I recently heard a captivating talk given by Nadia Al Sakkaf, the editor of the first and only independent English-language newspaper in Yemen. Speaking at the annual BOLDtalks in Dubai, Ms Al Sakkaf considers herself a “queen”and her husband calls her “the queen of the moon”, but not because of any royal lineage. Her attitude stems from a self-belief and a feeling of worth that has come with the rise of female economic empowerment. She is one of a growing minority of women in Yemen who have been educated and are gainfully employed.
We have seen this time and time again throughout history. During times of war, men went off to battle, while women were expected to go to work. Once the war ended, women were simply expected to return home and take up their former roles. Only, they were not prepared to give up this freedom. They wanted to carry on working – and earning!
A similar dynamic is occurring in Yemen today. Ms Al Sakkaf uses the metaphor of a door that’s standing slightly ajar. On one side of the door, we find women weighed down by tradition and a patriarchal society. They feel confined to fulfil the role of stay-at-home caregiver just as the generations had done before them. But through the crack in the door, they see the opportunity and possibilities that await them outside of the household. Only, various factors – society, tradition, dominant men and even other women – do not want the status quo shaken up.
So what has caused this paradigm shift? Simple – money!
Once a woman starts earning her own money and realising the power that this holds, the possibilities are endless. One woman who has seen this change occurring firsthand is Roshaneh Zafar. In 1995, Ms Zafar quit her job at the World Bank to set up the Kashf Foundation to bring economic empowerment to the women of her native Pakistan.
Ms Zafar first came up with the idea for her business model through a chance encounter with Muhammad Yunus. A Nobel Peace Prize recipient and renowned economist, Mr Yunus pioneered microfinance. His Grameen Bank in Bangladesh was the first of its kind to offer banking services to the very poor through micro-lending. Instead of relying on collateral, people could receive credit based on trust, participation and accountability. In 2011, the bank had more than 8 million borrowers, 97 per cent of them women.
Inspired by this revolutionary model, Ms Zafar brought the idea to Pakistan and has since helped local women receive loans in excess of US$265 million, while also offering them education, training and work employment opportunities.
Speaking to Forbes online, Ms Zafar revealed her reasons for starting the foundation. “The moment the women with whom we work start earning that extra $10, $20, or $30, things begin to change in the household. They are able to make choices for themselves and for their children, in terms of what they eat, what they wear, and where they study, and the long-term decisions they make for their future.”
A further advantage of micro-financing has been the ripple effect, she says: “You change one woman; she’s going to change ten more.”
It is also changing the way that women are socialising.
“In Pakistan,” she says, “most women are connected only to their families; they do not have the opportunity to socialise with women who are non-relatives. Now there are communities across Pakistan where it’s the norm for women to leave the house to go to a meeting or to take part in a financial education programme – and people don’t question it. These women are the role models for current and future generations.”
The story of women in Yemen, Bangladesh and Pakistan resonates across borders. Even western women who have worked part-time jobs since childhood, and then again while studying at university, followed by full-time careers – we too know the pinch of suddenly not earning a wage.
I should know, I was one of them. For many women, parenthood is the first time they stopped working and earning. But once you have experienced the independence and self-sufficiency that comes with earning your own income, it’s a challenge to live life without it.
Earning your own income is about so much more than money. It’s about empowerment. Just like the women of Yemen are experiencing, having your own money means having your own voice; the option of making your own decisions and being reliant on only yourself.
We are now living in the financial decade of the she-conomy. And with more than 1 billion women entering the workforce across the globe, more than any other generation before us are finding their voice through economic empowerment. Just like Nadia Al Sakkaf says, the door is standing ajar. The world of possibility lies beyond in waiting. It is up to each and every woman to seize their own opportunities as it comes – and I say, “Go for it!”
Janelle Malone is a wealth commentator, writer and author. You can read her blog at www.womenmoneyandstyle.com