10/14/2011 03:40 pm ET | Updated Dec 14, 2011

Why Does 51% Own Less Than 1%?

The World Bank's latest World Development Report on Gender Equity and Development argues strongly that investing in women and girls is smart economics. I agree. The report says that women make up half the population and 40 percent of the world's workforce but hold just one percent of the world's wealth. It also offers up a solution: when countries eliminate barriers for women and close this gender gap, it can "increase the output per worker by 3% to 25%," according to the report.

Still, economic development is only one part of the solution in ending gender inequality. We need to assume responsibility for working the economic engine from other directions, based on women's lived experiences -- by ensuring women have safe and healthy lives, families and communities.

If women have access to equity -- in education, capital and inheritance, to name but a few -- then women also gain access to other crucial needs. Women with financial security can afford to move away from violent situations, to obtain reliable, high-quality health care, to buy and prepare healthy food for themselves and their families -- and much more.

In response to the World Bank report, Rachel Moussié of ActionAid International wrote, "Women's labor not only replaces household income, but also subsidizes the state." When government social services are cut, women are most often the family members who take on more unpaid household work to feed, clothe and care for relatives who have lost their jobs or been cut off from public benefits, Moussié said.

To put a local focus on the report, consider the work of the Chicago Metropolitan Breast Cancer Task Force. Compared to Caucasian women, African-American women are 62% more likely to die from breast cancer. This Chicago-area discrepancy has remained stubbornly wide for more than three decades. The gap is mainly attributable to a lack of access to quality mammography screening and cancer treatment for women of color, so the Task Force advocates for increases to the Illinois Breast and Cervical Cancer Program. Although the program reaches thousands of under- and uninsured women statewide, only about 13% of eligible women are served.

Women's lives are at stake, certainly, but so is their financial stability. Nearly two out of three bankruptcies are caused by health care costs, the American Journal of Medicine reported two years ago. The highest portion of the bills were from hospitals, where patients go either when preventive measures have been missed or when a lack of insurance makes it a logical first place to turn. Either way, it's the most costly way to receive health care, and even with insurance (which one in four Chicago women don't have, and up to one in three among Latinas), the bills can quickly pile up.

Women also face financial crises when dealing with domestic violence. In broad terms, federal research has found time and again that domestic violence costs money: the CDC says that homicides and injuries related to intimate partner violence add up to $37 billion in expenses annually.

The impact of domestic violence on a woman's life and her children is just as profound, especially during an economic downturn. When I was the executive director of Apna Ghar, an agency in Uptown designed to reach out to South Asian victims, I repeatedly heard women say that if it weren't for money, they would have a way out of their violent situation. Everything from the inability to pay for housing costs (rent or mortgage), to a lack of job training, to overt financial abuse and manipulation by her partner can exacerbate the already dangerous task of leaving a violent relationship.

Immigrant women victims face an additional hurdle: their legal status in the U.S. is often tied to an abusive spouse. They can apply to stay in the U.S. with a U Visa, part of the federal Violence Against Women Act, and local nonprofit agencies -- including Centro Romero, Korean American Women in Need, Latinos Progresando and many more -- help abused women and children apply. When women do not have to choose between deportation and personal safety, they have the time and resources to improve themselves and their communities.

October is the national awareness month for both breast cancer and domestic violence. There are many opportunities to learn and take action this month. The Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force's calendar and the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women's Network's October events (PDF) list countless ways you can learn more and get involved. This month, do more than wear ribbons and invest in knowledge. Armed with facts, you can ensure your community prioritizes women's and girls' needs now and in the future.