Investing in Women and Girls

Development experts agree that investing in women and girls is critical to achieving broader development goals.

The Word on Women - A New Global Agency for Women's Equality

By Lyric Thompson

Women collect water from the tank belonging to Darfur's joint U.N./African Union UNAMID peacekeeping force, outside the UNAMID team site in Khor Abeche, January 10, 2011. REUTERS/Albert Gonzalez Farran/UNAMID/Handout

I’m writing from the 55th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, this year’s session of the annual progress review the United Nations conducts on the global global advancement of women’s empowerment and gender equality.

This year, the headliner is easily the launch of UNWomen, the new superagency tasked with leading these efforts within the UN system. The new body combines and elevates the four previous, under-funded and small UN gender to a larger, consolidated agency under the senior leadership of an under-secretary-general, Michelle Bachelet. The excitement surrounding the launch is palpable; the new agency is the much-anticipated result of years of lobbying by women’s groups, among them the GEAR campaign, to elevate and resource the gender portfolio within UN operations.

Last Thursday’s events were not only much-anticipated, but also much celebrated, with a considerable degree of pomp and circumstance–from speeches by high-profile leaders up to the Secretary General himself, to the attendance and endorsement by a woman’s rights activist from Nepal and a number of global celebrities, including Geena Davis and video messages from Nicole Kidman and Shakira.

In his remarks, Secretary-General Ban spoke of the new agency as the level of leadership that could actually achieve equality: “The challenges are great, but I believe that with the new energy, the new momentum and the new authority that UN Women brings, these challenges will be met. True gender equality should be our shared legacy in the 21st Century.”

This is no easy task. The World Bank has put a number on what it would cost to do just that — achieve gender equality–at roughly $83 billion. Civil society recommendations for a budget for the new agency spanned from $1-100 billion dollars, perhaps taking this into account. The GEAR campaign had settled on the $1 billion figure, still less than UNICEF’s $3 billion but considerably more than the combined $221 million the four preexisting gender agencies totaled together. Yet ultimately, the transitional budget for the agency was set at $51 million with the promises of additional resources to be pledged later. But when the prolonged and beleaguered global recovery from the economic crisis has donor states like the United States embroiled in political debates over where to reduce the deficit, including overt pressure to cut UN funding, there is a real danger indeed.

Hence, a sense of cautious optimism underpinning the headlines and excitement surrounding the launch. Admittedly, the launch of the new agency and the under-secretary–general level of leadership are both celebrated victories for many of the civil society voices that have been campaigning for it for years. But the work is not yet done — there is still a strong commitment amongst many civil society advocates watching the progress of the new agency to ensure other key priorities will be realized. Most importantly, activists are pushing to ensure the new agency will establish an effective system for civil society engagement in the development and execution of its strategy, and that the emergence of UNWomen will not result in other UN agencies reducing their existing women’s programming.

On the first issue, the GEAR campaign has been out in front of efforts to ensure that the agency consistently engages civil society partners, calling for UNWomen to be 'both accountable to and informed by civil society, especially women's organizations, through the meaningful participation at headquarters and a the regional and country level'.

Indeed, the new agency acknowledges civil society’s role in advocating for its existence and asserts that the sector will have a “strong voice” in its scope and operations. Yet rumors abound about lack of meaningful consultation of women’s organizations in the current drafting of UN Women’s global strategy. So far, five key priorities for the new agency have been publicly announced, but a consultative process inclusive of civil society voices, including women human rights defenders, is needed to further determine what policy and programs will look like under that umbrella.

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The Word on Women

The 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day: Toward A New Framework for Advancing Women’s Rights and Dignity in Afghanistan

By Lyric Thompson

Originally Posted on TrustLaw on March 7, 2011

Women March for Peace in Kabul

2011 marks the 10th anniversary of the fall of Taliban in Afghanistan and the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. Taken together, these anniversaries provide a sober framework for reflecting on the status of women in today’s Afghanistan.

Ten years ago, international intervention in Afghanistan was promoted, among other things, under the banner of upholding women’s rights, albeit under a motif that largely featured women as burka-clad victims of violence oppression. This centennial anniversary of International Women’s Day is an opportunity for the world to again demand dignity and justice for women in Afghanistan (who ten years later are still struggling to protect their rights and access to the public sphere), but this time it must do so under a framework that acknowledges the dignity, bravery and agency of the women who risk their lives each day to assert and defend a vision of an Afghanistan that upholds the rights of all Afghans.

We have seen that when advocacy efforts start with women on the ground and are then acknowledged and elevated on a global scale, change is possible. In 2009, the Government of Afghanistan surreptitiously developed a law to curtail the rights of women of the Shia minority, as an attempt to curry political favor with conservative groups. But the outcry of women’s groups was immediate and effective. Hundreds of women organized protests in the streets of Kabul, braving ridicule and intimidation, to register their public disapproval of the measure. International activists, bloggers and leaders up to the level of American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed their cry: op-eds ran in newspapers around the world urging intense international pressure and a reversal by the Afghan government. And Karzai quickly capitulated, nullifying the measure for judicial review.

Similarly, as discussions of reconciliation with Taliban leaders developed over the course of the last year, women of all backgrounds were watching, eager to raise their voices despite strong resistance and regular marginalization of their views. Last summer’s Peace Jirga, a conference convening a cross-section of Afghan society to debate the merits and process for proposed peace talks, initially allocated only 20 seats for women, out of more than a thousand. After intense lobbying by Afghan women’s organizations and strong support by the international community, the resulting Peace Jirga saw exponentially more women–350–able to participate.

