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The world will only achieve its economic potential when its women are fully empowered to participate in their communities and their economies
By Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Algene Sajery
Perhaps no country more than Liberia understands the essential role women play in forging peace and stability.
During 14 years of civil war, Liberia’s women established a series of rural “peace huts” to reinforce the country’s rule of law, fill a void in leadership, and ultimately end the conflict. Today, Liberia’s women continue to be cornerstones of political and economic activity, running many of the businesses that form the backbone of the national economy and carrying out most of the unpaid work that sustains families and communities.
As in Liberia, women around the world are challenged at almost every turn to fully participate in the economy and build a secure future for themselves and their families. They are less likely to work in the formal economy, hold a position in management, earn a living wage, and have access to financial services.
These disparities exist everywhere, but they are most pronounced in developing countries, where women are also more likely to bear responsibility for carrying out the unpaid work of caring for their families and maintaining the smallholder farms that provide essential food.
In Liberia, it is estimated that women provide up to 90% of the labor involved in the production and sale of food, yet only 28% of women have a bank account. These challenges have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and are even more severe among women from minority, conflict-affected, and other marginalized communities.
There are many factors underlying gender disparities, but they are often rooted in restrictive government policies and patriarchal cultural norms. Even as women play a critical role in Liberia’s future, restrictive customary laws prevent them from owning property, limiting their ability to provide the necessary collateral to access the loans they need to build or expand businesses. Young girls face significant challenges going to and staying in school, again making it harder for them to gain financial independence.
And the cycle of poverty continues. Still, it is undeniable that when women increase their income, they invest in their families, their homes and their communities – and everyone benefits.
As Liberian women who have devoted our careers to advancing global peace, stability, and sustainable economic development, we understand that the challenges that women face are a major barrier to progress around the world. We know what it means to overcome barriers, and we know that too often a culture of tokenism blocks real progress. Women need to be equally represented in the halls of political and economic power to forge systemic changes and pave the way for other women to follow.
The Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development works to prepare exceptional African women for public leadership is working to support women in the agriculture sector with training and financial services.
In Africa, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) supports the Medical Credit Fund, which provides loans to many of the small health clinics that provide maternal and post-natal care. In the Middle East, DFC recently approved financing to support female refugees with the vocational training they need to run their own businesses.
On July 1, at the Generation Equality Forum, the DFC announced new targets to mobilize an additional $12 billion—an average of about $2.4 billion per year over five years—for projects reaching 15 million women and girls. These commitments will prioritize inclusive growth among women from underserved, marginalized, and conflict-affected communities, closing critical economic gaps among the most vulnerable women in the developing world.
But standalone initiatives are not enough. These times – our times – require extraordinary resilience, foresight, and persistence through local and global movements for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
We support the accumulated work of civil society, governments, entrepreneurs, and investors to champion policies that promote political and economic advancement for women and other marginalized groups.
The world will only achieve its economic potential when its women and girls are fully empowered to participate in their communities and their economies. Now is the time to catalyze and amplify our efforts.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female head of state in Africa, Liberia’s 24th president from 2006 to 2018, and founder and Board Chair of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development.
Algene Sajery, Vice President of DFC’s Office of External Affairs and heads DFC’s Global Gender Equity Initiatives.
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