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The end of men? Women worldwide now lead households

John Bucher

Recently, American First Lady Michelle Obama was quoted as saying, "If you need a job done well, you give it to a woman."  (Watch out Barack, your wife may have her sights on your job!)

We have all heard the adage before, but what about when it comes to the big issues such as poverty, famine and education for children? In fact, many countries around the world are putting their resources in the hands of women to help solve these major economic and social issues. The Canadian Women's Foundation (CWF) calls it the "ripple effect" — when you improve the situation for women, you improve conditions for everyone.

Let's look at some examples…

1) Kenya

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), agricultural productivity increases dramatically when women are given the same kind of access to education and labour as men.  In East Africa, women comprise at least 70% of the farm labourers. It is estimated that if all women farmers in Kenya were given just one year of primary education, maize yields would increase by 24%.

2) Bangladesh

In the world of microfinance, women are often given priority for loans, since research proves that women are more likely than men to use loan money to create successful community-enhancing projects - and are more likely to pay the loans back. Grameen Bank ('Bank for the Poor') in Bangladesh has more than 8 million borrowers. Of these, 97% are women who have used the funds to start businesses and lift their families out of extreme poverty.

3) India

In India, it was found that men are more likely to spend government aid money on non-essential items, such as alcohol, while women spend as much as 90% of their income on their home and essential supplies for their family. A new law was recently proposed that would officially make women the heads of households; women will then receive the government-issued ration cards. It is proposed that only if there are no women over the age of 18 in the family, would the ration card be assigned to a man.

4) Haiti

Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) handed out food coupons exclusively to women. The WFP stated that women in Haiti tend to be responsible for the household food supply and therefore delivering supplies via women rather than men would ensure the relief supplies got to the families who needed them most.

5) Mexico

The government of Mexico has a program called Oportunidades, which gives cash handouts to women in the most marginal rural communities. Women who receive the payments are obliged to have regular medical check-ups and send their kids to school rather than to work in the fields. Since the program was introduced in 1997, the number of children starting high school has increased by 85%.

6) Nicaragua

The Social Protection Network in Nicaragua is based on contracts with the female head of each family as a way to "give the necessary recognition to women's importance, responsibility and position as agents of the family's development." Like in Mexico, women receive government funds in return for making sure their children attend school. The women also attend training sessions to learn about reproductive health, nutrition, childcare, environmental health and family hygiene.

7) Brazil

President Dilma Rousseff has opened over 1,500 new daycares in Brazil, making life a little easier for Brazilian working moms. The Bolsa Familia program gives monthly grants to women in return for keeping their kids in school and the government is working to increase the number of women who have national identity cards and birth certificates. This will give them and their children better access to health care. There are now more female Brazilian university graduates than male, with women making up 60 percent.

8) Canada

Here at home, Bank of Montreal released a study revealing that 82% of Canadian women are either the primary decision-maker or have equal responsibility for household financial decisions. Yet according to the World Economic Forum, even in Canada, economic participation is "far from optimal." They point to policy barriers, such as a lack of affordable childcare, and the need for practices and policies that "provide equal opportunities for rising to positions of leadership within companies."

9) Helping our own

The Canadian Women's Foundation has a series of programs to end poverty for women right here at home.  In one program, 18% of the women had some disposal income when they joined, but by the time the program ended that number had doubled to 36%.  These women launched over 600 small businesses, 92% of which were still in operation at the end of the research period. Even more impressive, 84% of the women who were on welfare when they joined the programs became less dependent on these payments.

10) What you can do to help

Convinced yet? If you believe helping one woman can help change the world, you might be interested in the CWF's Women Moving Women campaign. Through this program, 2,500 people will each donate $2,500 (over five years) to help move 2,500 women out of poverty. That's only $500 a year to start your own 'ripple effect'!

As Kofi says…

As you can see, there is a growing consensus around the world that when women are in control of household resources, everyone benefits.  As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says, empowering women creates a positive cycle of growth: "Families are healthier, they are better fed, their income, savings and reinvestment go up. And what is true of families is true of communities and, eventually, the world."