Woman: Acceptable Exploitation for Profit

(Business Fights Poverty) #1

Post written for Business Fights Poverty by Baroness Shreela Flather

The poorest women of the Indian sub-continent and Africa represent a vast untapped resource. They are easy to find, hard-working and eager to learn – the perfect workforce. I want to turn these countless millions of wives, mothers and daughters into profit generators for themselves and for the global business community.

In my new book Woman: Acceptable Exploitation for Profit, I tread on a few toes along the way; tackle the great taboo of children working for a living and face up to arguments against managing an ever-increasing population using birth control. I challenge politicians to turn talking shops into practical action; the much vaunted United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) dream cannot be fulfilled by the target date of 2015. Its only hope is to shift the focus to women.

While the UN rightly identifies the private sector as the ‘engine of innovation and growth’, it fails itself by not targeting that effort at women. Women must be central to every initiative, business project and political goal, rather than afterthoughts or decoration. And this is just as applicable to the West, including the UK, where the Equality and Human Rights Commission reported in September 2008 that the
number of women in top jobs was actually falling; far from breaking through the glass ceiling, they have crashed into impenetrable triple-glazing. So let no one say that the case for women’s rights anywhere in the world has been addressed, let alone met. When we stop saying with surprise that the head of some corporation or organisation is a woman, then I will feel satisfied. The result will be profit for business, income and welfare for poor families, rescue for the environment and votes for politicians.

The arrogance is not in maintaining that any single idea can bring about a change: rather it is in believing that the status quo can continue. As we battle to emerge from global economic depression, this above all is a hopeful book offering a practical, affordable way forward. It requires no new energy source, it demands no vast capital investment and it will have no destructive impact on the environment.

The workforce is vast, willing and able. A mother will not squander her money; she will nourish her children rather than drinking herself into oblivion, and she will remain loyal to her family. This is not about charity. It is not about improving the education of women. It is all about income generation.

In my book I offer a solution for a world in trouble, a roadmap to greater opportunities, profit, prosperity, health and happiness for all, regardless of gender. And before this notion is dismissed as fanciful wishful thinking, critics should first consider some of the examples where a handful of enlightened business leaders are already reaping the rewards, just as their new female workforce are transforming their own lives and those of their families and villages. This is not pie-in-the-sky; it is happening, but so far this practical and demonstrably successful concept has not received the recognition it deserves. We live in a world struggling to feed itself, fund itself, preserve itself, so why reject an asset and talent we have failed to consider?

Add your comments below. What barriers lie in the way of women creating economic and business opportunities? What should governments and business do?

(Isaac Njoroge) #2

I cannot agree with the author more.I grew up in the 1970s in rural Kenya with the following message embedded in my mind:
“Educate a boy and you empower an individual.Educate a girl and you empower a nation”.A few educated women in Kenya have made lives of thousands of Kenyans much better.One example is Professor Wangari Maathai,the Nobel prize winner with her Green belt movement.If we had more of the likes of Wangari Maathai,Kenya,Africa and indeed the World would be a better place to live in.Governments around the World must make deliberate efforts at increasing the number of women accessing further education.Emphasis should also move away from the traditional areas associated with women such as nursing,secretarial and teaching into the sciences and technology based displines.


(Ademola Tosoye) #3

The Microfinance Association would like you to speak in one of our free open day forums. How can we contact you?
I can be contacted at:ade@microfinanceassociation.org


(Bob Whittington) #4

A solution business should embrace


(David McGill) #5

I am a white male from a privileged background and yet I could not agree more strongly with your ethos. The need for women in Africa to be allowed to take control of their lives, develop their talents and be properly valued and rewarded is not simply a matter of fairness and common decency, it is imperative. Empowering women who are the cement that binds family, community and eventually nations, is the key to overcoming needless poverty and ultimately creating a fairer world for all. Tartans for Africa working with World Women Trade Fair is an attempt to marry identity, awareness, and economic opportunity for women within the many different cultures in Africa in a way that is truly ethical, sustainable and environmentally sensitive.


(Nadine Coronel (nee Laycock)) #6

Wow. I can’t wait to buy this book and read the rest of it!

I’m a priviledged Australian woman who grew up in an environment where women have all the freedoms and support they could dream of to do anything they want. I moved to work in Cambodia for a few short years and I have been enlightened by my newly found knowledge of how women in developing countries live. I’m proud to say that I was part of a voluntary employers association that helped disadvantaged people find vocational training and employment opportunities.