In a related vein, during the Kabul Conference, a donor conference that gathered 40 foreign ministers from around the world to discuss Afghanistan’s national economic plan, women leaders were initially excluded from attending. In the end, pressure from the international community, including the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, resulted in the right for Palwasha Hassan, a women’s rights activist who helped found the Afghan Women’s Network, to articulate the concerns of Afghan women that the ongoing peace and reintegration process excludes women and ignores normative protections of women’s rights under international and national law, such as UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the National Action Plan for Women of Afghanistan and the Elimination of Violence Against Women act.

This is the kind of model for inclusive– and effective– advocacy for women’s rights in Afghanistan that must be replicated immediately with regard to the ongoing peace process.

This International Women’s Day, hundreds of women will be participating in a Peace March in Kabul. They are marching to call attention to the fact that past promises to prioritize women’s rights in the ongoing peace talks with Taliban leaders have not been upheld. Many women supported the idea of reconciliation when first proposed, when it was thought the interests of the Afghan people– including women– would be represented in any compromise. Instead, an opaque process has commenced, orchestrated by a High Peace Council of political appointees whose ten female representatives provide only a thin veneer of credibility to a behind-the-scenes discussion in which communication between Taliban and High Peace Council is about negotiation of power opportunities for Taliban and not about the protection of women’s rights.

So on March 7th, women in Kabul are marching in silent yet public protest of those talks. On March 8th, the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, they will be joined by thousands of activists around the world uniting on bridges in acknowledgement that women on the ground build bridges of peace and cannot pay its price alone. With enough international support behind the women on the front lines, perhaps the world will once again see success where a global call for women’s rights in Afghanistan is led by Afghan women.

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We are UN Women

Part of CSW 55 Blog Series

By Su Chuen Foo

New York, February 24, 2011 - It is hard not to swoon over the grandeur of the UN General Assembly and what it represents, and tonight it was no different. On the momentous occasion approaching the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day and during the 55th Commission on the Status of Women, the UN marked history today with the launch of the long awaited UN Women. This star-studded event was attended by the Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and the first ever Executive Director of UN Women Michelle Bachelet. It also brought together other prominent individuals from the political, diplomatic, media, and NGO worlds such as Nicole Kidman, UN Goodwill Ambassador and Ms. Bandana Rana, President of Saathi, to sing praises and share their dreams of a future where men and women are truly equals.

As the newest addition to the UN General Assembly, UN Women is the result of years of intense and extensive advocacy and lobbying by women’s organizations and civil society to accelerate the progress of achieving gender equality at the national, regional, and international level. Nothing but kudos can be said about their choice of five focal areas — ending violence against women, promoting women in peace and security, empowering women economically, expanding women’s participation in leadership roles, and partnering with local, national, and sectoral agencies to push the gender agenda forward. With its birth, hopes are renewed and spirits are soaring, as was evident from the remarks of prominent speakers of the night.

Kicking off the event was Juju Chang, anchor for ABC Good Morning America and emcee for the night who spoke about the day when gender equality is a norm and not just a mere dream. Joseph Deiss, President of the General Assembly enthusiastically proclaimed “UN Women as the best thing we can to do revitalize the UN General Assembly.”

By no means would UN Women exist today solely based on the advocacy of civil society without political will and leadership from the UN. Known as the “man behind the UN Women,” the excitement on the face of Secretary General Ban Ki Moon was contagious when he spoke about how far we have come in progressing women’s rights, citing the example of the recent conviction of Lieutenant Colonel Mutware Kibibi for crimes against humanity related to the mass rapes in the DRC as a long overdue victory for the women in Congo. However, he was also clear in acknowledging how much more we need to do to eradicate harmful traditional practices against women, to protect women’s shelters, to enable women to go to school and to put their knowledge to full use. That is where UN Women comes in, calling the establishment of UN Women “the smartest thing we can possibly do in the UN.”

Echoing the excitement of SG Ban Ki Moon in both her speech and her hot pink suit, as the leader of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet brings with her political weight of a former and first ever female President of Chile, tenure as the Defense Minister of Chile, and a breath of fresh air to the often male-dominated circles of the UN. As a living testament of the need for more females in high-level leadership positions, Michelle Bachelet pointed out the vast data that exist to support women’s inclusion at the decision-making table. Companies with more females in their boards outperform those without. Countries with greater gender equality do better than those that marginalize women. This emphasis on women’s participation at the leadership level, especially in the political sphere was reaffirmed by fellow colleague Joy Ogwu, President of the UN Women Executive Board who passionately called for all women in leadership positions to uphold their duty to advance women’s issues every chance they have. To her, it is their moral imperative to do so.

These proclamations and reaffirmations of commitments to the greater gender agenda sounded like music to the ears of many peace and women activists in the room tonight. In the world of women’s issues, UN Women is a great achievement that we should be proud of and will be an accomplishment that forever marks our generation. However, inspiring words need to be accompanied by concrete follow through and promises need to be fulfilled. For example, in a separate session on the Precarious Progress on Women, Peace, and Security, Malika Bhandarkar from UN Women spoke about the implementation of the 26 indicators to monitor progress of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for women’s greater inclusion in peacebuilding efforts, one of UN Women’s five focus areas. The great news is that there have been positive movements in getting the indicators ready for implementation on the ground. The question is then how do you make sure and apply urgent pressure so that these indicators are being adopted by Member States.

