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The big push African women need to escape poverty

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Research and experience have shown the effectiveness of providing women and girls living in extreme poverty with a productive asset, support to meet their basic needs, and long-term coaching and training

FEATURE | RUDO KAYOMBO | What do poverty, climate change, and conflict have in common? They are among the biggest challenges confronting Africa, and they all disproportionately affect women living in poverty or on the margins of society. Both research and experience have demonstrated that these women have enormous potential to improve the well-being of their families and communities.

African countries seeking to drive sustainable development – and address the triple challenge of poverty, climate change, and conflict – must help women in poverty realise their potential. By investing in and scaling up evidence-based interventions that increase women’s control over income, ownership of productive assets, and decision-making in the household, policymakers can boost human capital, improve gender equality, and expand inclusive economic opportunities.

One approach that has been working in several countries is to provide people living in extreme poverty with a productive asset (such as cows, goats, or supplies for small-scale trade like a sewing machine), support to meet their basic needs, and intensive coaching for a roughly two-year period.

Often referred to as the Graduation approach, this set of interventions was developed by the Bangladesh-based NGO BRAC (of which I am Regional Director of Africa for its international arm) to give people the multifaceted “big push” they need to escape poverty and build long-term resilience.

Women, in particular, have benefited greatly from the Graduation approach. For starters, there is rigorous evidence that it can increase women’s productivity. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, Graduation interventions contributed to an increase in women’s off-farm enterprise employment and, thus, the labour supply.

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In Bangladesh, they significantly increased earnings from women-led income-generating activities. Research has also demonstrated that enabling women in extreme poverty to build sustainable livelihoods can encourage positive behaviour changes that help households prepare for and cope with temporary shocks.

Moreover, a multifaceted approach that includes gender-sensitive coaching, life-skills training, and community engagement can help women in poverty overcome the psychological and social challenges stemming from gender-based discrimination, social exclusion, and limited education.

For example, women who received psychosocial support through the Sahel Adaptive Social Protection Programme reported improvements in psychological well-being and social cohesion, as well as a reduction in domestic violence. And after a Graduation pilot in Kenya provided women in poverty with mentorship and training (and engaged with male community members to assuage concerns about shifting gender roles), women’s empowerment as measured by confidence, leadership, and local-committee membership – increased significantly.

Such progress in social and economic empowerment has had positive spillover effects. In Kenya, the two-year Rural Entrepreneur Access Programme (REAP) – which provided training, mentorship, and asset grants to small groups of women to start businesses – yielded substantial economic benefits for both participants and their non-enrolled neighbours. This is partly because REAP increased the value participants placed on economic advancement, which they passed along to other women in their communities.

Recognising the importance of a big-push approach, several African governments, including Kenya, Rwanda, and South Africa, are exploring Graduation-style programmes and how to incorporate them into existing systems.

For example, the government of Rwanda launched a national Graduation strategy in 2022 to empower people in more than 900,000 households in poverty to develop sustainable, long-term livelihoods, as part of a broader strategy to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030.

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Another evidence-backed BRAC initiative that shows promise at scale is the Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents (ELA) model, whereby young women and adolescent girls work with “near peer” mentors who provide training sessions on life skills including reproductive and sexual health, as well as financial literacy and entrepreneurship.

In Uganda, adolescent girls in communities with ELA programmes were more likely to earn a livelihood, while their rates of teen pregnancy and early marriage fell sharply. This community-based model has already reached more than 200,000 participants across Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, and it is continuing to expand.

Building on these proven approaches, BRAC, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation, has devised Accelerating Impact for Young Women. This five-year programme aims to equip adolescent girls and young women with age-appropriate entrepreneurship, employability, and life-skills training, as well as the tools they need to start and scale up their own businesses.

In 2023 – the first year of implementation – more than 70,000 participants enrolled in the programme in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Uganda, and more than 630 savings groups were formed. Participants have collectively saved $140,000, and nearly 20,000 of them have received support to start their own livelihoods.

The evidence is clear: investing in marginalised women and girls can lead to transformative change. By embracing proven approaches, African countries can improve their economic future and help build a better, more equitable world. They already have the resources, the evidence, and the technical knowledge. All that is needed now is the political will to act. – Project Syndicate

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Rudo Kayombo is Regional Director of Africa at BRAC International.

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