How financial literacy impacts youth prostitution, AIDS, and women’s survival

Financial literacy programs turns girls into powerful economic contributors.

JUDITH BRUCE: Financial literacy is kind of bedrock to any long-term change pretty much for everybody, but certainly for females. The world spends a lot of time talking about the SDGs—these are the Sustainable Development Goals, they mention all sorts of goals—health, equality, participation—that cannot be realized unless you have some authority over resources. You can know a right, but if you don't have a way of getting that right or a bargaining position then it's just an idea. For girls, they begin to see themselves as just an extended part of other people, they begin to define themselves as doing household and "domestic activities". They don't see themselves for what they are, which is vital economic actors. So the first thing financial literacy does is it says you're an economic actor, you're making economic choices every single day with the way you use your time, the way you use scarce resources; much of the work that you do makes it possible for someone else to do some other work. So just an identification.

Financial literacy also means building specific capabilities, being able to analyze situations, risk situations, and opportunity situations. For example, when you're working with a population which has never thought of themselves as being economic contributors, if you ask the question, "Well, imagine that you're a girl of 12 in domestic service, what are the times that you are in the riskiest position?" And then people will say, "Well, oh, when you asked for your salary, because if they don't give it to you you have no recourse you're on the street." If you ask, for a young married girl, "How is it she's going to choose a number and timing for children?" Well, she's not. She's not unless she has some bargaining position with her partner. If the partner has complete control over her, sexually, and her fertility, she has no way of saying, "I don't want to have a child now," or, "I want to wait," so her being able to control some resources and not feel completely dependent.

What happens often is that young women, females, are working and they're earning but they are not able – they're trying to save but they're turning over almost all of what they make and their time to other people. So financial literacy makes them aware of the fact that they are, daily, supporting not only themselves but others.

It also teaches real world financial inclusion skills. What are different kinds of savings? What different kinds of savings do you need to have? You need to have emergency savings, because particularly for the poorest, if you don't have some money aside for an emergency then a young female in particular is at immediate high sexual risk, or she may need emergency savings to help another family member. Then there are longer-term savings, which are goal oriented, for example, saving up towards education. We have in our work something called the cash flow tool, and I remember in Haiti after the earthquake we became aware that there was a catastrophic level of sexual violence against the girls, and most of these households were run by beleaguered women, lean-tos—it was a desperate situation. The programs that did exist were called "child-friendly spaces," which lump boys and girls together, and ultimately in most cases had older boys only and were unsafe places for girls. The bathrooms were put in places that the girls couldn't get to safely, and there was a kind of – they were like war zones. So in July, after the earthquake, we had a workshop in Haiti and we started talking about at what age did a girl in Haiti need to really understand not only her safety, but how to resource for herself safely? And we had previously put the age at eight, and we had a 12-year-old there, and she said, "No, no, it's six. It's at six girls need to know this information."

In that setting, we often brought out something called the cash flow tool. So we asked people to draw pictures of several different types of girls by age and by education, and then we asked them now list the places from which such girls get money. And girls do get money from little chores, they get money they're sometimes given, and they're very good savers, so that's on one side. And then on the other side there's a listing of, "And what does this girl need to spend on?" And they make that list as well. And then we say, "Alright, so what's the most important source for the money?" And then they circle that. "And what's the most important item on their budget that takes the most money?" And they circle that. And then people begin to see that there is an imbalance, sometimes they're actually taking more money in than they need to spend, so we always say, "Well what you can save is the difference between what you want and what you need."

So it's a process of becoming very conscious, not only of your contributions but how you can manage often in scarcity.

I think it's valuable for anybody. When my children were growing up I couldn't find a financial literacy course. There is a great book that Susan Orman wrote called 'Young, Broke and Fabulous' and I thought it was terrific because it would take real scenarios that you actually faced; you have very little money but you really need a car. What are your real choices? And that's another thing that financial literacy does, it lays out reality-based scenarios. It doesn't talk to you as if you're middle-aged and are making a big salary and buying your first house, it outlines real scenarios of economic risk and need. And then it says, "How would you negotiate it?"