UN Women is fortunate to have the strong backing of civil society and grassroots women’s organizations who want nothing more than for it to fulfill its mission. Yet, cautious optimism rules in conversations with these groups. Many hope that UN Women will ride the momentum of its initial launch to bring effective results felt on the ground by women around the world. As Maria Luisa from Soroptimist International aptly put it, “This is a great opportunity for women, but I hope it will not be wasted.”

When initially conceptualized, it was estimated that UN Women would truly be effective with an operating budget of $500 million. As of now, they have only raised a fraction of that amount — approximately $55 million was passed recently for its 2010-2011 budget. In today’s launch, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon pledged to do all that he can to raise money for UN Women. That is the kind of political will we need to see replicated in the international community. What UN Women needs is a multi-year multilateral funding source to support its long-term operations. Without its necessary budget, UN Women is only set up to fail in the long run.

The launch of UN Women around the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day is particularly timely and of great importance for women and men alike. A great body led by a capable leader and supporters to push the envelope on women’s economic, political and social rights is critical in times where women in certain parts of the world still have no say over the rights of their body, on whether they go to school, and have no mechanisms for redress when they are violated physically and psychologically. The women survivors of war that Women for Women International work with often have seen and endured much violence, loss, and hardship as a result of conflicts. They need us to do all we can to help them stand again on their own two feet. As citizens of the world, and fellow women’s rights supporters, we need to ensure that our actions are in line to support UN Women’s mission for the better of all humankind. As Michelle Bachelet said, “I am UN Women, We are UN Women.”

To read Michelle Bachelet’s statement on the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day, go here.

To read more about UN Women, go to

To learn more about the 55th Commission on the Status of Women, go here.

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WfWI Mentioned as Organization Leading the Way Toward UN Millennium Development Goals

On January 25, 2011, in their article entitled Davos 2011: Communities of Action to End Extreme Poverty, Johann Koss and John W. McArthur highlight Women for Women International as an organization that has made “exciting progress” on a pledge to advance the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the last year. Through its year-long program providing rights awareness, life skills and vocational training to women survivors of war around the globe, Women for Women International pledges to advance a number of MDGs, including: eradicating extreme hunger and poverty; promoting gender equality and empowering women; and developing a global partnership for development. Since making its pledge at Davos, Switzerland in 2010, WfWI has “supported nearly 43,000 women survivors of war across a range of developing countries.”

Remarks to the Press from the kate spade new york

By: U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry; U.S. Ambassador-at-large for global women's issues Melanne Verveer; CEO and Co-President of kate spade new york Craig Leavitt; and, founderof Women for Women International Zainab Salbi

Download the PDF to read the full article

Women for Women International Welcomes the Creation of UN Women

Washington, D.C. — July 30, 2010

In July 2010, the United Nations launched a new super-agency on gender, which will consolidate the four preexisting agencies working on women's issues into one larger, more empowered agency represented in the highest levels of UN leadership by an Under-Secretary-General. In the coming months, Secretary-General Ban will appoint an Under-Secretary-General to head the new body. UN Women will become operational in January 2011.

The Need for UN Women

Women for Women International welcomes the creation of UN Women. We are very excited at the prospect of an integrated approach to gender within the UN, which has been needed for many years. As an institution, the UN has developed a body of good policy promoting women’s rights and empowerment, including the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and several Security Council Resolutions specifically dealing with women and war, among others. However, there has been a significant gap between policy and practice. There is room to hope that the creation of a coordinated, integrated super agency for gender with leadership at the Under Secretary level will be a tremendous step forward in efforts to close that gap.

The endowment of this new agency reflects a greater commitment to women, who are 70% of the world’s poor and yet represent tremendous, untapped potential in solving key development and security challenges of our day. As recent data indicates, increased investment in women yields dividends in both the developed and developing worlds, from the local level of communities and civil society, to the highest echelons of government and the private sector. Societies that discriminate on the basis of gender pay a significant price in greater poverty, slower economic growth, weaker governance, and a lower quality of life (World Bank). Companies with more female board directors have shown a return on investment of up to 66% more than countries with less (Catalyst). One extra year of secondary schooling can increase a girl’s lifetime wages by 15 to 25% (World Bank). When women own property and earn money from it, they may have more bargaining power at home, which can help reduce their vulnerability to domestic violence and HIV infection (ICRW). Women are also more likely to use their profits to help the poor and hire other women (World Bank). Children of educated mothers are 40% more likely to live beyond the age of 5 and 50% more likely to be immunized (UNICEF). The task of UN Women will be to capitalize on the benefits of investing in women, turning sound policy into real results on the ground globally.

The New Agenda

The new agency represents huge potential to become the largest and most influential international organization committed to women’s rights and gender issues. The emphasis that UN Women will put on gender policy by combining the past successes of the four previous gender agencies is outstanding. The decision to place the leadership of the new agency at the Under-Secretary level is commendable, as is the support garnered by Member States and the Secretary General. The promise of continuing efforts to engage with civil society and women’s organizations will be a great strength of the agency. Yet, despite the remarkable progress that UN Women promises to achieve, there are still some potential challenges, which the global community must address to prevent the development of entrenched problems.

