A Woman's Right to Fish

By Oscar Perry Abello 6-10-2009

If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. If you teach his wife how to fish, you feed the whole family for a lifetime. This reality guides more NGOs and development workers worldwide each day, as they come across facts like women do two-thirds of the world's work (but receive only 10 percent of the world's income), or that women produce half the world's food (but own only one percent of the world's farmland).

Unfazed by a lack of equal economic rights, women around the world have taken on growing roles as de facto heads of households while husbands and sons seek migrant work or get caught up in conflict. To serve their growing roles successfully, many women have created or entered informal markets as entrepreneurial gardeners, tailors, or shop owners. They've also formed savings-and-loan clubs, buyers' clubs, and business associations to help overcome institutional obstacles. With first-hand experience of women's issues in business, these women's organizations have great desire to initiate and implement scalable reforms to bring women into the formal economy. Microfinance does much to get women's businesses started, but they remain without the legal protections and opportunities of participating in the formal sector. Such participation is vital, as the formal economy provides a better catch than the informal economy.

The Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI) is one such organization of women that is helping feed societies not just through women teaching women "how to fish," but also fighting for a woman's 'right to fish' in the formal economy. BWCCI (Web site under reconstruction) began in 2001 as an organization of 24 women and today boasts over 1,500 members and counting. Although many are small and micro-enterprises, many are also in the global market for textiles, agriculture, or other goods. Among its services, BWCCI supports its members' participation in trade fairs to provide market opportunities for domestic and international buyers. It has also had remarkable success reforming the national banking system to counter gender inequality in business financing, and has become a valued policy sounding board for public officials in Bangladesh (read about their successes here).

BWCCI is not alone; in South Asia and elsewhere, women are confronting gender inequality in the formal sector. Though in a growing number of developing countries women can now vote or hold office, all too often they still cannot own collateral, open bank accounts, register businesses, form contracts, obtain commercial loans, or otherwise fully participate in the formal economy. In a select few countries, women still cannot legally work outside the home. A country's economy remains handcuffed if the formal sector excludes the majority of their own people. In almost all countries, women outnumber men.

Women deserve more than microfinance. A small loan to purchase a cow for selling milk is a great start, but that cow could be collateral for a larger loan to purchase a storefront or a means to store milk or transport to market without a middleman. The land on which the cow and its owner's family live could also be collateral to finance one or more child's primary, secondary, or higher education. Instead of being seized by a deceased husband's family, all of that collateral could remain under the widow's fruitful ownership, passed on intact to a child or sold to another family in need. None of these things will happen as long as only men can own collateral and only men are allowed to approach banks for a commerical loan. All of these things could use some solidarity and support for the growing masses of women who are already demanding their 'rights to fish' wherever they see fit.

Oscar Perry Abello works in the Global Programs Department at the Center for International Private Enterprise, which has worked for 25 years to strengthen democracy through market-oriented reform. Oscar graduated from Villanova University in 2008 with a B.A. in Economics and a minor in Peace and Justice Studies, and can be reached at oabello@cipe.org.

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