If you're a young poor female what you have to do is very different than if you're an older male. Most of the prescriptions for the older and better-off populations will have no place with these girls. Then you have a real conversation with the girls. So what will it really take for you to get school supplies this year? What will it really take for the rent to be paid without someone – story from Kenya – introducing very simple budgeting. One of the girls we were working with came back and said to her mentor, "This was the first year basically I didn't have to go out and sleep with my boyfriend without a condom, because we had enough money to cover the rent in November, which was just before school fees were due." That's how close the margins are, but you have to get down to that level of reality.

And one more thing I want to say, when you have a sense of control for one part of your life, it extrapolates to another. So for example in South Africa one of my colleagues did wonderful research, Kelly Holman and her associates, and they introduced in a school setting in South Africa, which was also in the highest HIV zone where, again, much higher rates of HIV infection among females than males, and thought the financial literacy would be core, not just because people need livelihoods but because it would make information, for instance, about HIV much more salient.

At the beginning of the program the girls, it was girls and boys, they were separated for some sessions and together for others, were asked, "Do you think of yourself as being at any exceptional risk for HIV?" And these were girls often 15 with a partner who was 25 years old in a zone with 25 percent HIV prevalence. And they would say, "No." Have you been HIV tested? "No." After several months of financial literacy, their incomes hadn't changed, their savings hadn't changed, but their idea that there was some aspect of their life economically that they could changes, so they were asked, "Do you have a financial goal?" And that didn't mean you had achieved it, but you had a goal. The girls, just having a financial goal, changed their ability to realistically assess their HIV risk. If they had a partner ten years older they thought, "Maybe I should get a different partner." They were much more likely to get tested. They saw a scope, that information of just psychological control and recognition immediately translated into being able to mobilize health information. So where good health is always valued, health doesn't drive economics as strongly as economics drive health. Without economic resources it's difficult for females especially to make good health decisions.

  • Around the world, girls are in positions of extreme vulnerability and risk. How can we increase the survival and empowerment of girls and women who have no education, who are married off as children, forced into prostitution, and who live in regions where AIDS/HIV is common?
  • One proven strategy is financial literacy programs, from as early as age six. It is the bedrock of change. When girls understand finance, savings, and how to think assess opportunity and risk, it is proven to impact seemingly unrelated areas of life, such as understanding their risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, explains Judith Bruce.
  • Invest in the poorest girls in the poorest countries early, says Bruce. Financial literacy affects their future decisions on health, education, and gives them their own economic agency. This benefits flow on to their children and will build a better, safer world.

Deep learning nails correlation. Causation is another matter.

Why do people with bigger hands have a better vocabulary? That's one question deep learning can't answer.

  • Did you know that people with bigger hands have larger vocabularies?
  • While that's actually true, it's not a causal relationship. This pattern exists because adults tend know more words than kids. It's a correlation, explains NYU professor Gary Marcus.
  • Deep learning struggles with how to perceive causal relationships. If given the data on hand size and vocabulary size, a deep learning system might only be able to see the correlation, but wouldn't be able to answer the 'why?' of it.
Keep reading Show less

Is NASA ignoring proof of Martian life from the 1970s?

One of the scientists with the Viking missions says yes.

Image source: David Williams/NASA
Surprising Science
  • A former NASA consultant believe his experiments on the Viking 1 and 2 landers proved the existence of living microorganisms on Mars
  • Because of other conflicting data, his experiments' results have been largely discarded.
  • Though other subsequent evidence supports their findings, he says NASA has been frustratingly disinterested in following up.

Gilbert V. Levin is clearly aggravated with NASA, frustrated by the agency's apparent unwillingness to acknowledge what he considers a fact: That NASA has had dispositive proof of living microorganisms on Mars since 1976, and a great deal of additional evidence since then. Levin is no conspiracy theorist, either. He's an engineer, a respected inventor, founder of scientific-research company Spherix, and a participant in that 1976 NASA mission. He's written an opinion piece in Scientific American that asks why NASA won't follow up on what he believes they should already know.

