At the next G7 meeting in June women's empowerment will be on the agenda and the host, Germany, will launch an initiative to strengthen women economically.
Women's economic empowerment has become a cornerstone of development because as the World Bank explains "putting resources into poor women's hands while promoting gender equality in the household and in society results in large development payoffs".
Gloria Kabagwira on her farm in Rwanda. Photograph: Georgina Goodwin
Or as Gloria, one of Hand in Hand's clients in Rwanda explained to me, "If you are a woman you look to everything from your husband... You feel like you don't have value." But once Gloria had established herself as a successful farmer whose business brought in a profit of $360 every season then, she observed, the balance of power at home changed, "I no longer have to beg from my husband. We share responsibility."
Money, as they say, talks.
However, despite the many programs by NGOs and governments in recent years the position of millions of women, remains largely static: low status and predominantly subordinate. Women are still more likely to work in informal employment, especially in rural areas where many work as small scale, unpaid farmers. More women than men work in vulnerable, low-paid, jobs - in Sub-Saharan Africa the figures are nearly 85.5 per cent of women versus 70.5 per cent of men.
That women are simply less important than men is even enforced in statute. The World Bank reported almost 90 per cent of 143 economies studied have at least one legal difference restricting women's economic opportunities. Of those, 79 economies have laws that restrict the types of jobs that women can do. And husbands can object to their wives working and prevent them from accepting jobs in 15 economies.
From women's economic empowerment flow women's rights
My own, native Kenya illustrates how economic empowerment and women's human rights are intrinsically linked. In Kenya smallholder, subsistence farming accounts for 75% of agricultural output and women make up 80% of the farmers. However, only half of these women actually own their farms.
And my colleagues in Hand in Hand around the world agree. For all the differences among Hand in Hand operating countries, the women we support in each agree on one thing: the value of an improved income and independent decision-making. In a poll of Afghan Self-Help Group members for example, women almost unanimously reported experiencing a new found sense of freedom. Even in Afghanistan, which is still one of the most difficult countries in which to be a woman, earning an income brings empowerment. As Najia (pictured below, right), who started her own canned food business in northern Afghanistan explains, "I'm no longer dependent on my husband's income and I can easily purchase clothes and school materials and take my children to the doctor. I'm even saving for emergencies - and to expand my enterprise."
Najia (right) canned food entrepreneur. Photograph:Rada Akbar
How do we foster female entrepreneurship?
Finance seems the obvious answer. After all, one in two family-entrepreneurs in developing countries say their biggest obstacle is lack of capital. Microfinance was the response to this reality. However, the results have shown that while it has brought undoubted benefits, the availability of finance alone is not enough.
What we need is a system that encourages people to learn the power of group support and a shared goal; that encourages the poor to save just a little each week so they can start their own business or secure a loan; that teaches women living in poverty how to run a small business.
We have seen hundreds of thousands of micro-businesses created with support from grassroots level NGOs. However, unless government and business work together to provide the infrastructure and markets small businesses need to succeed, these NGOs' efforts will remain isolated pockets of good intentions.
What we really, really want from the G7 this week therefore is an initiative which brings together governments, business and NGOs to create and grow small businesses which will put economic power in the hands of women.