This is the third entry in my efforts to journal my experience as I climb the learning curve in my new role as CEO of Opportunity International Canada – a journey of listening and learning.
It goes almost without saying that we must never lose sight of our clients – the people we hope to see freed from a life of grinding and soul-killing poverty. I have met a few clients in the field and have read the stories of many more, and am struck by the realization our work is about far more than a job. It is helping our clients to transform - to grow in confidence and skill to emerge as leaders who provide for their families and create opportunities for their neighbours.
And most of these clients are women.
Although Opportunity International Canada serves the poor without discrimination on the basis of creed, race or gender, the majority of loans since its founding have been to women. Since I’m writing around the time of International Women’s Day 2019, where the theme is #BalanceForBetter, I thought I would dig a little to learn more about why it is that most of Opportunity Iinternational Canada’s clients are women.
Women and girls make up a disproportionate number of the poor and marginalized. Through conflict, dislocation and systemic cultural gender discrimination, girls are often held back from education, and women are frequently blocked from leadership and economic engagement.
Since our mission is to help eliminate poverty through financial inclusion, with women and girls being the most excluded and in need, our mission will be accelerated with a focus on women and girls.
But it turns out that this is not the whole story. The Opportunity International experience over the decades has been that women are generally better at investing their earnings back into their families, businesses and communities. My colleague, Meredith Scott, the CEO of Opportunity International Australia, recounted a story of a recent meeting with a group of microentrepreneurs in India. When asked what they had done with the first profits from their new business, two hands went up - a man and a woman. The man had bought a motorbike and the women had saved it for her kids’ education.
Although we laughed at the almost stereotypical responses, it has proven true over the years that poor women, when given the opportunity to run a microenterprise, will more frequently reinvest the profits to the benefit of her family and business. In very practical terms, this results in dirt floors becoming concrete floors, families eating more nutritious meals, leaky tin roofs replaced by waterproof roofs, toilets installed, and tuition provided for children’s education.
And speaking of education, I have become much enamoured with Opportunity International’s Education Finance program. Education for girls is critical to breaking the cycle of repression and poverty. By providing sustainable loans and quality-of-education training to thousands of schools, millions of kids have access to a quality education. Often the loans are used to build gender-separated bathrooms, a key factor in keeping girls in school once they reach puberty. Tuition loans are also available to our microfinance clients so that kids, and especially girls, can stay in school during low income seasons.
Mark Lutz in his powerful book, UnPoverty – Rich Lessons from the Working Poor, tells the story of a meeting he had with a Loan Trust Group in India. These two dozen women meet weekly to learn and support each other in their businesses, as well as to cross-guarantee each other’s loans.
Lutz writes, “These women are squatters living near the lowest rung of the economic ladder… Officially, these women don’t exist. Unofficially, they are business owners; they are movers and shakers in their town of thousands of similar squatters.”
Lutz recites a heated exchange he observed between Menika, the 25-year old Vice President of the group, and the Loan Officer. Menika was standing up for a member of the group that couldn’t repay her loan because the cow that she had purchased with the loan had since died.
Lutz writes: “After the meeting Said tells me the significance of his heated exchange with Menika and how delighted he was with their dialogue. He explained that when this dynamic young woman first came into the office less than two years ago to apply for a loan, she could not look him in the eye. Her poor self-esteem was evident as she gazed at the ground. She was unable to stand erect or raise her head. Now, with the success of her business and the support of her group, she has risen to this position of leadership where she is boldly making demands on behalf of the others.”
I find it incredibly inspiring to observe the confidence, business savvy, and leadership skills of our microenterprise clients, especially the women considering the additional obstacles they face. I have seen it for myself in the eyes of Four Incredible Women in the Dominican Republic. And I am equally delighted to be part of an organization that is helping to secure a quality education for millions of kids - both girls and boys. In honour of International Women’s Day, a shout out to Opportunity International Canada's successful female clients - entrepreneurs who are leaders in their communities and doing their part to end poverty. #BalanceForBetter!
The journey continues…