Why girls need economic control

Women often lack access to economic assets. That's why we need to reach girls before it's too late

Lindi Hlanze is an economic adviser to the UK Department for International Development (DFID). She specialises in the economic empowerment of girls and women, and is helping to deliver DFID's strategic vision on the issue. We caught up with her to find out why the economic empowerment of girls living in poverty is so important…

When we talk about economic empowerment, what exactly do we mean?

It means being able to acquire and have decision-making power over economic assets, for example: being able to earn money and decide how you spend your income; deciding how you save and when you want to draw on your savings; being able to borrow when you want to take out a loan and decide how you repay it.

Many girls and women don't have this kind of decision-making power. Why is that?

They'll often be forced into marriage as children and won't necessarily have the same education as their male counterparts. For example, in Ethiopia almost half of girls are married before they're 18. This typically leads to social isolation, having less access to education and much higher risks of health problems if they have children before the age of 18. This affects how much they're able to make choices about every aspect of their lives, and whether they're dependent on male members of their family.

That's why economic empowerment of girls is absolutely critical to broader empowerment of poor communities.

Why is it so important to focus specifically on girls?

Women typically earn less and work in more unstable jobs than men, and it's often too late to reach women in their twenties. By then they may have missed out on access to education and had no chance to accumulate assets needed to start a business, pay for higher education or save for the future.

Making sure girls have access to opportunities as early as we can is what we need to do to help alleviate global poverty.

So where do we start?

Understanding gender norms - what is expected of girls within the confines of their culture or community - is essential. Take mobility: parents often aren't willing to let girls travel a long distance to go to school for fear of them coming to harm - that has real implications for girls and what their aspirations are likely to be. Often girls think that because their mother hasn't worked, they can't work or they can't work on an equal basis to their brothers and male classmates.

Changing their aspirations and those of their communities, building their confidence and giving them access to information and networks, is critical.

How do we go about changing those aspirations?

We need a more holistic approach. There hasn't always been a focus on looking at the needs of the girl as a whole - we've often focused on single issues. We need to look at all of these things throughout the life cycle of a girl - it's too late to wait until they're adults.

Preparation is also critical when delivering programmes for girls. All the evidence shows that giving girls cash or access to financial services without any kind of understanding or training about how they work - especially when they come from a family background where savings haven't been the norm - means they can't get the most out of financial services.

What are the day-to-day challenges facing girls and how can we address them to improve their access to economic assets?

Girls often spend large amounts of time doing things such as caring for younger siblings, fetching water, collecting firewood for fuel or preparing food - sometimes at the cost of their schooling or health. Technology has a role to play here. There are loads of really great innovations around, such as solar lamps, fuel-efficient stoves and low-cost water pumps, which can save huge amounts of time and effort for girls, which means they have more time to study. 

Lots of evidence shows that having access to their peers, so that they can share information and challenges, builds confidence and enables girls to gain access to lots of things that they wouldn't otherwise find out about - such as future work opportunities.

What about development programmes? What role do they play?

There are a host of programmes that use girl safe spaces, for example. These are regular meetings for girls in a safe environment with an older female mentor from the local community, where girls can get access to information and training on things such as vocational skills. These programmes increasingly organise savings groups too. It's really difficult for a girl to have a savings account with a bank because they're not generally considered a big-enough customer. Safe spaces bring groups of girls together to contribute small amounts of money into one pool and then save collectively. That's a really exciting innovation.

There are lots of other interventions, some of which are less immediate to the girl. For example, changing laws to enable girls to inherit on the same basis as their male counterparts could be hugely empowering.

We want to give girls opportunities they haven't had before. What effect will that have on girls and their communities?

Often what's happening is girls are the first members of the family to have access to a bank or a financial institution and, actually, the whole family is learning from what the girls learn, so they're more likely to develop savings habits and other positive financial behaviours. But some girls may face resentment, particularly if their communities are not involved in programmes and are not able to understand the benefits to everyone from empowering a girl.

The big myth is that economic empowerment for girls is impossible. There are lots of exciting, innovative ways to make it happen.

How can that myth be dispelled?

DFID has a strong history of working on gender and our relationship with Nike Foundation and Girl Hub has really put girls on the agenda. If we can demonstrate what works and evidence it, others will pay attention.