Celebrating heroines around the world on International Women’s Day

Nakintu was a teacher in Uganda by profession. Many years ago, as a single mother, she struggled to raise enough money to provide basic support for her young children. The family was vulnerable to the sting of abject poverty. Through the shadows of adversity, Nakinto persevered. She drew from a source of inner compassion and human strength to advance her vision of leading her family and disadvantaged Ugandan children on a more prosperous path.

After starting her own school in 2008, Nakintu grew rapidly. She soon needed more classrooms and teachers. To achieve this modest expansion, she needed access to credit and loans. Getting such a loan was incredibly difficult for a woman who was financially impoverished. Without the loan, many children with no basic education would suffer, some might even die.

At that precarious moment 15 years ago, Nakintu turned to FINCA International, based in the US with offices around the world, for a micro business loan. Nakintu received the loan and later other loans to expand even further. The initial number that would change lives was $820, or about £685. Consider that for a moment. Access to a relatively small loan and credit from a visionary woman has saved and educated countless lives.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is Innovation, Technology and Justice. Women’s equality will always be a central tenet of today because so many women have fought valiantly and sacrificed for gender equality over the decades. IWD’s origins are rooted directly in equality. In 1908, 15,000 women demonstrated against a backdrop of appalling working conditions and exploitation in New York, demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.

Yet although justice and equality come from the same tree, they are different. Equality ensures women are given equal opportunities, while justice strives to give women the tools and support they need to have equal access to those opportunities.

Micro, small and medium-sized enterprise (MSME) loans to women in developing countries are an excellent example of promoting equity. The modest amounts of credit and loans are the opportunity or tool that gives millions of women entrepreneurs access to opportunity. Most companies in developing countries are MSMEs and the lion’s share of these companies are run and owned by women. If women want to start or grow their business, the chances of getting a business loan are very slim as global funding is far from reaching the required level.

The International Finance Corporation (IFC), headquartered in Washington, DC, reports through the World Bank that over 1 billion women still do not use or have access to the financial system. IFC estimates that there is a $300 billion financing gap in women-owned small businesses worldwide and more than 70 percent of women-owned MSMEs have inadequate or no access to financial services. We must substantially close this gap.

If funding to institutions that support, oversee and administer credit to MSMEs were tripled, it would have a transformative impact in improving the livelihoods of women and girls. This is a tangible political approach and a desirable goal for foreign policy leaders. With access to broader credit and financing, women would have access to technology and digital education. And a key outcome of the dramatic improvement in women’s and girls’ livelihoods is that local communities would make strides. Where and when women thrive, society thrives too, and the times we live in will thrive better.

The theme of promoting and discussing justice and technology for IWD is inspired. Countless women around the world dream of a healthier life, property, education for themselves and their children. These resilient women are beacons of hope. While defense and national security budgets are important strategic spends, perhaps when policymakers delve into the details of such complex budgets they should also focus intensely on what would make the world a fairer place for women and those involved in the war be marginalized.

By giving women better access to financial tools and more credit, the world is reminding women that they can dream and that they have power. As African-American writer Alice Walker said, “The most common way people give up their power is thinking they don’t have it.” Let’s strive to stoke, not quench, a flame of hope for women.

Ian Houston has spent his career as a lawyer specializing in diplomacy, trade, poverty reduction and intercultural dialogue. It promotes commercial, educational, artistic and charitable links between Scotland, Great Britain and the USA. He is Honorary Professor at the University of the West of Scotland and Honorary Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen. It is located in the Washington, DC area. His views are his own.

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