First, the current proposed budget of $500 million is not sufficient for long-term success. Women’s issues activists and leaders around the world had called for an operating budget twice this size in order for the agency to be able to successfully deliver on its policy and programming goals. We cannot allow this agency to be under-funded when it is only in its infancy—Member States must come together to provide real support that will carry this body through its infancy, from dream to reality.

Second, combining the work of the four previous gender agencies into one will be a large task. Gender equality and women’s empowerment impact every facet of life, from politics, to poverty, to education and child health. The new agency will therefore have a very large mandate and coordination could be difficult. The most pressing gender issues will need to be prioritized from the beginning. Initiatives that are simpler and already have political support, such as political quota systems, will understandably become priorities unless the more complicated gender issues, such as addressing root causes of discrimination, are also given proper support.

Third, while the creation of UN Women is an immense task and should not be rushed, it has thus far been a slow process. It took nine months for the agency to be given a name, the Under-Secretary General has not yet been appointed, and there has been political debate over several of the operational pieces of the agency. The recent UN resolution calling for the creation process to be sped up and the initiation date of January 1, 2011 are very good steps. Yet, if a slow pace is continued during the first months of the agency’s life, immediate impact on gender issues will be difficult to achieve.

Finally, while Member States and high-level UN leaders have verbally pledged support for UN Women, their continued participation and cooperation with the agency must be encouraged. Many governments are still committing egregious violations of women’s rights and will be reluctant to adhere to any recommendations from UN Women. Without cooperation from Member States and support from UN leaders, the agency will encounter problems implementing even the highest quality of gender policy and programs. Currently, there are no plans for developing incentives and/or an effective enforcement mechanism within the agency to promote accountability and adequate implementation of gender policies.

Recommendations for UN Women

Based on 17 years of experience working with women survivors of war across the globe, Women for Women International provides the following recommendations to keep in mind while establishing the UN Women agenda in the coming months.

UN Women must be comprehensive, coherent, and well coordinated. Providing women with the opportunity to own their power and achieve equality throughout society will impact every aspect of society, from politics, to poverty, to education and child health. Given the immensity of the task at hand, UN Women must also maintain a sense of coherency and coordination.

UN Women must focus on gender in conflict. Gender discrimination and violence against women becomes exacerbated during times of conflict. Women and children make up 75% of war casualties, and rape is used as a tool of war to destroy whole communities. These crimes are not held to account when women are not at the peace-negotiating table--in recent peace agreements, women were only 6% of negotiators and fewer than 3% of signatories (UNIFEM). UN Women must set women in conflict as a top priority and should focus on the framework established in UNSCR 1325, 1820, 1888, and 1889, with a particular focus on including women in peace processes.

UN Women must focus on gender, the economy, and development. Global poverty has extreme gender dynamics. Women represent 70% of the world's poor and are severely discriminated against within the existing global economic structure (UNIFEM). Another top priority for UN Women must be to address gender discrimination within the economy and development. UN Women should specifically work to achieve the MDGs via direct investment in women.

UN Women must work to address the root causes of gender discrimination. Women are discriminated against in every facet of life and this will not change until the root causes of gender discrimination are addressed. UN Women needs to examine how gender impacts poverty, education, health, agriculture, and all other parts of society. The agency needs to go beyond the “add women and stir” model and start questioning basic gender assumptions that lead to the subjugation of women (GEAR).

UN Women must develop a mechanism for holding Member States and UN agencies accountable. Without full commitment and participation from individual governments to implement gender policies within their own countries, discrimination will continue and women’s voices will not be heard.

UN Women must have a sufficient budget. The current budget stated in Resolution A/63/311 is a minimum of $500 million, which is insufficient for an agency of this size and scope to successfully operate. Comparatively, UNICEF reported over $3 billion in income in 2007. To show additional perspective, one year of the world’s military expenditure is currently equal to 700 years of the UN regular budget and 2928 years of the new UN women’s agency (UN). A larger budget, or at least one comparable to UNICEF, will be vital to the long-term success of UN Women.

UN Women must have strong leadership. Strong leadership from Under-Secretary General of UN Women is imperative for long-term success. The Under-Secretary General must be able to garner continued support and adherence from Member States, other UN agencies, and civil society. She must represent the needs of women across the globe from every facet of life.

UN Women must continually work to engage with civil society and women’s non-governmental organizations. UN Women has been charged with supporting inter-governmental bodies such as the Commission on the Status of Women in their formulation of policies, global standards and norms. It is imperative that UN Women adheres to this charge and continually engages with civil society at all levels.

As activists, philanthropists, government and business leaders and concerned citizens, we must all come together to celebrate and support the birth of the new UN super-agency for women, building continuous momentum towards the consolidation of its success. WfWI hopes that public support will help encourage the UN to give this agency the full and comprehensive support it needs, and that the birth of this new agency will signal a critical step forward to a more peaceful and prosperous future for the world we share.

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Investing in Women: Beijing +15 and the Millennium Development Goals — 54th U.N. Commission on the Status of Women Highlights

March 1-12, 2010—This year, Women for Women International achieved consultative status to the United Nations, which permits the organization to attend and inform UN discussions and processes relating to the advancement of the status of women globally. One such opportunity lies in sending a delegate to the 54th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meeting in New York, this year’s annual convening of the General Assembly and gender experts to examine global progress in implementing key international accords such as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the Millennium Development Goals, and the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women in peace and security. Attending as the WfWI delegate was Lyric Thompson, Policy Analyst and External Relations Officer, who participated in and hosted key debates on such topics as investing in women’s inclusion in peace processes; engaging men in promoting women’s rights and value to society; combating violence against women; and empowering women in agriculture.

