Lifting women out of extreme poverty

March 17, 2020


Extreme poverty afflicts both men and women, but women experience many more obstacles in escaping poverty. They often lack legal rights, have fewer resources and lesser access to health care and education, and are far more likely to perform unpaid or underpaid care work. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), women and girls work 12.5 billion hours daily for free—which Oxfam values at about US$10.8 trillion a year.

Biased social norms, such as those explored in UNDP’s new Gender Inequality Index, disadvantage women and girls in many overlapping ways—limiting their opportunities and making them far more vulnerable to poverty, especially in old age.

Yet research shows that women play a critical role in social and economic development when they have the opportunity. They typically invest a higher proportion of their earnings in their children and families, improving outcomes for entire households.

Investing in women’s empowerment is therefore essential to tackling poverty, ending hunger, and achieving the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

At BRAC, a leading development organization serving more than 100 million people in 11 countries across Asia and Africa, we believe it’s fundamentally unjust that millions of women and families can’t even dream of a better future. Our Ultra-Poor Graduation approach aims to address that.

The Graduation approach assists extremely poor and vulnerable women and helps their families build resilience through holistic interventions within four core pillars: meeting basic needs, generating income, banking and saving money, and empowering women socially.

In Bangladesh, our programmes have helped beneficiaries achieve significant long-term gains. These include higher earnings, more savings, and greater spending on consumption—as well as expanded occupational choices and more stable livelihoods, rather than the irregular, low-paying agricultural or domestic work most commonly available to the extremely poor.

In remote northern Kenya, women participating in a recent Graduation pilot reported that by supporting entrepreneurship, this approach helped them become more financially secure and create a better life for themselves and their families.

Broader benefits

Our programmes yield benefits across generations, with participants’ children spending more time in school and daughters marrying later. Participants also report overall improvements in self-esteem, self-confidence, and visions of the future—allowing them to seize opportunities, advocate for improved services, tap into government and non-governmental resources, and expand their community involvement.

Some have assumed leadership roles in their communities and fought for social change, speaking out against early marriage, female genital mutilation, and biased gender norms that trap women in poverty.

In Bangladesh, Nurunnahar, leveraged her learning to stop the marriage of an underage niece. In 2011, she was elected a municipal commissioner. In that position she’s fighting to end dowries and child marriage.

Lifting women out of extreme poverty

Nurunnahar uses her position to fight child marriage. Photo: BRAC

Systemic change doesn’t happen overnight but we ensure that our work is benefiting the poorest and most vulnerable.

BRAC’s proven Graduation approach has the ability to lift millions of people out of extreme poverty—and we’re working with governments to do this. By integrating Graduation with existing social protections, we can empower millions of women and ensure, at last, that no one is left behind.