I started my first paid job at 14 years and 9 months old – the minimum legal employment age in Victoria – as the Friday night dishwasher at our local Pancake Parlour. As a teenager you can imagine that washing dishes was already a favourite activity of mine, so I was only too happy to give up parties to be elbow deep in mucky dish water for 7 hours straight a week… “NOT” as teenagers say! Within a few months, I added Crepe Maker Extraordinaire and Alice in Wonderland Kids-Party-Host to my resume as my skills expanded.
It felt good to be earning my own money to save and spend as I wanted. It was empowering. Spending my own money gave me a sense of ownership and control. I was easily able to keep up with my year 10 and 11 studies and still manage some sort of a social life. It was a great early employment experience that taught me about work ethic, customer service, and contributing to a team. But importantly it boosted my confidence and I learned how to back myself in new ways within the economic context of my community. My parents never asked me to choose between school or work.
But other women and girls have not grown up with the same cultural messaging – many millions more experience structural barriers to entering paid work on any level.
The stats tell us that when the share of household income increases due to a women’s paid work or her control over household finances, children benefit from changed spending habits in areas like health, education and wellbeing. Yet in 15 countries around the world, husbands can legally stop their wives from working. In 79 countries, laws exist that restrict the kind of work women can be paid to do and the assets they can own. It is blatantly unfair.
Women still have less access to banks and saving mechanisms than men because of inequalities in financial systems. Globally, women are paid significantly less than men – with women earning 60% to 75% of men’s wages on average. The situation is even worse for women of ethnic minority groups, women with a disability or those from lower caste groups. We are more likely to undertake care-based work and informal sector work like self-employment, small scale agricultural and ‘cash jobs’, which are unregulated and unprotected – placing us at risk of abuse and exploitation.
Here at World Vision we are working hard to change the tide on women’s economic empowerment. We are working to break down cultural and structural barriers that prevent women from entering and succeeding in livelihoods and income generation opportunities. This involves providing women with the right financial and technical support to develop their business or other income generation activities. We are also working on challenging harmful gender norms and attitudes about women, promoting programs where women are recognised as economic actors, play a role in household decision making, including control over income, distribution of household labour and decisions about the household’s livelihood’s activities and investments.
Meet Rani from Sri Lanka. When thinking about what she could do to improve her family’s economic situation, she decided to lease a sewing machine and make clothes for a living. When her business wasn’t doing so well, she wasn’t able to pay the lease fee on the sewing machine and the owner repossessed it. For extra payment, she offered him several croatan plants that she had potted around the house – croatan plants are popular for the idda flowers they produce, which are used in cultural celebrations. With the sewing business closed, a new idea was budding.
Rani’s neighbour, also an avid green thumb, provided her with a small plot of land to grow the idda flowers. Demand continued to grow and she now raises the plants on 4 acres of land – providing employment for 10 other workers and almost ending the import of idda flowers from India. With a loan from World Vision through the ARISE Project (Agricultural and Rural Investments in Social Enterprises), she has purchased additional land and built a retail outlet on the main road. As background, the ARISE project provides finance and training support to small-to-medium business owners to drive local economies. Rani, the successful entrepreneur, is now looking at export options. The ARISE Project is important because it pays special attention to women and other marginalised groups in the community such as those with disabilities, and works to break down barriers that prevent women from succeeding in the paid work environment.
This Thursday March 8, we join with women around Australia to #PressforProgress on International Women’s Day – to break down barriers that stop women all over the world from realising their full potential, including our economic potential. Now that I have a child and another on the way, I’m even more conscious of the different barriers that women and women of child-bearing-age face, preventing our economic empowerment and progress. While the struggle is real some days (Childcare! Equal pay! Flexible work!), I know that the struggle is real in major, life-altering ways for women like Rani who face far more complex circumstances than I am likely to encounter.
Join with us to to give a hand up to women like Rani by donating to our Livelihoods projects.