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Reaching the Furthest Behind First

Breaking Silos: Gender and the Sustainable Development Goals

A year ago September our world leaders committed us all to eradicate poverty by 2030, making a commitment in the Sustainable Development Goals to ‘leave no one behind’ and ‘reach the furthest behind first’. They explicitly recognized the centrality of empowering women and girls and promoting gender equality.

"We resolve, between now and 2030, to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources. We resolve also to create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities."

It is precisely the population that is most likely to be left behind that Women for Women International (WfWI) serves: the most disadvantaged, marginalized women in conflict-affected countries. This is an ongoing, intentional decision on our part to reach those that are hardest to reach precisely because its extremely difficult work and so few others do. We are fortunate that over 311,000 supporters and donors have provided the resources to serve over 447,000 women since 1993, but we need far more actors with greater resources to also serve this population, and we believe lessons from our work can help others do so.

People in conflict-affected and fragile states are uniquely disadvantaged because their governments are usually unable to adequately provide even the most basic infrastructure and social protection programs. Women in these areas are especially disadvantaged because of social norms that tell them they are less capable and valuable than men. Poor women in these countries are even more disadvantaged, because they lack access to resources to provide for themselves and their families. And it gets even worse for those who are widowed, non literate, who have survived but been stigmatized and isolated by rape or by HIV/AIDS. It is these most marginalized women who are most at risk of being left behind, and it is these women that WfWI serves.

It has been this way since 1993, when WfWI was founded. Over the years we have developed a one year program of training, cash transfers, savings groups and cooperative support that succeeds in quadrupling income, more than doubles family planning, reduces worry over food supply by a factor of five, to list just a few of the outcomes. We measure these indicators not only at the end of the program but one and two years after – where we find that in fact the impact is sustained.

>> Learn more about how the outcomes of WfWI's work directly support United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. <<

This week, around the first anniversary of the UN adoption of the SDGs, I had the opportunity to discuss the work of WfWI on a panel hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and moderated by Jennifer Windsor, called Breaking Silos: Gender and the Sustainable Development Goals. Donald Steinberg of World Learning, Inc., Malika Saada Saar of Google, Pari Ibrahim of the Free Yezidi Foundation, and I were asked to share our experiences and lessons learned about reaching the most marginalized women in the most difficult places on earth. We were in strong agreement – we need an intersectional, integrated approach that reaches the most vulnerable. Technology and civil society are two critical assets.

I was especially grateful to have Pari Ibrahim on stage next to me – WfWI has this year initiated a partnerships with the Free Yezidi Foundation to deliver psychosocial support and training program to refugees and IDPs in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. She spoke about the importance of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) working in conflict-affected regions.

“It’s the CSOs on the ground that have the biggest impact. We are there when [conflict] first happens. We are the ones trying to raise our voices at the beginning” she said, adding “we will stay there… we have to think about rebuilding the community and strengthening them for the future.”

Donald Steinberg was formerly the U.S. Ambassador to Angola, and he was able to offer both nonprofit and government perspectives on the issues. He emphasized the importance of taking the intersection of race, ethnicity, and other social factors into account in addition to gender when developing programs to empower women.

“You [have to] address not only single heads of households but women heads of households. You address not only people with disabilities, but women with disabilities… and as you start adding racial minorities, indigenous populations, etcetera, that’s 70% of the poor around the world,” he said.

Malika Saada Saar is a human rights lawyer, and her remarks centered on the importance of technology for addressing human rights violations and connecting marginalized women to protective networks.

“Any rape, any assault, any war crime – what allows those incidents, those acts of brutality to happen and thrive is isolation and invisibility. Tech offers an opportunity to surmount, to challenge, to interrogate that silence, that isolation, that invisibility,” she argued. “The more connected we are, the less opportunity there is for genocide, and the less opportunity there is for pervasive violence against women and girls.”

Jennifer Windsor asked me what lessons WfWI has learned through our program delivery that would help others who want to be involved in achieving the SDGs. Because we are deeply embedded in the communities we serve, WfWI has been able to find and serve women where they are, with what they need. With the help of our supporters and the local partners and staff in each of the countries we serve, we have been able to provide an intensive – weekly contact over a year with follow up for several years after - combination of economic empowerment, social empowerment, and civil action/organizing that is the key to creating sustainable change for the women who are furthest behind.

As these types of discussions continue and the UN General Assembly convenes again this month, I hope more leaders and NGOs will consider the needs of the furthest behind, and how they can best be reached. WfWI remains committed to doing what we can through our work to achieve the SDGs, and to sharing our expertise with others.

This blog was originally posted by WfWI President Laurie Adams on the Huffington Post on September 11, 2016.