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Three proven steps to advance the world’s women, on International Women’s Day

March 8, 2010

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Nicholas Kristof

The New York Times
March, 2010

Today is International Women’s Day, and in fact the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. It’s a date that is much better known abroad but is beginning to get more traction in the U.S. as well.

So what interventions get the most bang for the buck in raising the status of women around the world? What is most helpful in overcoming injustices such as human trafficking and acid attacks? I’d welcome your ideas below, but let me toss out a few of my suggestions for most effective interventions:

First, I think girls’ education may be the single most cost-effective kind of aid work. It’s cheap, it opens minds, it gives girls new career opportunities and ways to generate cash, it leads them to have fewer children and invest more in those children, and it tends to bring women from the shadows into the formal economy and society. It’s not a panacea, of course. Lebanon and Sri Lanka were leaders in girls’ education, and both ended up torn apart by conflict. In India, the state of Kerala has done a fine job in girls’ education, but its state economy is still a mess and dependent on remittances. But overall, educating girls probably has a greater transformative effect on a country than anything else one can do.

Second, I’d argue for deworming and micronutrients. These may not sound like they’re “women’s issues,” but in a sense they are. For example, iodine deficiency particularly affects female fetuses, for reasons that we don’t fully understand. Insufficient iodine in the first trimester of pregnancy costs that child 10 to 15 I.Q. points for the rest of his or her life, and yet iodized salt programs that prevent the problem cost less than 5 cents per person reached. There are still tens of millions of girls out there with cognitive deficits because so much salt in poor countries is still not iodized. Likewise, women and girls disproportionately suffer from anemia, partly because of menstruation. In the United States, if a woman showed up at an E.R. with a hemoglobin level of, say, 9, she might get an immediate blood transfusion, and lower levels are rarely seen. In contrast, hemoglobin levels of 5 and 6 are routinely seen among women in poor countries – just unheard of in the United States. Deworming would help them, because worms cause anemia, and costs only about 50 cents per person and lasts a year (deworming is backed by groups like Deworm the World). So would iron supplements, which likewise are very cheap and can be given in particular to high school girls and to women expecting to become pregnant. Family planning likewise falls in this category: an intervention that is relatively cheap, pays for itself, and is vastly underfunded.

Third, we need more support for women starting businesses. These can be microsavings and microlending programs, or training in entrepreneurship. BRAC and Grameen have done great work in this area, as has Injaz in the Middle East. Such programs lead women to bring in incomes, and that gives them more weight in the home and society. Moreover, they tend to invest the income in their children, so there’s a broader effect in fighting poverty.

Lots of aid groups implement these kinds of approaches, including the big ones like CARE, Save the Children, Mercy Corps, and so on. So do small ones; Camfed, for example, is focused on girls’ education in Africa. I’d welcome your thoughts below both on what interventions are most cost-effective, and on the organizations you recommend to others. So many Americans are looking for good aid groups to support, and here’s your chance to recommend some to other readers.