Child Watch® Column: "Empowering Mothers Around the World"

Release Date: August 3, 2007

Marian Wright Edelman

A family lives in a small village by a river—a mother, two girls and a boy. The water isn't clean, but the children play in it avoiding dead fish whose pale bellies roll on the surface. There's a mill or refinery or food processing plant several kilometers upstream that spews thick raw sludge into the river. The plant's smoke stacks send opaque plumes of gaseous toxins skyward; flakes the color of slate settle on the roofs and sills and the mother's struggling crops of corn, beans and greens. The makeshift door—a blue sheet of plastic—fails to keep the flakes out. The mother works poorly yielding fields seven days a week but she hasn't been well since a recent miscarriage—her third. In many countries, women do the agricultural work but don't own the land.

There's no school and no clinic. The boy and one of his sisters have health problems like most of their playmates but neither they nor their mother have seen a doctor. The children's father went away to a city in another country to look for work. They haven't heard from him for months.

Where is this community with such poor living conditions you might ask? There are many villages like this—too many. They are scattered throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Columbia University Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs says that hundreds of millions of people around the globe live in similar conditions of extreme poverty or, as he calls it, "dollar-a-day poverty" because so many of the poor scratch out an existence on less than a dollar a day.  Impoverished mothers and their children bear the greatest burden of living under these kinds of conditions. The fate of children is inextricably bound to their mothers.

This is poverty that kills. The lack of a sufficient diet among extremely poor families in the developing world is often made worse by unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation.  For many, hunger has so suppressed their immune systems they are unable to fight off a variety of infections including measles and diarrhea: 450 newborn babies die every hour. A mother dies from childbirth every minute.  The incredible annual death toll for mothers, infants and preschool children is 14.4 million—a human scandal, because most of these deaths are preventable.

"This kind of poverty can be ended.  It has been ended in rich countries.  Economic progress works," asserts Jeffery Sachs who points to the stunning economic growth of several Asian countries in the last quarter century.  He notes, however, that development doesn't always work smoothly and it doesn't work everywhere. One of the places where it works most unevenly is Sub-Saharan Africa, especially in rural areas. 

What's needed globally is on-the-ground investment to spur development. Women are a major untapped source of development, but their lack of empowerment limits growth. Rural women produce half of the world's food—60 to 80 percent of the food in most developing countries. However, of 1.2 million of the world's people living on less than one dollar a day, 70 percent are women. One of the most successful forms of investment to assist women has been micro-credit through small loans usually ranging from $25 to $100. It has helped women form co-ops and joint lending groups to finance small enterprises where a woman might buy a sewing machine, a dairy cow to sell milk, or a cell phone that will enable other people in her village to make phone calls for a small fee.

Participants in micro-credit have high rates of repayments and increased incomes for their families, improving the nutrition, health and education of their children. Most micro-credit loans require no collateral and create jobs for others.  The beneficiaries of micro loans are among the world's poorest people. The long overdue and much deserved Nobel Peace Prize for 2006 went to Muhammad Yunus, Founder of the Grameen Bank. This revolutionary lending institution has become the gold standard for micro-credit, helping millions of people in Bangladesh and around the world achieve better lives.

One of the things we can do here in America to encourage grassroots development around the globe is to support the Global Resources and Opportunity for Women to Thrive Act (the GROWTH Act, H.R. 2965). This measure would increase support for enterprise development by women to promote the growth of their businesses and, in turn, employ other women.  It is based on the premise that linking micro-credit programs to the small and medium enterprise sector helps build national economies from the ground up and encourages sustainable development. These efforts also fuel the advancement of democracy and the promotion of human rights. Micro-credit through the GROWTH Act can be the vehicle that empowers the poorest of the poor to take more control of their own lives.