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September 9, 2009

Now Welcoming New Recruits to “The Women’s Crusade” Part II

Last week we talked about a spread in the New York Times entitled “The Women’s Crusade.” Authors Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn share with us how women are more often the victims of poverty and the injustices that so often come with it: financial and sexual exploitation and reduced access to education and healthcare.

Now that we’ve steeped ourselves in the bad news, let’s talk about workable solutions, for this is truly an issue that breaks God’s heart. In Luke 4, we see Jesus approach the Synagogue and quote these words from Isaiah 61, showing that he is the fulfillment of God’s promises and commands: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come” (Luke 4:18–19, NLT). Those of us who call ourselves Christians must answer Jesus’ call while we can.

I’m among the growing number of people who believe that the best way to alleviate poverty in the developing world is to support its women. The best way to help a starving child is to give their parent a job. While a suffering world needs all kinds of aid–even if not especially handouts of food and medical supplies at times–why is this best?

First, statistics show that women are more likely than men to spend the family’s money on education and healthcare for the children. Studies show that men are more likely to become in debt and spend earnings on tobacco, alcohol, and prostitutes.

Second, educated women are less likely to be sexually trafficked or exploited. People who can read are better able to vote to change their situation, learn about solutions to their problems, and break the cycle of poverty. Educated women are also more likely to take control of their reproductive health and engage in family planning so that they do not have more children than they can afford.

And finally, providing loans for businesses leads to employment, which is a sustainable kind of aid. Loans can also be repaid so that the benefits are recycled, and entrepreneurs can hire additional staff as their businesses grow, so that the benefits are multiplied.

As an illustration of how this all fits together, Kristof and WuDunn write about Saima, an impoverished woman with a broken spirit from Pakistan. Her husband was unemployed, in debt, and he beat her everyday. Her relatives scorned her for failing to produce a male heir and urged her husband to get a new wife. Then Saima found the Kashf Foundation, a microfinance institution. Microfinance means that small entrepreneurial loans are given to individuals–who often form support groups to guarantee each other’s loans–who are then able to buy an oven or textiles or a small storefront to begin to work. While a loan to start a business in the United States would be extremely costly, microfinance loans in the developing world can be as little as $50.

Saima got $65 and started an embroidery business. As her venture grew, she paid off her husband’s debts, hired more workers, and brought back the children she couldn’t afford to keep at home before. Even Saima’s husband works for her now and the beatings have stopped. She is now the “neighborhood tycoon.” Saima can repay her $65 loan (to be given to someone else) and take out a slightly bigger loan to expand her business. She can cover the loan payment of another woman in her group of 25 who meet to gain life skills and learn about managing household finances. Similarly, they can cover her payment in an emergency so business can move forward. In many places, these groups also worship God together and learn about Christianity. They pray for one another and can find forgiveness, hope, and healing.

Poor people are not lazy, stupid, or dishonest. They need a working chance just like the one Saima received. The premiere Christian microfinance organization, Opportunity International, boasts a 98 percent repayment rate among their clients across four continents. We in the United States cannot even claim such a record. While microfinance has benefited men as well, many institutions loan exclusively to women because of their success rate; Opportunity International loans to more than 80 percent women.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me admit that my father has worked at Opportunity International for almost 20 years. My mother is the former manager of a not-for-profit store that sells handmade goods by artisans in the developing world and is certified fair trade. My parents have a passion for the world’s poorest populations and I’ve heard heart-breaking and hopeful stories like Saima’s my whole life.

In a never-ending quest to convince me that “my life of wealth and privilege in the United States isn’t normal” (to which I replied, “Whatever, Dad!”), he took me on a trip to the poorest areas of Romania and Hungary when I was 13. Not as a tourist, but as a sort of ride-along as he inspected the progress of microfinance in those countries and visited with clients. I experienced firsthand the flush of pride of a woman who can give a tour of her shop or introduce me to her children in their school uniforms. These women were grateful for their loans and speak about their life before their business as if they were a completely different person. True, sometimes a meal is what is most immediately needed and is the difference between life and death, but what will truly turn the tide for impoverished nations is providing a way out of the all-consuming cycle of daily need. That is where there is dignity. And hope.

Let the words of the Old Testament prophet Amos be our prayer today: “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24, NLT).

Here are links to some of the premiere microfinance institutions if you’d like to get involved, all not-for-profit:

Christian organizations

Opportunity International
Opt in Now - individual sponsorship arm of Opportunity International
Hope International
World Vision and World Relief also have microfinance programs although they have other ministries as well

What do you think of the idea of microfinance? How do you think about poor people now—and how did you think of them when you were a child? Do you agree that supporting women is the best way to alleviate poverty worldwide? Why or why not?

Related Tags: empowering, Social action, Women

Comments

Anything we can do to provide an education and livelihood to women and girls in developing nations makes them less vulnerable to abuse, trafficking, and sexual brutality. Microfinance is one of the best ways to do this; child sponsorship also helps.

Whereas there are many hard earned good results for these women involved, there are also issues one cannot turn away from. Rigid gender roles and the unshared responsibility of hme making and care-providing of women mean that women participating in the meetings and activities of micro-credits experience a huge increase of work and pressure. It is therefore important to advocate for the fair sharing of 'domestic' responsibilities. There are also reports that some women's health deteriorated further not only becasue of increased work and pressure but that they actually sometimes have to decrease their intake of food in order to save the amount to be paid back every few days. In some cases, their male partners are the ones to control the use of the loan which was taken in her name. Some experience increased abuses from their male partners when the women ask for the return of the money. These examples are to illustrate that providing opportunity is good if adequate consideration of realities is made, tackling the institutional sins of gender discrimination that deny women of opportunity must not be made invisible and untackled. The biggest reason why 70% of the world's poor are women, it is because they are women.

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