Helping Women Break the Cycle of Poverty

March 7, 2015 By Lynne Weil

What does success look like? American women often ask this question of the mirror. Many of us are lucky enough to do something we love for a living, to spend our lives caring for loved ones, or to enjoy some mix of both. Each answer to the question of “success” is deeply personal.

Not so for many women and girls overseas. Lacking the luxury of defining themselves by their beliefs, attitudes and values, they face basic questions such as where to get clean water without getting assaulted, how to eke out a meager existence with their bare hands, and who will safeguard their families from brutality in a war zone or refugee camp. I’m thinking of the millions facing such conditions, and the many who help them meet these immense challenges, as we mark International Women’s Day this Sunday, March 8.

A couple of days ago, I attended an IWD event here in Washington courtesy of the United Nations Foundation where they showed the Like a Girl video that made such waves during the Super Bowl and after. But what really excited the capacity crowd were the speakers.

We gave a standing ovation to Girl Up Advocate Award winner Kennede Reese, who developed a social conscience early and was on Capitol Hill that day to lobby for young women everywhere. We were inspired by Joyce Banda, who talked of her own trajectory from a civic-minded childhood to president of Malawi. And we appreciated Heather Higginbottom, Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources, who described how the State Department and USAID collect data that helps drive their programming for women and girls and demonstrate impact.

Success stories in this area do not belong to governments alone. Far from it:

  • In 2013, Pfizer joined a group of organizations (Boeing, Walmart, Coca-Cola, Intel, and others) in the Clinton Global Initiative’s “Commitment to Action” that will integrate more women-owned businesses into corporate supply chains. These companies will spend at least $1.5 billion by 2018 on enterprises based outside the United States.
  • Intel’s She Will Connect initiative aims to expand digital literacy skills to five million young women through 2016 and reduce the gender gap by 50 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. The project will provide training and highlight opportunities to earn income online.
  • Since its founding in 1952, Caterpillar Foundation has contributed more than $550 million to sustainable development, and it emphasizes female-focused programs. In 2013, the foundation pledged $200 million over the next several years to help end the cycle of poverty by investing in women and girls.
  • Late last year, the Walmart Foundation announced its commitment to $10 million through 2016 for Women in Factories. It aims to provide resources and skills training to 60,000 factory workers in India, Bangladesh, China, El Salvador, and Honduras.

Collaboration between the public and private sectors in such efforts is critical; the challenges are daunting, and no one can face them alone. We face them together, knowing that to aim for anything less than success – or worse, to turn our backs on women in need worldwide – is itself failure.

Teenage activist Kennede Reese received more than an award at that lunch this week. Former Malawian President Joyce Banda gave her and hundreds of caring community, business, non-profit, and government leaders this valuable advice: “There’s a lot of work to do, my sweetheart.  I wish you the best.”