Women for Women International Policy Analyst and External Relations Officer Lyric Thompson at the United Nations.

As part of CSW proceedings, on March 9th, Women for Women International hosted an event titled “Investing in Women: Beijing +15 and the Millennium Development Goals” which took place from 4:00 to 5:30pm at the Church Center for the United Nations. In a panel discussion, Thompson presented evidence pointing to the fact that donor investments to achieve the Millennium Development Goals are critically off-track, and that the most effective and efficient way to achieve these important goals is to increase investment in women and girls. Following her presentation, U.S. delegate Karen Richardson of the Department of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues discussed U.S. priorities for the Millennium Development Goals. The event was attended by nearly 50 people and the WfWI pledge calling on governments to invest in women to achieve the MDGs was circulated for attendees to sign. These signatures will be delivered to the UN General Assembly in September 2010, ahead of the annual MDG review.

Throughout the CSW proceedings, Thompson reported on the UN debates and panel discussions she attended on openDemocracy, a blog dedicated to publishing the voices of human rights advocates. Her five blog entries — A retrospective: 15 years later, Beijing’s Mandate Yet Unfinished, Defining the New American Gender Agenda, The Price of Peace, An Uncomfortable Truth: The Gender Turf War in UN CSW, and Putting Money Where Our Mouths Are — cover topics ranging from the world’s progress in achieving gender equality, U.S. foreign policy priorities to advance the status of women globally, mainstreaming women’s participation in peace processes and post-conflict reconstruction efforts, the debate over men’s engagement on “women’s issues,” and the need to dedicate the resources required to close the gap between policy and practice where achieving international development goals

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World Leaders Convene at UN Headquarters in New York to Discuss Development Progress

September 24, 2010 - New York —This week the United Nations held a High-Level Plenary meeting, also referred to as the Millennium Development Goals Summit. The Summit’s purpose was to assess the international community’s progress in the last 10 years in achieving the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, a list of eight internationally-agreed, time-bound targets for reducing poverty and hunger and improving health, education, environmental sustainability and equality around the world. World leaders from UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to U.S. President Barack Obama sounded a strong call for redoubled efforts to ensure these goals are met by their 2015 target, even in the face of a lingering economic crisis. This year more than ever, the importance of placing women at the center of our efforts to achieve the MDGs was repeatedly emphasized.

Secretary General Ban reinforced this as he opened the Summit: “We know that women and children are critical to all of the Millennium Development Goals.” It was a message that was reaffirmed throughout the week, including by President Barack Obama as he announced a new U.S. Global Development Policy that will hold investment in women as a core pillar of its approach: “We know that countries are more likely to prosper when they tap the talents of all their people. That’s why we’re investing in the health, education and rights of women, and working to empower the next generation of women entrepreneurs and leaders. Because when mothers and daughters have access to opportunity, economies grow and governance improves.”

Women for Women International’s work providing women survivors of war with the tools and resources they need to rebuild their lives and communities directly advances the MDGs, and hence offered valuable contributions to the week’s discussions. We have already directly serviced over 271,000 women survivors of war, linking them with knowledge and skills to gain self sufficiency and help lift their families and communities out of poverty. We have pledged to use public-private partnerships to improve the lives and livelihoods of 103,000 women survivors of war over the next three years in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nigeria, Sudan, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hence our efforts advance a number of the MDGs, including to achieve MDG goal 1: to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty, MDG goal 3: to promote gender equality and empower women, and MDG goal 8: to develop a global partnership for development.

By investing in women and securing opportunities for them to earn a living, Women for Women International is assisting in the achievement of MDG goal 1. WfWI supports women in starting their own businesses through microcredit and teaching market-based job skills. Women are then able to organize into cooperatives and provide relevant services or products to the surrounding community. This allows mothers to have a source of income. When women are given the opportunity of earning a living they invest up to 90% of their income in their family, as compared to 30-40% by men, according to the World Bank. This means that their children can eat more and their daughters are more likely to attend school. An extra year of primary school raises a girl’s lifetime wages by 10-20%; an extra year of secondary school raises her wages 15-20% (World Bank). WfWI is providing the stepping stone for women to earn an income and invest in their families, thereby supporting the achievement of MDG goal 1. The main goal of Women for Women International’s programs is to support women in gaining the knowledge and access to resources to effect lasting political and social change.

This goal is helping to achieve MDG 3, gender equality. Our programs first teach women what their rights are and how they can speak up for these rights in their homes, communities, and countries. This knowledge, combined with efforts to help them earn an income, supports women in their journey towards gender equality. Consider these words from Theres M’Canunani, a Congolese woman who participated in a year-long training in rights and economic empowerment at Women for Women International: “I did not know that a woman has the right of defending herself anywhere, the right of inheritance, the right of giving childbirth, the right of standing in good health.” That one statement touches on MDGs 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Women for Women International recognizes the importance of public-private partnerships in achieving lasting change in the world. Through our valued partnerships, such as with kate spade new york, we are helping to achieve MDG 8. WfWI and kate spade new york have teamed up to provide thousands of jobs and a stable income to women in Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and now, Afghanistan. This union between public sector and private sector is creating a sustainable economic solution to poverty and gender inequality. Through both of these programs we are supporting women in reaching their maximum levels of self-sufficiency and helping to achieve the MDG goal of creating global partnerships for development.

