No More Lip-Service: What It Would Mean To Really Invest In Women & Girls

Today marks yet another International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.  Wouldn’t be wonderful instead if we were celebrating the anniversary of the day poverty was eradicated? 

Despite our best efforts, that day may still be a long ways off. The Millenium Development Goals (MDG), created in 2000, made eradication of poverty their number one goal. And as the 2015 deadline for the MDGs nears, we are still asking, how do we get there? There is no magic bullet. But there is one place where we could be doing better – investing in women and girls.

Invest in women and girls.  That statement and others like them have become cliches in the global development community.  We hear them in practically every speech, see them in every press packet, and lobby for nations to commit to those statements in international documents. And yet, we live in a world where women perform 66 percent of the work, but earn only 10 percent of the world's income and own 1 percent of its property. A world that questions their decisions about their own lives and bodies, and is reluctant to include them among its decision-makers.

Invest in women and girls? World leaders, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. Honor financial commitments to provide women and girls with access to education, sexual and reproductive health services, and violence protection, to name a few.  Back up those financial commitments through policy changes that will support women’s decision-making power, their right to go to school, and to choose when and if they want to have children and who and when they want to marry. 

Conceptually, these ideas are not rocket science.  Educated, healthy women are not only better able to take care of themselves and their families, but are better able to contribute to the national and global economy. Studies estimate that if women could participate equally in the workforce, the GDP in the U.S., the Eurozone and Japan would experience a double-digit spike. Give them equal access to agricultural resources, and 150 million fewer people would go hungry.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take more than looking back at last week’s tragic shooting of young a Pakistani activist, Malala Yousafzai, to know that making these concepts a reality is not that easy – especially if we continue to look at “women’s issues” as separate from eradicating poverty.

Malala’s country, Pakistan, is a prime example of where lack of investment in women and girls and ongoing poverty are linked.  With a population of 180 million, Pakistan has the highest fertility rate in the region and nearly two-thirds of its population is under 30.  Adult women in Pakistan have a literacy rate that has hovered around 30-40 percent for years. Only 22 percent of women use a modern method of contraception, while another 25 percent of married women wanted to delay or limit childbearing but are not using any method. Compared with its neighbors in the region, Pakistan has one of the lowest percentages of women (23 percent) participating in the official economy.  Approximately 60 percent of Pakistanis live on less than $2 dollars per day.

Malala was shot right before another “international day” – the International Day of the Girl, which only added to the outrage at her attack.  But that outcry shouldn’t stop because we have moved on to a different day in a different week.  The theme is the same: Invest in women and girls by ensuring their rights to education, sexual and reproductive health, freedom from violence, and a meaningful seat at the table.  If we are serious about ending poverty, this is where we need to start.

By Elisha Dunn-Georgiou, vice president of advocacy for Population Action International. This blog is part of a series in recognition of the UN's International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Oct. 17.