Financial Literacy More Than The Sum Of Its Parts For At-Risk Women

Money is hardly neutral. Its connection to power makes it a highly charged social phenomenon, and a mediator of relationships. Because it has historically been controlled by men, it has given men a tool for controlling women.

Consider this: In rural Africa, I have seen women wail and weep when their husbands have made the unilateral decision to marry off their adolescent daughters to an older man. They dare not protest. Never mind that they are growing the food and collecting the water that sustains their family. If they aren't the family breadwinner, they don't have a voice. When a young girl is married off, money, or the lack thereof, is implicated in every part of the exchange: the daughter is being married off because her father doesn't have the resources to support her; the daughter, with her limited education, doesn't have any earning prospects; and the mother must suffer in silence because she cannot finance an alternative.

Women's vulnerability around money is hardly exclusive to Africa. Throughout the world, women struggle with financial power. In the West, women's financial literacy is notably lower than men's. That lack of knowledge means that many women slide into poverty when they become widows. Perhaps they had come to depend on their husband's incomes, or on his money management skills. Either way, their financial disempowerment leaves them almost as helpless as the mother in Africa who must watch while her daughter's well-being is compromised.

When we teach financial literacy, what are we teaching? Is it strictly money management -- or is it something more?

This year, Camfed launched a program with The MasterCard Foundation which will train more than 200,000 young people in financial literacy. There are, of course, important practical aspects to the training. For the poor, learning to manage money well is central to improving their lives. Today, a young mother might be weighing up the decision between skipping one meal a day for a week and sending her youngest child to school. But as she learns how to calculate profit and loss from her business selling crocheted rugs, how to budget and save in order to invest in growing her business, her choices will become less dire. Her mindset will shift from poverty management to wealth creation.

I talked to a young woman named Precious last year in a Camfed business training program in Zambia. Before enrolling in the course, she had been "scampering" for a living -- buying clothing across the border in Tanzania, where prices were lower, and selling them at a higher price in Zambia. A clever, tried-and-true approach to earning a profit.

When I asked her what she had found most valuable in the business training, she answered, "the idea of profit and loss." For two years, she had been running a business with only an instinctual grasp of the concept. "If I had money left over to send my son to school, I knew I should continue with the business," she told me.

The business was serving her needs -- it was enabling her to send her son to school. But she is in an entirely different position now that she understands her resource flow. She is no longer just surviving. She is able to make plans, to set goals. She is charting her own life course.

At base, financial literacy is inextricably connected to control over one's future. That's why we incorporated reproductive health and women's rights into our financial literacy curriculum in Ghana. Taking ownership of your finances translates into taking ownership of your fertility. It's hard to negotiate with your husband over how many children to have, or wearing a condom, if you don't have money.

Money, and an understanding of how to work with it, gives us influence, voice, status, and a sense of entitlement. It means that the same woman who stood by grief-stricken and helpless while her daughter's future was threatened now has the social and economic standing to say to her husband: "Wait. Our daughter deserves a better life, and I can help give it to her."