Although our progress is considerable, we still have far to go. It is estimated that one billion people will still live in poverty by 2015, our target date for achieving the MDGs. We still have a long way to go on gender equality and empowering women, as well as a number of other goals. But Women for Women International is committed to achieving these goals and will continue to strive for them in our programs and partnerships.

A list of the MDGs can be found on the UN website here.

Watch a video of founder Zainab Salbi speaking about our programs and how to engage American girls in raising awareness and funds for women around the world at the Mashable/UN Foundation UN Digital Media Lounge here.

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Women for Women International releases CGI impact numbers

November 2, 2009—Speakers at the Clinton Global Initiative emphasized the importance of investing in women and girls as a catalyst to alleviate poverty. In her closing remarks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated the following: “We will put women at the heart of all our development efforts. We have seen again and again—in microfinance and other programs—that women are entrepreneurial, accountable, and practical. They invest their earnings directly in their families and communities. And they pay back loans at a higher rate than is the norm. So women are a wise investment. And since the majority of the world’s farmers are women, it’s critical that our investments in agriculture leverage their ambition and perseverance.”

One of CGI's commitments to address global poverty involves providing access to education to 30 million out-of-school children.

The four day meeting was opened by President Obama. It hosted the CEOs of Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil, General Electric, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Kraft and Coca-cola, to mention a few, as well as Women for Women International CEO and Founder Zainab Salbi.

Here are some of the key commitments they made to address global poverty:

  • 282 member commitments, with an estimated value of $8 billion over the coming years. ($1.5 billion was actually committed during the four-day meeting.)
  • Once fully funded, the positive impact of member commitments is expected to reach 197 million people and create 79 million new jobs.
  • $5 billion was pledged as investments and loans to small- and medium-sized enterprises.
  • 25 million people will gain access to capital and financial services.
  • 7 million women and girls will benefit directly from member programs.
  • 30 million out-of-school children will gain access to education.
  • 7 million people will be able to power their homes with clean energy, reducing CO2 emissions by 30 million metric tons.
  • 83 million people will gain access to health care for the first time or have access to better care.

About the Clinton Global Initiative
Established in 2005 by President Bill Clinton, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) brings together a community of global leaders to devise and implement innovative solutions to some of the world's most pressing challenges. Since 2005, CGI Annual Meetings have brought together more than 100 current and former heads of state, 10 of the last 16 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, hundreds of leading CEOs, heads of foundations, major philanthropists, directors of the most effective nongovernmental organizations, and prominent members of the media. These CGI members have made more than 1,400 commitments valued at $46 billion, which have improved the lives of more than 200 million people in more than 170 countries.

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Women Need Macro Solutions, Too

By: Zainab Salbi, founder, Women for Women International, First published in

Microfinance has revolutionized both development and the global mindset about women's economic potential. It has put tangible economic opportunity into the hands of poor women--a huge proportion of the global population--and ushered in a new era of thinking about how investment in women can offer low risks and high returns. The microfinance movement and its leader, Nobel-laureate Muhammad Yunus, are to be applauded for making a global impact on poverty reduction and women's advancement.

Now is the time to move beyond microfinance to create bigger and broader economic opportunities for women, situating them as central and pivotal players in the macroeconomy

But the revolution is not yet complete. Now is the time to move beyond microfinance to create bigger and broader economic opportunities for women, situating them as central and pivotal players in the "macroeconomy." Only then will we bring our revolution full circle.

Macroeconomics deals with economy-wide phenomena such as national income, economic growth, gross domestic product and inflation. Clearly, women already impact the macroeconomy. They are a tremendous source of productive and reproductive labor: they care for families, grow and prepare food and constitute a huge percentage of manufacturing, service and agricultural labor markets.

The problem is that women are rarely empowered to own and negotiate the benefits of their own labor. Although women are present in many industries, they are noticeably absent from well-salaried jobs in the private sector. Around the world, women's work is unrewarding work: it means low pay and long hours. Women farmers don't own the land they cultivate. Women factory workers are paid less and often intimidated, sexually harassed or exploited. Female domestic workers are not unionized and face a high risk of trafficking and other exploitation, particularly if they are undocumented members of the "grey" economy.

This is the existing and severely unbalanced macroeconomic landscape for women, and it must be leveled. Women must be empowered as economic players across the spectrum--as laborers, managers, entrepreneurs and investors.

So what does this mean? What would it take to integrate women across the economic spectrum? It's certainly a tall order. We must reframe the way we think about economics, asking at every turn "Where are the women?"

We must incorporate women into national development strategies, including macroeconomic frameworks. Government ministries should engage in "gender budgeting," both financing programs that will empower women and tracking the impact of existing programs and services by gender. We should include gender equity in all discussions at the national and international level, incorporating policy makers, donors, academia, civil society leaders and women across the board.

There is emerging consensus that inequality and homogeneity are bad for business. Gender-diversified economies--economies where women are present and empowered in every economic sphere--are found in wealthier, more stable states. Gender-diversified boards make better decisions, reducing risk and increasing creativity and dynamism in leadership, not to mention profit; a 2007 Catalyst, Inc. study found that boards with more women outperformed those with less by as much as 66%.

So how do we get there? We can start today. All of us can break down the barriers to women's macroeconomic empowerment. We can support, with our pens or with our wallets, everything from girls' and women's education, to equal rights land ownership, increased access to venture capital and, yes, micro-lending too.

