Economic Empowerment

The key to lifting women out of poverty

Women have historically borne the burden of poverty worldwide, falling far behind men in access to land, credit and employment.

Jane Ngoiri is a single mother who grew up in a slum in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi. Like many women in her circumstances, she married young and had children, but soon found herself homeless and broke after her husband took a second wife.

For five years she sold her body to survive. Journalist Nicholas Kristof, writing in a September 14, 2011, column in The New York Times, described Ngoiri’s life as “a perilous existence in Mathare, a collection of dangerous slums in Nairobi. The area, a warren of winding, muddy alleys, is consumed by crime and despair.”

“If you can figure out ways of helping people get money, then
they will send their kids to school. They’ll get better
healthcare, they’ll rise up the ladder.”

— Nicholas Kristof, journalist


Jane Ngoiri, a prostitute-turned-businesswoman in Nairobi,Kenya, who supports her family by repurposing wedding gowns and bridesmaid dresses

Photo by David Smoler

But unlike so many single mothers struggling in the developing world, Ngoiri’s tale is a relative success – a story of a former prostitute-turned-businesswoman who lifted herself and her children out of grinding poverty.

In 1999 she joined an organization called Jamii Bora, meaning “good families” in Swahili, which was founded by 50 impoverished women with the help of Ingrid Munro, a Swedish women who lives in Nairobi.

Jamii Bora has gone on to become Kenya’s biggest microfinance organization, with more than 300,000 members, running business management training alongside a sobriety campaign to reduce alcoholism and a housing program to help slum-dwellers move to the suburbs. It is an example of what economic empowerment can do for women in the developing world.

“If you can figure out ways of helping people get money, then they will send their kids to school. They’ll get better healthcare, they’ll rise up the ladder,” Kristof says.

Women fall far behind men in access to land, credit and decent jobs, according to the United Nations, which estimates that women represent 70 percent of the world’s poor. Being poor means that women are increasingly vulnerable to violence and have almost no role in decision-making.

According to UN Women, the United Nations’ entity for gender equality:

  • Women’s nominal wages are 17 percent lower than men’s.
  • In some regions, women provide 70 percent of agricultural labor, produce more than 90 percent of the food, and yet are nowhere represented in budget deliberations.
  • Women constituted around 60 percent to 80 percent of the export-manufacturing workforce in the developing world in 2008. The global economic crisis, however, plunged a further 22 million women into unemployment.
  • Women are concentrated in insecure jobs in the informal sector with low income and few rights; they tend to have few skills and only basic education, and are the first to be fired.

“If you go down the list of all of impediments to economic growth, they fall doubly hard on women,” says US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“One of the best ways that we can deal with all of the abuses that are so troubling against women and girls is through economic empowerment.”

By being empowered, Jane Ngoiri learned to sew, quit prostitution and used her savings and a loan to buy a sewing machine. She buys second-hand wedding gowns and cuts them up to make smaller dresses that she can then sell.

Her business has flourished, and Ngoiri has been able to buy a home in a safer suburb and send her three children to school, where they have excelled in academics and sports.

“When [a woman] has that dollar in her hands, she … becomes more aware, she automatically invests in more access to health and education and political participation,” says Zainab Salbi, the founder of Women for Women International, an organization supporting women who have the victims of political conflict.

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Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is not in any way affiliated with or in partnership with the Half the Sky Foundation, a nonprofit organization created in 1998 to enrich the lives and enhance the prospects for orphaned children in China. For more information about the Half the Sky Foundation, visit