Empowering Women to Escape Extreme Poverty

By Nazia Moqueet, Senior Technical Advisor, and Courtney Calardo, Senior Communications Manager, BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative

PROFIT Financial Graduation participant Amina works on a new dress design in the shop she now rents with her earnings. Kitui, Kenya, 2018

While both women and men are affected by extreme poverty, women have a considerably harder time escaping poverty, as their rights are not often protected. They have fewer resources, lower access to healthcare and education, and are more likely to work unpaid or underpaid care work. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), women and girls around the world work for a combined 12.5 billion hours for free every day, which Oxfam calculates to be a value of around $10.8 trillion each year.

Prevailing gender discrimination results in women and girls facing the highest levels of marginalization and poverty, often forcing them into abusive relationships, child marriage, and exploitative livelihoods. Many countries with the highest rates of poverty are ranked medium to low on human development in regards to gender inequality on UNDP’s recently launched Gender Inequality Index, showing a linkage between poverty and gender discrimination.

Despite the heavy burden they carry and the extraordinary obstacles they face, research shows women play a critical role in social and economic development when granted the opportunity. They typically invest a higher portion of earnings into the future of their children and families than men, promoting greater outcomes for their households. Investing in women’s empowerment is therefore crucial for achieving the SDGs, ending poverty and hunger, and building a better world for future generations.

At BRAC, a leading development organization reaching over 100 million people across Asia and Africa, we believe it is unjust that millions of women and families lack hope of a decent life and are unable to even imagine a different future. It is this belief that drives us to support them in building a path out of uncertainty and destitution through our Ultra-Poor Graduation approach.

How Does Graduation Support Women’s Economic Empowerment?

The Graduation approach prioritizes engaging women throughout the course of the program as they typically face the greatest vulnerabilities. We empower extreme poor women and help their families build resilience by designing and implementing holistic interventions that fall within the four core pillars of BRAC’s Graduation methodology: meeting basic needs, income generation, banking and savings, and social empowerment.

BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation (UPG) program in Bangladesh primarily targets women and has led to significant long-term gains, as found in a rigorous study in 2015. They include, but are not limited to an increase in earnings, savings, and consumption expenditures. In addition, the program provided women with greater occupational choice and linked them with stable livelihoods to replace the irregular and low-paying agricultural or domestic work common among the extreme poor.

We observed similar outcomes in Graduation programs beyond Bangladesh. Female participants like Amina from a recent government Graduation pilot in northern Kenya reported that by supporting entrepreneurship endeavors, the Graduation approach helped them become more financially secure and create a better life for themselves and their families.

Empowering Women Beyond Economic Outcomes

The positive impacts Graduation has on women’s empowerment exceed economic outcomes. The approach has resulted in more hours spent in school for children, as well as a delay in marriage for daughters of participants, thus, showing the inter-generational impact Graduation can have on a household.

Additionally, through the social empowerment pillar, Graduation has improved participants’ overall self-esteem, confidence, and vision for the future. This newfound or improved confidence has empowered participants to tap into market opportunities, advocate for improved access to basic services such as health and education, access government and NGO resources that were not previously available to them, and increase their involvement in the community.

Some former participants have even joined local committees and leadership groups and fought for social change, speaking out against early marriage, female genital mutilation, and negative gender norms that perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Nurunnahar, a participant in BRAC’s UPG program in 2009, used the lessons she received to stop the marriage of her underage niece and became a voice of reason and justice in her community. In 2011, Nurunnahar was elected as the commissioner in the municipal election and continued to reduce dowry and underage marriage in the community.

Through the Graduation approach, women like Nurunnahar were able to address the structural constraints that perpetuate gender inequality. However, we recognize that this type of change is gradual. By incorporating a gender lens in the design and implementation of Graduation programs, we ensure that our work is effective in reaching the poorest and most vulnerable.

BRAC’s proven Graduation approach has the ability to lift millions of women out of extreme poverty. But we cannot do this alone. Sustainability and scale demand change at the systems level with active government engagement. The good news is that many governments are committed to addressing poverty through social protection mechanisms. BRAC is dedicated to collaborating with governments to leverage available resources toward effective solutions that achieve the long-term benefits demonstrated by the Graduation approach. By integrating Graduation with existing social protection systems, we can empower millions of women and their families to ensure no one is left behind.

Breaking the cycle of extreme poverty by providing a pathway out of persistent uncertainty and destitution through our Graduation programs.

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