At Women for Women International, the global organization I run to help women survivors of war, we're making strategic investments in women on just such multiple fronts. We do provide microfinance opportunities, but we also offer an array of other economic opportunities--from job placement, to social enterprise development and business leadership.

We also work to ensure that women are integrated at every level of the value chain; for example, in the agriculture sector, we train women not only to be producers but also processers, marketers and managers.

Women for Women International's work to empower women economically is not only about giving women sustainable sources of income, but also about giving them access to the political power that comes from earning that income. For we can talk as much as we want about economic empowerment, but if it is not combined with political empowerment, making more money does not always translate to better rights for women. So we make sure that every single woman in our program goes through an intensive, year-long training program in women's rights. It is the combination of awareness and access to economic opportunity that leads to lasting change in women's lives.

Allow me to give an example of how women are forming an important labor market. In Sudan, we're rolling out an organic, commercial farming initiative (CIFI for short) that will employ 3,000 women over three years. Each woman goes through a women's rights program where she meets with 20 other women every other week for a year. She also receives critical training and resources, such as free land (leased from the government), seeds and water. The combination of teaching women about their rights, improving their farming skills through more efficient and sustainable organic farming techniques, giving them access to and control of land, and helping them connect to commercial markets helps women move from subsistence to high-profit agriculture. Now a woman has moved from poverty to profit: she owns the means of production and can ultimately embrace processing and marketing opportunities as well. After only 6 months, 80% of the women in the project have achieved an income level double the average for the country. Together, the women now form an important labor market in their area; individually, they benefit from exponentially increased profit, lifting their families and communities out of poverty. It's good for the women. It's good for Sudan.

This is a model we can replicate around the world. We are already breaking ground in Rwanda and Afghanistan, and we won't stop there. The data is telling us that this is the right thing to do; programs like our commercial farming initiative in Sudan are telling us it's possible. What we're witnessing in Sudan is the beginning of a macroeconomic shift. And at this precarious moment in the global economy, I think a shift is right on time.

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Experts Consider the Global Economic Crisis, Call for Urgent Investment in Women

New York-June 3, 2009—Over 300 people gathered on the Upper East Side of Manhattan yesterday to hear from thought leaders the likes of the New York Times’ columnist Nicholas D. Kristof; attorney, writer and Vice Chair of the New York City Fund for Public Schools Caroline Kennedy; Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Isobel Coleman; filmmaker and philanthropist Abigail Disney; Afghanistan expert and Institute for State Effectiveness co-founder Clare Lockhart; and Women for Women International founder Zainab Salbi as they examined the effects of the global economic crisis on the world’s developing and conflict-affected countries, especially for women.

As the global economic crisis pushed donations and funding down, development experts point to economic programs like Women for Women International’s that empower women through vocational skills and leadership training as exemplary efforts to “effect change at a time of crisis”.

“If resources were in the hands of women, they would be more likely to be used to educate children and support the household,” Kristof offered.  At a time when global resources are extremely limited, foreign assistance discussions center around making assistance efforts count.  Investing in women has yielded tremendous results for family and community development, and was offered as a model by which efforts to combat global poverty and bolster security can be structured. 

“It is important to develop women leaders, to create role models, a space for women at the political table and to focus on women’s economic empowerment,” said Lockhart.  “So many times we start at the wrong end of the spectrum when there is a crisis: we start with politics and armies and we leave the citizens and the women out of the picture.  We need to start at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, with the citizens and the women.” 

Despite the severe effect the financial crisis has had pushing nations and people hovering between crisis and stability back into poverty and instability—some estimates hold that number at 105 million, with conflict exacerbated worldwide—there is still international reluctance to acknowledge the key role women have to play as partners in the solution.

“There has been a tendency to regard women’s issues as soft issues,” conceded Coleman.  “As recently as seven years ago when I began my work with the Council [on Foreign Relations], these issues were not considered essential to foreign policy, and were met with considerable skepticism.  But stabilizing societies depends on empowering women. I think we are on the cusp of something really quite transformational.”

Panelists offered the work of Women for Women International, which supports conflict-affected women via economic empowerment as well as rights and leadership training, as a model for international efforts to effect change at a time of crisis.  The group sounded a call for continued—if not increased—investment in programs like those of Women for Women International that tackle social and economic development in a holistic manner that bolsters both economic and leadership capacity for grassroots women. 

Salbi voiced intense worry that the global recession would compromise progress as the donor community looks inward first.  “Donations are down. Conflict is increasing. I worry about those on the edge—communities and states. It is a life or death situation there, where it’s a lifestyle change here.”  Echoing these thoughts, Disney urged investment in vulnerable communities worldwide, “We have enough.  We have more than enough, all of us.”

Noting President Obama’s upcoming speech in Cairo the following day, one member of the press queried if this speech, touted as an effort to reach out to the Muslim world, could be seen as an encouraging sign that the U.S. was not turning inward but looking outward, focused on combating conflict, poverty and restrictions on women’s rights in a region of turmoil and crisis.  Salbi returned that she was excited about the speech, and noted the encouraging signs she has witnessed in recent weeks of travel throughout the Middle East: “Everyone [in the region] is eager about the speech. I hope it will shift our discussion of women from the margins into the center of the debate.  I look forward to hearing his message to government and his message to the grassroots.”  Salbi delivered additional analysis and commentary on the Cairo speech on CNN Newsroom with Kyra Phillips from 1-3 p.m. on Thursday, June 04, 2009, focusing particularly on what the speech meant for women of the Muslim world.