I had a discussion with a dear friend and very wise woman who runs an orphanage in Cambodia about working conditions in the country and how it tortured me to think of the long hours, the heat and back breaking work of the thousands of women in the garment factories and the little money they took home. We talked about the possiblity of underage workers. Her point of view was that as crude as it is, these jobs are better than the alternative (prostitution, begging or even selling your children).

I went to work the next day with a new outlook and motivation to do something. While I didn’t have the influence to raise the wages of the 400 employees we had (hotel industry), they way I made a difference to those women was to give them a voice in the workplace, to listen and respond to their concerns and implement their ideas.

I think that people dont try to tackle these issues out of fear that they are too big. If all we did was to give the women that already work for us a voice in the workplace, it would be the start of positive change.


(Alan Ivor Mills) #7

quite…interesting, motivates one to do more…


(Getachew Mergia Tache) #8

I am an African community development specialist with good grass root experience working with poor rural community in both Ethiopia & Uganda. In both Ethiopia & Uganda women have the main responsibility of looking after the family, who shape the behavior of the children, the children, who will be a leader, farmer, teacher etc. you can imagine her responsibility, she has the greatest role in building the future of the nation, had it been she had both economic and social power. However, she is poor in both information and capital asset, which makes her powerless mentally and physically.
Even though, the Ethiopian government develop policy and straggled for balancing Socio-economic differences between men and women at grass-root within the last Twenty years in reality women are not in a position to become Asset owner such as Savings and ownership of land, if the husband is alive; due to the backward social pressures and poor Gender based technical capacity.

Getachew Mergia Tache


(Brigitte Frey) #9

What an uplift your comment is to me, Mr Njoroge! Am trying to empower women in Kenya - any suggestions? Please visit my home-page: www.sofdi.com.
Brigitte Frey


(Natalie Africa) #10

So glad that Business Fights Poverty posted this book. I am going to buy it today! One of the main barriers to recognising women as powerful actors in economic development it is that in development and business circles it is more traditional, and often less disruptive to the status quo, to regard women, as many other groups, as recipients of aid rather than active drivers of economic development. We need to keep showcasing concrete examples of how women’s empowerment increases GDP and enhances business. One place to see some of these examples is on the IFC’s website: www.ifc.org/gender


(Raghu Bir Bista) #11

I am from Nepal but staying in India. In my observation, this perspective is optimism and need to do, if we have to improve living standard, human development index, inequality and poverty reduction in India and Nepal in South Asia and Africa. However, womens who are either illiterate or literate in these countries are found economically active in terms of productive and unproductive work are not accepted as in terms of economic value. In other words, there is not market value of most women’s activities. In reality, these have value added family economic activities. they are exploited but not economically.

In these countries, family institution have driving force to maintain family health, peace and happiness, which are ultimate goal of all human being. Of course, women are illiterate. they should be literate and economic opportuitites but it shouldnot be disturbing family and marriage institution for family development and economic interest


(Business Fights Poverty) #12

Shreela Flather replies: I am not as computer literate as the correspondents who have “blogged” their kind thoughts about my book, so please forgive me if I reply to you by making a general comment from time to time. I think we are all agreed that there is a problem and I can see from your reactions that already many of you are taking action. The more all these initiatives are publicised the more impact we will have. Allow me to pick up on some of the excellent points you raise.

Teaching is important but there is a stage even before teaching and that is earning just a few pennies to buy food. Education will follow.

We must take care when we speak about “empowering” women. That can sound threatening. My aim is simply to help women earn enough money for themselves and their family and crucially in the process help businesses make a profit. I am not asking for charity.

The whole question of child labour is a very difficult matter. Enlightened corporations can find work for children and provide a meal and some education at the same time. Correspondents are right when they say this is better than the alternative of prostitution or slave labour.

Lastly please contact my publishers www.whittlespublishing.com about any specific events with which I may be able to help.

Comment written by Baroness Shreela Flather


(Michael Mowlam) #13

I too entirely agree with Baroness Flather‘s summary.

Is the problem some congenital feature of our response to power? Men abuse power more because they are physically stronger. Men, especially emotionally weak men, abuse their physical strength to dominate women, whether in the home or in the boardroom. Do women in power behave like men in power? In politics one sometimes wonders. Are women as susceptible as men to George Orwell’s Animal Farm aphorism: “All power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely”?

The reality is that discrimination and abuse of women is so widespread that there are relatively few of them who have the chance to find out.

Sadly, too many male children grow up in a domestic culture in which it is common to witness frequent violence of men against women – mostly their mothers and sisters. They copy the role model of the dominant male in their behaviour to women as they grow up, emotionally damaged and programmed to behave like the abusive older males.

