Empowering Women for Sustainability

Last week, a couple notable events occurred in the world of sustainability. One was the annual BSR Conference, which brings together more than 1,000 sustainability professionals from around the world to envision how business can help solve global challenges such as climate change, transparency and governance, and human rights.

The other was the birth of the seven billionth person on our planet: Danica May Camacho was born on October 31 in the Philippines.

Ironically, or perhaps not so, the Philippines is a country where 22.3 percent of sexually active women have unmet needs for family planning -- meaning that they report not wanting any more children or wanting to delay their next pregnancy, but they are unable to do so due to a lack of access to contraception. In this environment, when the time comes, Danica may not have a choice of if and when she has a baby.

In discussions about the seven billionth person, women's empowerment must be top of mind. Women's empowerment is important to both global population growth and social and environmental sustainability because empowered women have fewer and healthier babies, better-educated children, and more financial independence. They are also better preparted to make personal choices regarding their bodies, their educations, their labor, and their property.

At the BSR Conference, women's empowerment in the developing world was discussed as both a critical responsibility and opportunity for business. Both Trina DasGupta of the GSMA and Mary Ellen Iskenderian of Women's World Banking (WWB) emphasized that if women are not intentionally included, they may be excluded: "As we move toward sustainability," Iskenderian said in her plenary address, "We must always keep our eye on the unintended consequences for women."

At the same time, women, and particularly poor women, represent a key growth market.
Iskenderian spoke about a recent WWB micro-insurance pilot in Jordan, where together with Microfund for Women, they sold more than 12,000 health insurance plans to female customers. Of the 1,200 claims filed over the pilot year, 50 percent of the claims were for medical complications due to pregnancy.

DasGupta shared GSMA research showing that women are 21 percent less likely than a man to own a mobile phone in low- to middle-income countries, representing a US$13 billion missed market opportunity. At the same time, for women who have a phone, 93 percent reported feeling safer and 85 percent reported feeling more independent because of their mobile devices.

So empowering women can spur market growth, but also market growth can help empower women.

Getting technology, financial services, or other products and services to new groups of female users will continue to be critical for business growth, particularly in emerging markets where wealthy- and middle-class markets are becoming saturated in some sectors. Targeting women will be both necessary and challenging, especially where societal or legal restrictions prohibit their full economic participation. In these instances, women's empowerment must be integrated into any social investment or business engagement that companies pursue.

Women and girls can be partners in creating a more sustainable future for their families, communities, and nations. Business must and should be a part of the solution to empowering women, and women's empowerment needs to be at the center of the sustainability agenda.