In 1976

Image source: NASA/JPL

Sunset at the Viking 1 site

As the developer of methods for rapidly detecting and identifying microorganisms, Levin took part in the Labeled Release (LR) experiment landed on Mars by NASA's Viking 1 and 2.

At both landing sites, the Vikings picked up samples of Mars soil, treating each with a drop of a dilute nutrient solution. This solution was tagged with radioactive carbon-14, and so if there were any microorganisms in the samples, they would metabolize it. This would lead to the production of radioactive carbon or radioactive methane. Sensors were positioned above the soil samples to detect the presence of either as signifiers of life.

At both landing sites, four positive indications of life were recorded, backed up by five controls. As a guarantee, the samples were then heated to 160°, hot enough to kill any living organisms in the soil, and then tested again. No further indicators of life were detected.

According to many, including Levin, had this test been performed on Earth, there would have been no doubt that life had been found. In fact, parallel control tests were performed on Earth on two samples known to be lifeless, one from the Moon and one from Iceland's volcanic Surtsey island, and no life was indicated.

However, on Mars, another experiment, a search for organic molecules, had been performed prior to the LR test and found nothing, leaving NASA in doubt regarding the results of the LR experiment, and concluding, according to Levin, that they'd found something imitating life, but not life itself. From there, notes Levin, "Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA's subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results."

Subsequent evidence

Image source: NASA

A thin coating of water ice on the rocks and soil photographed by Viking 2

Levin presents in his opinion piece 17 discoveries by subsequent Mars landers that support the results of the LR experiment. Among these:

  • Surface water sufficient to sustain microorganisms has been found on the red planet by Viking, Pathfinder, Phoenix and Curiosity.
  • The excess of carbon-13 over carbon-12 in the Martian atmosphere indicates biological activity since organisms prefer ingesting carbon-12.
  • Mars' CO2should long ago have been converted to CO by the sun's UV light, but CO2 is being regenerated, possibly by microorganisms as happens on Earth.
  • Ghost-like moving lights, resembling Earth's will-O'-the-wisps produced by spontaneous ignition of methane, have been seen and recorded on the Martian surface.
  • "No factor inimical to life has been found on Mars." This is a direct rebuttal of NASA's claim cited above.


Image source: NASA

A technician checks the soil sampler of a Viking lander.

By 1997, Levin was convinced that NASA was wrong and set out to publish followup research supporting his conclusion. It took nearly 20 years to find a venue, he believes due to his controversial certainty that the LR experiment did indeed find life on Mars.

Levin tells, "Since I first concluded that the LR had detected life (in 1997), major juried journals had refused our publications. I and my co-Experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, then published mainly in the astrobiology section of the SPIE Proceedings, after presenting the papers at the annual SPIE conventions. Though these were invited papers, they were largely ignored by the bulk of astrobiologists in their publications." (Staat is the author of To Mars with Love, about her experience as co-experimenter with Levin for the LR experiments.)

Finally, he and Straat decided to craft a paper that answers every objection anyone ever had to their earlier versions, finally publishing it in Astrobiology's October 2016 issue. "You may not agree with the conclusion," he says, "but you cannot disparage the steps leading there. You can say only that the steps are insufficient. But, to us, that seems a tenuous defense, since no one would refute these results had they been obtained on Earth."

Nonetheless, NASA's seeming reluctance to address the LR experiment's finding remains an issue for Levin. He and Straat have petitioned NASA to send a new LR test to the red planets, but, alas, Levin reports that "NASA has already announced that its 2020 Mars lander will not contain a life-detection test."

Physicists solve a 140-year-old mystery

Scientists discover the inner workings of an effect that will lead to a new generation of devices.

Credit: IBM
Surprising Science
  • Researchers discover a method of extracting previously unavailable information from superconductors.
  • The study builds on a 19th-century discovery by physicist Edward Hall.
  • The research promises to lead to a new generation of semiconductor materials and devices.
Keep reading Show less