This is the cycle to break. It is too late to try and educate older boys at secondary school age. The focus should be the very young children (boys) who are exposed to this traumatic childhood during pre-school years.

Perhaps there is here an opportunity for governments and for corporates to take a lead. With the football World Cup in Africa for the first time governments and private sector could use the heightened awareness of football to develop mixed football for pre-school children in at-risk communities – often, but by no means only, the poorer ones. Girls tend to develop physical skills and coordination earlier than boys and can play football with the boys at a young age as equals (or betters). This gives very young boys the chance to play with girls as team mates, as equals in a physical environment, as role models to be looked up to. It would create a healthy and wholesome relationship for those boys that would benefit them and their families into the future. It would be great to see some businesses taking a lead in helping this model to happen. The personal satisfaction gained from such an initiative would be hugely rewarding and lead to more peaceful and cooperative communities – to everyone’s advantage.


(Fiona Mati) #14

I cant wait to read the book to find out the solution.

In my experience I have found that challenges for women when not adequately addressed wind up in well meaning “projects” that are not sustainable.

For instance in Kenya, the Women’s Enterprise Fund has faced challenges of uptake. Though it is true that loan repayment rates among women is high, getting them in the first place to apply for the loan is another.

Another barrier I have found is the socialisation process, whereby women are made to feel that any business they start is merely something to keep them busy and at most to put food on the table.

So my two cents on this is that we first have to ensure that the processes (education and social respect for women) are first achieved, then after that women will be fully capable of exploiting the economic and business opportunities on offer.


(Ekaterina Mitiaev) #15

I obviously have not read the book yet but I would like to express some caution.

It might be time for us to move away from a homogeneous image of a “developing world woman” who is poor, illiterate and family-oriented. We should not ignore the range of interests and levels of power based on other factors such as ethnicity, age, caste and family composition.

The idea that investing in women is one of the most efficient ways to ensure a wide range of development benefits is not new - it emerged back in 1970s. It resulted in the proliferation of projects and policies aimed at increasing women’s literacy, facilitating their access to micro-credit and enhancing their vocational skills. These interventions tended to support women’s low-return traditional activities that did not confront the existing gender division of labour. Furthermore, financial initiatives directed towards women often resulted in men withholding a larger share of their income, leaving women with debt burdens and increased work load (1).

The post states that “A mother will not squander her money; she will nourish her children rather than drinking herself into oblivion, and she will remain loyal to her family”. I would argue that such approach actually only reinforces patriarchal mindset and assumes that women are happy with traditional gender roles and merely should be helped to fulfil their responsibilities better.

I also do not feel easy with the statement “We live in a world struggling to feed itself, fund itself, preserve itself”. According to the recent research by two prominent economists Maxim Pinkovskiy of MIT and Xavier Sala-i-Martin of Columbia university, “World poverty is falling. This column presents new estimates of the world’s income distribution and suggests that world poverty is disappearing faster than previously thought. From 1970 to 2006, poverty fell by 86% in South Asia, 73% in Latin America, 39% in the Middle East, and 20% in Africa”(2).

As for the UK, I would like to suggest that there may be other reasons why number of women in top jobs is actually falling. There are some other pressures that influence women’s career choices and the most obvious one is the need (or desire) to look after children. So according to Jennie Bristow, “The ‘women question’ has never been reducible to women’s relative position to men, but is a broader question about how society organises itself around the competing pressures of waged work, politics, childcare and leisure time. While recent years have brought increased flexibility and equality for women, this is in a context where social, political and economic ambitions are at an all-time low” (3).

Just some food for thought…
Warmest regards

(1) “Achieving MDG3”, MDG Review

(2) Parametric estimations of the world distribution of income

(3) “Women: are we equal now?”, Spiked


(Surinder Hundal) #16

I look forward to reading Baroness Flather’s book…the notion of helping women helps business is a powerful one. And if I may build on the points:

Business can help women at the ‘base of the pyramid’ to fulfil their potential as contributors to economic growth in two practical ways:
(a) Help them get equal access to (a) vocational training & education (b) and technology including the web and © finance;
(b) Go into partnerships with them to find solutions to their community’s social, economic and environmental challenges

Access to finance, expertise and knowledge means women have the opportunity to compete like for like with others in the marketplace. There is no reason why the next Bill Gates or Bezos (Amazon.com) or Brin (Google) cannot be a woman from a developing country.

