International Women’s Day Spotlights Growing Support for Women Worldwide

International Women's Day 2011
International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day was first celebrated in Europe in 1911. In the years since, it has become a global day to celebrate the achievements of all women – past, present, and future. In some countries it’s a national holiday. Recently, there has been an explosion of nonprofit and corporate-sponsored efforts to empower women and girls around the world as research has shown that educating and enabling women is the key to improving health, increasing income, building more prosperous communities, and strengthening our global economy.

Women Hold Up Half the Sky
In their book, Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn expose major abuses of women in some developing countries. They tell stories of women being victimized by their government, by their communities, by the police, by strangers, by relatives, and by their own families until there is nowhere left to turn. However, the narratives of these women’s determination in the face of these abuses is inspiring. Women who survived became business owners, activists, community organizers, teachers, surgeons, and mothers who could show their children an example of a strong, valuable woman who is making a living, participating in household decisions, and respected by her husband and community. And learning by example is the biggest lesson of all.

Although the book made a big impression on the general public, these stories were not news to organizations like the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect, Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 women, and ExxonMobil’s Women’s Economic Opportunity, who had already been working to educate girls and empower women.

Why Do Companies Care?
Why would companies get involved in a gender issue in developing countries? For the same reason that PepsiCo would support and train Mexican farmers, thus improving their regional economic climate and causing a ripple effect of other positive benefits. First and foremost, to create a more stable economic climate in which to do business, and avail themselves of the best trained talent – be it men or women – that create the best product or provide the best services.

Does it satisfy a social good? Yes, absolutely. An extremely important one. But make no mistake – studies show that educating and empowering women is good business. On the 10,000 Women site, Zainab Salbi (Women for Women International) says, “Goldman Sachs is in the business of identifying investment opportunities. Its commitment of investing in women as agents of economic growth demonstrates the power and potential of women worldwide.” ExxonMobil’s Women’s Economic Opportunity site says, “At ExxonMobil, we understand that creating economic opportunities for women is one of the wisest investments we can make.” The Girl Effect promotes education for adolescent girls, citing these facts:

  • When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children.
  • An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school: 15 to 25 percent.
  • When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent for a man.
  • The total population of girls ages 10-24 – already the largest in history – is expected to peak in the next decade.
  • Out of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth, 70 percent are girls.

Investing in Women and Girls
In Investing in Women & Girls, a special edition supplement to the March 4 edition of USA Today created by MediaPlanet, Gillian Gaynor of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) says, “More than ever, the world now realizes that when women are denied the chance to contribute to economic, political, and social life, the entire society pays a price.” (p. 16)

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• 79 percent had donated food, clothes, or household items to charities
• 76 percent had volunteered their time
• 53 percent had donated their own money
• 66 percent had raised money or asked their friends and family members to volunteer

The 24-page supplement discusses improving maternal health, providing support for mothers, preventing child marriage, and empowering women to start a business, build credit, and gain financial freedom. The facts and personal stories underline and underscore the vast potential that women can bring to our global economy. Empowering women, in short, has the possibility to change the world. But how soon will change take place?

In Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn said, “In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.”