Key Messages for Women's Empowerment

After attending a panel discussion about the success of women’s progress in developing countries at the Millennium Challenge Corporation offices in Washington, DC to mark the 101st International Women’s Day, I found myself captivated by a couple of key messages I picked up:

  • Sustainable gains toward gender equality are possible when women are informed of their rights and have the resources necessary to exercise them.

  • Women’s issues are now an international development imperative. In the past, the central point was one of fairness, but a new message has emerged from economists that women are the greatest untapped resource of our time.

There’s no denying those messages are engaging, powerful and empowering! Declarations and calls to action all-in-one. GOOD key messages for helping to promote the advancement of gender equality and women’s rights so that women may become champions of their own development. They also push back against the obstacles that too many girls and women now face, such as: illiteracy, violence, sexual abuse and legal inequality.

The forum speakers were: Dr. Virginia Seitz, senior director of social and gender assessment at Millennium Corporate Challenge; Gina Reiss-Wilchins, director, Girl Up at United Nationsl Foundation; Alyse Nelson, president and CEP of Vital Voices Global Partnership and Karen Sherman, executive director of global programs for Women for Women International.

All of the speakers agreed that women currently living in or recovering from living in conflict areas were the most severely impacted of all. Sherman of Women for Women International emphasized the sustainable progress the organization has achieved through the implementation of specialized one-year training and education programs. The programs reflect three significant challenges women face: access to skills and knowledge, access to markets and cultural and societal restrictions on what women can do. According to Sherman, the trainings also help build a group dynamic and solidarity to stop abuse, increase graduates knowledge of their physical health and enable women to double or triple their incomes. And here’s a very interesting factoid: according to Sherman the research shows that when women earn money they invest 90 percent of it in their families.

Reiss-Wilchins of Girl Up shared that the Girl Up Campaign, just launched in September 2010 to engage adolescent girls in the USA to help their peers in developing countries, is growing like wildfire. She shared the sad facts that one in seven girls are married by age 15 in developing countries and one in five girls report they have no friends. NO FRIENDS!?! However, a vision of teen compassion and the positive power of social media came to my mind when Reiss-Wilchins went on to explain that knowledge about those findings had galvanized some 220,000 American girls to establish 100 Girl Up clubs to raise funds and take action to help empower their peers around the world. To coin a new term Reiss-Wilchins used, these girls are powerful “philanthroteens” and hopefully destined to become some of the most dedicated philanthropists of this century.

Later, I was intrigued by some of the broad observations shared by Nelson of Vital Voices Global Partnership towards the end of the forum discussion. She spoke about her own research into how women lead and her findings, for example, Nelson said:

  • Women are more cause-driven and more often compelled by passionately held beliefs

  • Women are more collaborative, perhaps because they know what it is like to NOT be included in discussions about what to do

  • Women who gain power are more inclined to give back and pay it forward than their male counterparts

Finally, the entire panel agreed that fastest way to progress equality for women is via corporate partnerships. According to the group, as corporations come into the gender equality sector they help women and children, influence government policies and ultimately shift cultural norms for women nationwide.

They key message the panel left us with was straightforward: There is an important intersect between a corporation working for profit and an organization working for a mission. I believe that’s true and I also believe governments have an important role to play to ensure corporations do not abuse the power and influence they derive from that intersection.

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