The New York Times last week highlighted a recent and relatively successful pilot effort underway in Maharashtra, India, where a payment program is convincing couples to delay childbearing. The underlying impetus is that nagging fear of a booming population while the overlying reality is that where people are poor, money talks.
Being a feminist I’m not sure I agree with this particular use of cash bonuses, as it’s essentially no different than China’s one child policy, which offers non-punishment as a bribe for controlling family size. But I do support the release of more cold hard cash in development efforts.
India, a country with a vast population and an even more vast rate of poverty, has adopted cash bonus programs before. In fact, just last month a piece ran on the JSY program, a national initiative which pays women to give birth in hospitals instead of at home. It’s having some success, though studies have found that while the cash is reaching middle- and lower-income women, it has yet to reach the poorest.
I thought about another recent study I had read, which paid school girls in Malawi and found that they had safer sex – fewer HIV and Herpes infections – as a result. One group was paid conditionally upon going to school; while another was paid regardless. Both had lower infection rates than women who hadn’t been paid at all. And it wasn’t because with the money they went out and bought condoms and then used them, but it was the j’ne sais quoi of having money. The girls were choosier with their partners and more discerning with their risks.
This made me wonder about why we’re not more often paying women, as well as helping them to earn and save much more, in our development efforts. Studies have shown that when women control the money it’s generally better spent. And reality has shown that when people have money at all, they generally feel more empowered. This obviously leads to terrible things at times. But if we take an optimistic view, it can lead to really wonderful things.
Paying someone to do something is not a new concept; in fact, it’s about as rock-bottom simple as you can get, whether you look at it as bribery or feeding on the capitalist souls inside of us. Money is an essential commodity that allows us, almost universally, to interact in society with agency and choice. Money doesn’t replace the necessity we have to exercise our rights as humans, but it is a pretty damn good antidote to many ills. Especially for women.
As a colleague of mine who’s worked on HIV in Malawi said, we should know by now that women don’t need inspirational posters and educational songs….where poverty is rife women need money. Duh. And for more reasons than just that money will help buy X, Y, and Z that she needs. It’s about the power that having money invests in an individual. This is also why so often women don’t control money in their relationships and societies, a clear symbol of their status writ large.
Money, in and of itself, is powerful enough to enact real change at the public health and behavior-level…and it empowers those who have it to make those decisions freely. Even in developed societies, the concept of women having control of money and making money is relatively new, and for many of us squeam-inducing. Hell, the only monies I can think of with women on them in the US, the Sacajawea and the Susan B. Anthony coins, are about as rare as a US$2 bill (pretty novel).
That should be a major part of what’s being changed through global development efforts, should they be effective. Women need to be earning money, controlling money, lending it, saving it, and investing it. Then let’s see how much better off we all are.