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Young women and adolescent girls

One person in eight—or close to 900 million people—is a girl or young woman age 10—24. Presently, Women for Women International works with thousands of young women and adolescent girls between the ages of fifteen and twenty four. In Afghanistan and the DRC, 22% of the women we work with are under age 25; in Kosovo, roughly a quarter of the women we work with are under age 25.  The information presented here attempts to capture the unique challenges and opportunities faced by the individuals who fall within this age range in Women for Women International’s programs.  So, who are these young women and girls?

Many girls living in conflict and post-conflict areas do not have access to education and are more susceptible to rape, violence, trafficking and early marriage.

What It Means to Be a Girl in a War Torn Country

With limited access to education, increased violence, and displacement, many girls surviving in conflict and post-conflict areas do not have a say about their futures. They often do not have access to education, and are more susceptible to rape, violence, trafficking, and early marriage.

In many of the countries where Women for Women International works, adolescent girls are often married between the ages of 13-15, have kids, and are the single heads of households. Due to these factors, they often have a high chance of rape in countries like Congo, or trafficking in countries like Iraq.

Adolescent girls spend 33—85% more time per day working at home and in unpaid market work than boys of the same age. They are also far less likely to have access to schooling. In Afghanistan, 76% of the young women in our program have no education and 97% have no vocational training. In Sudan, 49% of girls are not enrolled in school, and 100% of the young women in our program are married. In Afghanistan, over 60% of marriages are forced and half of all girls are married before the age of 16.

Early marriage can have severe consequences for an adolescent girl. Girls who marry early are three times more likely to report being forced to have nonconsensual sex in the previous six months. Medical complications from pregnancy are the leading cause of death among young women ages 15—19, and their infants are usually far less healthy than babies born to women over the age of twenty.

Adolescent girls in conflict and post-conflict zones are at high risk for sexual violence and rape. Nearly half of sexual assaults worldwide are perpetrated against girls ages fifteen and younger. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn document this epidemic of sexual violence:

“About one third of all women worldwide face beatings in the home. Women aged 15-44 are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined.  A major study by the WHO found that in most countries, between 30-60 percent of women had experienced physical or sexual violence by a husband or boyfriend.”

Tens of thousands of women have been raped in the DRC since the war began 1998, and the numbers are only increasing. Since the beginning of 2009 alone, 7000 women and girls have been raped. Sexual and gender based violence is especially prevalent in conflict zones, because the absence of men renders female-headed households and widows even more vulnerable. In countries with high numbers of internally displaced people, such as Sudan, women and girls often relocate to refugee camps where they are often targets of sexual violence.

Women that have experienced sexual violence are at especially high risk for fistulas, infertility, and HIV/AIDS. In 2005, 75 percent of 15-24-year-olds living with HIV in Africa were female. An overwhelming amount of girls have been misinformed about how to protect themselves from HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. In some countries, a third of girls reported that they believed you could only get HIV from being kissed on the cheek.

With all of these challenges facing young women in war zones, it is easy to feel discouraged by the situation. However, young women and adolescent girls also have the ability to make important changes in their own lives and communities.

Embracing Opportunities: Women for Women International’s Investment in Young Women and Girls

Despite the great obstacles faced by this demographic, there is also enormous opportunity.  When given the right tools and resources, women and girls are uniquely positioned to leverage themselves and their families and communities out of poverty. According to Kristof and WuDunn, “Moving women into more productive roles helps curb population growth and nurtures a sustainable society…The consequence of failing to educate girls is a capacity gap not only in billions of dollars of GNP but also in billions of IQ points.”
It’s true. After one year of intensive training in rights awareness, health and life skills, vocational training, and social networking, we have seen extraordinary results in the least likely of places. At least 80% of young women in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Kosovo, and Rwanda reported higher confidence and more awareness of their rights, which are critical resources to future political and economic participation in their families and communities. Afghanistan, DRC, Nigeria and Rwanda all had over 75% of young women report a better economic situation. 89% of our young participants in Afghanistan reported their general and family health to be better after graduation, and 87% of young women in Rwanda reported health improvements.

Looking Forward: Global Development through Women and Girls

The work we do in the field teaches us not only that there is enormous work to be done, but also that there is enormous faith to be had in the future of a world where women and girls are able to contribute equally with men and boys in the development of their communities, countries and economies.  Each day that a participant in Afghanistan tells us she will send her girls and her boys to school because it is their right; each day that a nineteen year old second wife in Sudan tells us how she will build a house with the money she has earned as she plants her crops; each day that an eighteen year old rape victim and mother in Congo learns to read, we know that there is hope.  As Kristof and WuDunn put it:

“The tide of history is turning women from beasts of burden and sexual playthings into full-fledged human beings.  The economic advantages of empowering women are so fast as to persuade nations to move in that direction.  Before long, we will consider sex slavery, honor killings, and acid attacks as unfathomable as foot-binding. The question is how long that transformation will take and how many girls will be kidnapped into brothels before it is complete - and whether each of us will be a part of that historical movement, or a bystander.”

Levine, R., Lloyd, C., Greene, M., Grown, C. (2008) Girls Count: A Global Investment and Action Agenda. Center for Global Development.
Kristof, Nicholas D., and WuDunn, Sheryl. (2009) Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for women Worldwide. 


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