Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO, Women’s World Banking
What empowerment means to a woman is complex. At Women’s World Banking, we focus on economic empowerment because we know that the ability to earn an income is linked to the ability to make decisions about how household money is allocated. We also know that owning assets and holding the title to those assets is important, especially because studies have shown that title ownership correlates to reductions in domestic violence. So women’s empowerment, complex as the issue is, must have an economic component in order to be realized.
Fundamental to empowering women economically is an understanding of their needs. Women need a way to save for school fees and to reduce economic shocks that can result in removing a child from school. They need access to health care for the whole family because often, a woman will make sure everyone else in the family is healthy before tending to her own needs. Women need loans for small businesses or the ability to save for building a business. In short, they need basic financial services. For women who have been shut out of the formal economy, these services empower them to become self-directed, economic agents for the first time.
So what does this mean in practice? In the realm of health care for instance, we know that women put their families first. Through our research, we also discovered that when women needed medical attention, they used public facilities and paid for medical expenses with savings or borrowings. This greatly affected the financial security that they had built for themselves, placing their economic empowerment in jeopardy.
Thus, in 2010 we helped our network member in Jordan, Microfund for Women (MFW), launch the Caregiver policy (Ri’aya in Arabic), a micro-health insurance product that provides a cash benefit after hospitalization. This coverage helps with the challenges women face when dealing with medical issues, such as loss of business, medical expenses, and transportation. And unlike the majority of available insurance products in Jordan, the Caregiver policy was uniquely designed to include coverage of all hospital visits related to pregnancy. This feature, borne of our focus on the needs of women, has proven to be one of the most popular uses of this product, with pregnancy-related health issues accounting for nearly half of all claims. In just three years, Caregiver has garnered significant demand, with more than 90,000 policies outstanding.
One important thing to remember is that developing a product that can strengthen women’s economic empowerment does not happen in a vacuum. Along with MFW, we worked with a global insurer that had a local Jordanian partner, as well as regulators, to ensure that Caregiver was poised for a successful launch. This illustrates the power and importance of strategic partnerships to launch projects that support women’s empowerment. Truly sustainable and successful projects need both the public and private sectors to succeed.
What does women’s empowerment mean to me? I have seen time and time again that with strong partners and initiatives that provide them with the tools to help them achieve economic independence, women can build financial safety nets and safer home environments for themselves and their families, and realize their full potential.