ILO Online – Michaela Walsh still remembers how some businessmen would laugh at her when she talked about offering micro loans to people as a way of alleviating poverty.
“I had bankers tell me that it wouldn’t be relevant in the banking world, that it would never be profitable business”, recalls Ms Walsh, who started out her career as an intern in Merrill Lynch in the United States before becoming the first woman manager of the company.
Ms. Walsh stuck to her idea and in 1976 was one of the founding members of Women’s World Banking (WWB), New York, an initiative which provides small loans and other financial services to poor women entrepreneurs around the world.
“This was long before anybody started talking about microfinance”, says Ms Walsh.
Today, WWB and its network of members provide support, advice, training and information to about 9 million poor entrepreneurs around the world, 70 per cent of them women. Not only that, microfinance is increasingly being provided by sustainable institutions.
The Women’s World Banking is good example of how investing in decent work for women is not just right, but smart – the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day.
The Global Employment Trends for Women 2008 report shows that in 2007, 1.2 billion women around the world worked, almost 200 million or 18.4 per cent more than ten years ago.
But the report also highlights that the share of vulnerable employment, although decreasing from 56.1 to 51.7 between 1997 and 2007, continues to be higher for women than for men, especially in the world’s poorest regions.
“Increased labour force participation of women has great potential as a contribution to economic development, but only if the jobs in which women are engaged are decent”, says the report. “The model to aim for is one in which women are able to contribute to growth and, at the same time, profit from this growth as participants in labour markets, keeping in mind that the one does not automatically follow from the other.”
This is something Ms Rupa Manel Silva, founder of the Women’s Bank in Sri Lanka, can relate to.
She was one of five siblings born to a rural family who dreamed of sending all of their children to university. But the death of her father sent the family into deep economic crisis.
“My mother considered giving us marriage as a means of easing her burdens. I received a proposal from Colombo. I married in 1978 and went to live in the capital. I was 19 years of age at the time”, recalls Ms Silva.
“When a woman has no other opportunity to engage in some social activity other than contacts with the people around her, she is invariably confined to the kitchen”, adds Ms Silva, who despite these constraints started collaborating with the National Housing Development Authority (NHDA) to carry out development projects where she lived.
Due to her leadership skills, she was soon encouraged to set up a small women’s banking team, a type of organization that already existed in Sri Lanka.
“Though I did not devote serious attention at the start to the women’s banking team, I soon realised that I was undertaking a long journey with them”, recalls Ms Silva.
The idea of these teams was simple: to encourage poor women to begin saving regularly, no matter how little, to establish a basis for loans. The pooled amount was given each time to a different member of the group to start a project.
Over time, these small financial enterprises grew in size and quantity and became a bank. Its founder and leader was that same woman who years before had been given in marriage and confined to a kitchen.
Employment can take many forms, but as Ms Silva likes to stress, “if women are treated fairly and with respect, and are given the chance to take decisions and be responsible for their actions, then decent work becomes a reality”.
Ms Silva and Ms Walsh will join Agnes Jongerius, President of the Trade Union Confederation of the Netherlands (FNV) and Vice-President of the International Trade Union Confederation, and Evelyn Oputu, Managing Director and CEO of the Bank of Industry, Nigeria, at a roundtable discussion on investing in women’s decent work, which the ILO will host on March 7th at its Geneva headquarters.
“For us to make significant progress in empowering women and make them enjoy the benefits of a decent and smart work environment, we must first unequivocally accept women as a business and development imperative rather than a social burden that needs to be addressed”, says Ms Evelyn Oputu.
“Women constitute more than half of the world population. But this is a man’s world. We have facts, we know what goes wrong and we know how to make changes. What we need is the political will”, adds Ms Agnes Jongerius.
Decent work is at the core of the ILO’s agenda. In the words of its Director-General, Juan Somavia: “The primary goal of the ILO today is to promote opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity”.
A goal which is not only right, but smart.