Since the middle of the 20th century, there has been an increasing global effort to close the gap between developed and developing nations. From the Human Development Index to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), multinational organizations have created a plethora of initiatives focused on developing the regions of the world that have too often been left behind. As it is not ecologically possible for all nations to consume at the level that developed nations currently do, concerns have been raised of late on how develop these countries sustainably.
The term “sustainable development” was first coined in the late 1980s and is based on the principle that human societies must live their lives without compromising the ability of future generations to live theirs. Yet, although research has shown time and again that empowering women has a positive effect throughout their families, societies and even countries, many sustainable development approaches have failed to consider the intersection between sustainability and gender until very recently. Although one of FINCA’s founding pillars is women’s empowerment, over the past few years, we have built and improved many programs that focus on empowering women, but most importantly, have a sustainable framework of how to empower women so we can continue empowering the future generations.
Sustainable Development through Financial Inclusion and Clean Energy
One of the main ways that FINCA empowers women is by giving them access to life-changing financial services. In Afghanistan, where only 7 percent of women have access to a bank account, FINCA has created a unique opportunity to empower women by opening banks solely for women. FINCA Afghanistan’s women-only banks exclusively staff and serve women. This creates a space where women feel comfortable and have the power to build their own finances, share experiences and do business free of the social gender barriers present at traditional institutions. For future generations of Afghani women, these banks provide an important example of women who have the power over their own livelihoods in a way they have never been able to before. While currently FINCA Afghanistan is the only FINCA subsidiary that offers this service, FINCA has many other programs that serve women throughout the rest of the world.
In Uganda, FINCA’s BrightLife program has launched a series of lamp libraries. These “libraries” not only offset some of the costs of education that can dissuade poor households from sending girls to school, but also enables girls to advance their education through access to light. Globally, more than 132 million girls are out of school. This lack of education is only exacerbated in regions like sub-Saharan Africa where two-thirds of the population has no access to electricity. This inhibits students’ ability to continue their studies after dark.
BrightLife’s lamp libraries provide 100 solar lamps to select schools in rural Uganda. Students are then able to use them on-campus, or borrow one overnight to continue their studies at home. Above all, these lamp libraries promote sustainability by not only providing clean energy products to students, but teaching them about the benefits of solar energy as well. With less than 40 percent of sub-Saharan African girls completing secondary school, these lamp libraries give female students in off-the-grid households an extra leg up in their education.
Empowering Women through Sustainability Post-COVID and Beyond
Around the world, FINCA’s female clients have proven to be leading sustainability efforts in their communities. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, longtime FINCA client Eugenie Kabeya switched to making masks from the fabric she already had for her seamstress business when the pandemic struck. In Kenya, Susan Otanga was able to replace her charcoal stove with a clean-burning alternative through the help of a FINCA Ventures partner.
However, despite these promising trends in the realm of sustainable development and FINCA’s best efforts, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge setback for women, particularly those living in developing countries. Globally, women were not only at the forefront of the crisis, representing 70 percent of health and social workers, but also more likely to hold low-wage and vulnerable jobs that were not able to easily adapt to lockdowns. Lockdowns also increased violence against women, with cases of domestic violence up by 30 percent in some countries. Lastly, the school closures in response to the virus for students across the globe has led to a potential 20 million girls in developing countries that may never return to school.
While progress to put gender equality at the forefront of the sustainable development conversation has been made, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the areas where there is still much work to be done. Here at FINCA International, we know that the path to sustainable development begins by making women’s empowerment a priority throughout the COVID-19 recovery period that is to come, and beyond. Sustainable progress and prosperity for the next generation of women entrepreneurs, professionals and leaders is possible, and FINCA is committed to imbedding sustainability into all facets of our programs to achieve it.