The case for access goes beyond equal rights and a level playing field. It is also about creating virtuous circles of sustainable wealth. Educated, income-earning women connected to the world can be powerful catalysts for development because they tend to invest more of their income in the families’ health, education and social development over a period of time.

Take the example of a rose grower in Kenya where I grew up … until recently; she sold her roses to a buyer at the farm gate, oblivious of where her roses went and what they were priced at in the shop. Then she buys a smart mobile phone and she is in control: for instance, she knows the wholesale prices for roses being traded in Amsterdam; she has faster access to her suppliers, improving both her inventory management and her purchasing; she arranges her own transportation, negotiating a better deal with the air freight company. She adjusts her prices upwards accordingly. Soon she is earning more than she did before. She enlarges her farm, hires more workers, teams up with other farmers to open a school in the village, she contributes to a health outreach programme and a clinic in the village – soon there is a thriving business which not only improves her and her family’s livelihood and life but also of others in the village. She has created an economic and social virtuous circle.

There is a compelling case for business to create local partnerships with women at the base- of- the- pyramid , especially if initiatives are developed jointly with the women for mutual benefit and make the most of the complementarities of each side.

However, for this to work, most businesses will need to adjust their perceptions. They cannot assume that all the answers lie with the man or the women with a MBA, a briefcase full of cash, business plans, market research reports and a laptop. Some of the best solutions may in fact come from the women on the ground themselves; from women who understand and have been dealing with the problems of food, water, shelter, health, education for a very long time.

Businesses can learn that such women solve their problems by applying common sense; relying on their innate ‘softer’ skills, their collective memory, ingenuity and creativity. Their nurturing skill means they will be prepared to go for the long haul, not just the short term quick buck. Despite the handicap of illiteracy or little capital and no concept of risk management, they will not be afraid to seize an entrepreneurial opportunity if it means improving the lives and livelihoods of their families.

In fact, there are some compelling examples which show that education need not be a barrier. Grameen Bank’s well-documented micro-entrepreneurship model illustrates very persuasively what women can do given the opportunity. As does the Barefoot College in Rajasthan, India which has created a formidable cadre of ‘Solar Sisters’ in India and Africa. It would be natural to assume that getting solar power to off-the-grid rural communities is a complicated engineering problem best left to highly educated experts. The ‘Solar Sisters’ - all of them poor and many of them illiterate - would prove you wrong. The college flew in a group of women from African villages to the College and taught them how to build and repair simple solar lamps, right down to soldering the circuits. The ‘granny’ engineers returned home with the skills and tools they need to light up their villages at night.

The training programme works because it is rooted in common sense and because it taps into the power of human ingenuity and creativity. The ‘Solar Sisters’ show you cannot necessarily use illiteracy as an excuse for not engaging women in finding perfectly feasible solutions to the challenges their communities face. It took guts – maybe self-belief coupled with a desire to improve the lots of their communities – that persuaded the African women to leave for the first time not only their village but their country to learn a new skill. Their ingenuity means hundreds of households in several communities will reap the benefits of clean, solar-powered light. I only had to look at the picture of the boy with a beaming smile, doing his homework by one of the solar lamps to know what that means.

The upsides of partnering with women are huge. Companies whose social investments offer economic benefits to women help not only the women and their communities but also themselves. They can grow their markets; they can work with the women to create better more sustainable products and reach markets they wouldn’t otherwise e.g. by making them part of a local distribution chain. Companies can improve the diversity of their workforce. Investing in women’s training and literacy can improve workforce productivity. Investing in their families’ health and welfare means loyalty and retention, less absenteeism.

Helping women helps business. It is not meant to sound like a slogan for a car bumper sticker, or a graffiti scrawl on a wall somewhere. It is a call to action.


(Moses Aisia) #17

Yes , you are right .What women need is to take them serious as well and making people feel that they too contribute to the well being of the community .
I work for a women very progressive Non profit www.apoolonaangor.com
and what we try to do here is make the women get that position that they ought to be taken as part of the community transformation process .

