobs.

Group of women workers

The women pictured here work on a farm that grows shea nuts and has used financing from Root Capital to process their crop into shea butter for sale to international cosmetics manufacturers.

West Bank

In the West Bank, an OPIC loan guaranty to the Middle East Investment Initiative is supporting lending to the small and medium enterprises that make up the bulk of the Palestinian economy. These loans have led to the creation of an estimated 10,000 local jobs, many held by women, like those pictured, working in a local call center. In Turkey, we provided financing to a local bank to support lending to small and medium enterprises and is committed to serving female entrepreneurs.

There is no shortcut to empowering women but by helping individual women obtain a loan, a job, or educational training, we are giving them an opportunity to help not only themselves but their communities. While global development is a woman’s issue, empowering women is a development issue. The more we empower women, the more the world benefits.

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