From Baubles to Businesswomen.

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If girls get a chance, in the form of an education or a microloan, they can be more than baubles or slaves; many of them can run businesses.” -Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky

Exchanging sex for money to care for her child was her last resort.

We winced when we heard Fantine’s ragged story. One concocted in the depths of Hugo’s brilliant mind and penned onto the spell-binding pages of Les Miserables, she represents so many vulnerable women around the world. Orphaned, illiterate and desperately poor, she is fired from the factory job that she depends on. Fantine then begins to pawn every precious thing she owns in a frantic attempt to keep her daughter alive. She sells her coat, her hair, her teeth—quite literally everything she has, until at long last, shivering, aching, hopeless—she mournfully begins to sell her body. And we ache with her because we understand it in our bones—a mama will stop at nothing to feed her baby.

Fantine’s story is fiction, and yet millions of women are living it today. All over the world, women just like us send their sons and daughters to bed with relentless hunger gnawing at their bellies. As we debate the merits of bento boxes and organic milk, our sisters lie awake at night longing for the opportunity to send their children to school. Statistically, women are infinitely more likely than their male counterparts to be denied access to education, a job, medical care and basic human rights—all of which contribute to their higher rates of poverty. Every year, millions of women in underdeveloped countries are forced to stand by and watch their precious children die slowly of preventable diseases, simply because they didn’t have access to the clean water, healthy foods and medical care so readily available to us.

That? That should make us angry.

It doesn’t stop there. Women living in poverty are more likely to make dangerous choices that they would not otherwise make, putting them at grave risk for being abused or trafficked. A woman in poverty is more likely to leave home with a stranger that promises her a good job, only to be sold into slavery or trafficked into a convoluted network of brothels. In “Sold”, author Patricia McCormick soberly inform us that “Each year, nearly 12,000 Nepali girls are sold by their families, intentionally or unwittingly, into a life of sexual slavery in the brothels of India. Worldwide, the U.S. State Department estimates that nearly half a million children are trafficked into the sex trade annually.”

Whether we’re talking about sex trafficking, modern-day slavery, hunger, access to education or children dying of preventable diseases, it’s clear that the common denominator is poverty. According to authors Thurman and Smith of “A Billion Bootstraps”, in a world where 1.3 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day, approximately 70 percent of them are women. If we are serious about fighting global poverty, the most strategic thing we could do would be to unleash the explosive power of women as economic catalysts. As WuDunn and Kristof so aptly put it in their ground-breaking book “Half the Sky”, “This is the process under way—not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen.” It’s a process that I want to invite you into.

As American women, simply by virtue of the continent we happened to be born on, we are much better positioned to answer as opportunity knocks. Women in the United States areDSC_0047 rapidly rising in the workplace, owning businesses and leading through executive-level positions. Not only that, but according to an article published by the Council of Advancement and Support of Education, more women control more wealth in the United States today than ever before, and unlike their predecessors, the modern woman is more likely to support causes supporting women and girls. It’s quite safe to say that women’s philanthropy is on the rise, and research shows we are more apt to give to charity at virtually every income level than our male counterparts. This is welcome, hopeful news for us AND for our sisters in the developing world.

There has never been a more opportune moment for modern American women to act. We hold immense financial resources in our hands and have the right tools at our fingertips. “I’m not sure western women understand the power of restored dignity through work,” wrote author, Jen Hatmaker. “We often disparage work; a luxury of the already empowered. But in a context like Rwanda, work is honorable and coveted, strong and transformative. It literally changes lives.” Work ensures that no mother ever has to send her child to bed hungry, or is forced to make the impossible decision of which child to educate and which child to send to work. At our disposal are powerful tools that give women the dignity of providing for themselves and their families, offering a boost to the elusive bottom rung of a ladder that each woman longs to climb herself. But that boost won’t come in the form of a hand-out. It will come in the form of potential–the explosive potential unleashed by a small loan.

As women, it is critically important that we understand the beauty and life-changing power of microfinance. By placing the simple tools of a small loan and basic business training into the hard-working hands of those trapped in grinding poverty, we empower them to work themselves and their families  into sustainable provision created by their own hands. Instead of handing a woman a box of aid – resources she will inevitably need again in a few weeks time – a simple microloan and basic business training can empower that same woman to start or grow a small business, one fueled by her dreams, and developed by her own gifts and talents. Achieving that goal hones her God-given abilities, and gives her the dignity that comes with providing for the people she loves. In “A Billion Bootstraps”, authors Phil Smith and Eric Thurman encapsulate some of the most provocative benefits of microfinance:

“Some of the most crucial benefits of microcredit are far more than financial and cannot be measured on a balance sheet. The true benefits are dignity and self-esteem, along with respect for family and community. Microcredit enables people to become givers, not takers. Microcredit should not be seen as charity but rather as the opportunity poor people need to build a decent life. Through microcredit, donors can shed the old hand-out mentality and become true partners in progress with the people of the developing world.” –A Billion Bootstraps, 45

In many ways, microfinance is a women’s issue. Approximately 75% of all microloans are placed into the hands of women, largely because statistics tell us that loans given to women are more likely to benefit families and communities than loans given to men. You will find no more determined businesswoman than a mother trying to provide for her children. You put a microloan into the hands of a fierce mama, and she will do whatever it takes to pull her family out of poverty. The stakes are simply too high not to.

We feel it, don’t we? An ache that gnaws and lingers in our restless souls and refuses to let us turn the other way. Not while our sisters breathing the same air as us can’t feed their children. Not on our watch. As women “lean in” and flourish in America, may our hearts beat for justice. We follow a God that came to proclaim freedom for the captives and good news to the poor–together, let’s follow Jesus into the world’s most broken places, and link arms with our sisters as we strategically unleash the resources that have been entrusted to us.

Comments

  1. Ruth Ann Lewis says:

    Excellently presented, and such a worthy cause! I work for Workd Vision and wholeheartedly agree with you!

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