Moses Aisia


(Kwama Leonard) #18

to some extent i do agree with the author that this act is indeed still experienced in most parts of Africa. Women experience everyday life differently. Traditional gender roles corner women into juggling multiple responsibilities in the home, at the workplace and in the community. As a result women have a unique knowledge of the environment and the importance of sustainability. But the demands on women also leave them with less time than men for economic participation and involvement, and without a voice in the decision-making processes that impact their lives and their environment.The groundbreaking United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, affirmed women’s critical contributions to environmental management. The final agreement, Agenda 21, proposed actions to strengthen women’s role in sustainable development by eliminating obstacles to their equal participation, particularly in decision making. what happened after the Agenda 21 is that many of the women have grown to a level of which we see many of them competing positively with men. Good thought Sir


(Mike Tyler) #19

Sounds like an excellent book.
Aid for Trade is a new ‘on line’ charity initiative to help the start up of potential model microenterprises suitable for replication.
We don’t discriminate between sexes but we are already helping womens groups and some individual women in Kenya, Uganda, Pakistan and shortly in Mozambique to generate income in ventures which have growth and replication potential.
The benefits of replication being a shorter learning curve, less risk of failure and hopefully easier access to capital support.

If women entrpreneurs could access all the information with pics, accounts etc for a range of proven commercially viable microbusinesses that don’t need more than say $5,000 start up then the potential for helping women in this way might become very substantial.

Comments most welcome


(Chiara Condi) #20

Women are perhaps the marginalized group in developing countries that can make the largest difference in terms of development outcomes since they represent over half the population in developing countries. Despite this fact, women remain socially excluded from development projects. Their exclusion, however, is not merely limited to the workforce, women remain excluded from the very activities that are tied to their traditional responsibilities. Even though women are the primary users of many resources and services such as water, energy, and transport, they are systematically excluded from the design and implementation of the very services they use on a daily basis. When we ask the community for what it wants in terms of a new water supply system, we too often fail to think that the entities we consult are not representative of the female voice in the population, which is often silenced because of cultural and social factors. We fail to realize that by excluding women from these services we risk making their lives much harder and we are rendering it much more difficult for them to access employment opportunities. In developing countries, where women are often entrusted with household responsibilities such as cooking and washing, which entail physically carrying water to their homes, placing a water pump several miles away from the areas in which they live may place upon these women an additional burden of many more hours to their workday, which is already heavily charged with household chores. When will the woman who now has to spend five additional hours per day getting water for her family find the time to empower herself and take advantage of the economic opportunities available to her? We need to learn that to make a real difference, development must be approached much more holistically. If we want an increasing number of women to join the workforce, we have to give them the means to do so, and this does not necessarily mean to offer them hundreds trainings and courses, but also making their life a little bit easier so that they can practically take advantage of those trainings and educational opportunities. Development means precisely the real access individuals have to available opportunities. So let’s start indirectly-- that is by helping women form water user groups and enter community decision-making bodies, by asking them where they want those water pumps and bus stops in their villages so that they can even begin to envision adding a job to their household work as a possibility.

In developed countries, where women are now present in the workforce in large numbers, we place enormous emphasis on the glass ceiling and the women who are able to surpass the challenges that allow them to access the highest echelons of the corporate workforce. We have largely transplanted this concern to developing countries, where we increasingly look at raising the numbers and positions of businesswomen–the single individuals who make it to the boardrooms in countries where being a woman poses many more barriers than in ours. While we hold such women as exceptional individuals, we must recognize that an emphasis solely on bringing women to the highest positions of company boardrooms is not what will create widespread development. There are millions of women out there in developing countries who would benefit from help in accessing the most basic of business activities. The problem in these countries still is women’s access to the workforce. Teaching women who have never worked in their life to turn their cooking skills into cooperative bakeries, or giving them a loan to buy a sowing machine to begin a small tailor shop, or teaching them to operate machinery so they can work in a renewable energy plant is no less noteworthy than creating women leaders in the business world. We therefore need to ensure that while we are strongly promoting women CEOs, we are also seeing that the large majority of women, who will never climb to the highest echelons of businesses still receive the adequate skills and training required for them to earn their own livelihoods–these women are the truly untapped resource of developing countries. This means that we should be providing trainings that integrate women who would otherwise have no opportunities for employment into the traditional labor market. Rendering hundreds of millions of women independent by giving them a chance to be self-sufficient and earn their own livelihood is no less a respectable result than having hundreds of women sit on boards of the country’s largest corporations. As these women start to earn their first sources of income, they will also be increasingly respected in their own communities and the glass ceiling will start to very slowly disintegrate from the bottom up. We have to understand that today, in developing countries, the glass ceiling currently lies much lower.

So when we think of promoting economic development and engaging women as entrepreneurs, let’s start small–let’s start considering the real problems and pressing needs that the millions of women that make up the majority of the population in the developing world face right now. Perhaps if we start thinking about the lives they lead today and figure these very real concerns into our development plans, one day we will be able to make grander plans about the lives these women may lead.