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Op Ed: The Clue to Connecting the Dots in Women's Development

When it comes to the importance of women and girls in developing nations, we know what we need to do. Now it's just a matter of doing it.

We have some good news and bad news. The good news is that improving the plight of women and girls in the developing world is one of the central moral, political and economic challenges of our time. The bad news is that the statistics are still so grim. Seventy percent of the world’s poor are women. Two-thirds of all children denied primary education are girls. One in three females will be the victim of violence. In sub-Saharan Africa, women account for 60 percent of people living with HIV, and 75 percent of HIV-infected youth are girls. Pretty bleak stuff, no?


We have heard it before but it can’t be overstated: Empowering girls and women is a prerequisite if we are to conquer poverty, disease, hunger, environmental destruction…the list goes on. Yet progress on gender equality has been sluggish at best. The crucial question is how to step up the pace of change.

President Clinton introduced the subject of girls and women at the 2009 Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting by declaring, “We have to connect the dots on this.” Indeed, education drives economic empowerment: For every year beyond fourth grade that girls attend school, their wages rise 20 percent. Economic empowerment begets better education and better health; a study in Malawi revealed that cash transfers provided to girls and their families to keep them in school not only increased school attendance, but also resulted in a decline in risky transactional sex—which girls often engage in to earn money for school—and consequently lowered the prevalence of HIV for these girls. Expanding women’s property rights also leads to greater safety. Research in Southern India found that the rate of domestic violence against married women dropped from 49 percent for non-owners of property to 18 percent and 10 percent respectively of those who owned either land or a house.

Progress on gender equality has been sluggish at best. The crucial question is how to step up the pace of change.

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Clearly, the solution lies in marshalling new resources—human, financial, and technical—in innovative ways that can double-up impact. That is the goal of CGI. In looking at CGI’s focus areas—Economic Empowerment, Education, Environment & Energy, and Global Health—one thing becomes clear: Women and girls are central to all of them, both as beneficiaries and as agents of change.

What is most striking is the level of interconnectedness possible if we are to truly make a difference on a grand scale. Needless to say, international development resources are precious—whether financial, operational, or human. When designing means for social change, we must consider the possibilities of creating multi-purpose solutions: programs that proactively address several issues with the same investment.

Take, for example Lifeline Energy, a social enterprise. Every organization participating in CGI must make a commitment—essentially, a detailed plan for tackling an issue within one of CGI’s four focus areas. Lifeline Energy committed to delivering solar-powered and wind-up lights and radios to benefit 20,000 poor rural women in Rwanda. Solar lighting mitigates safety risks for women and girls vulnerable to violence when walking in the dark, and boosts productivity and educational opportunities by enabling small business activity or studying at night. It eliminates the need for biomass fuel lamps, which benefits the environment while allaying health risks of respiratory disease. This technological innovation also offers income-generation opportunities: Women can serve as local distributors, selling the lights to make a commission. Reliable, renewable radio service further enhances the development opportunities and well-being of rural women and girls by providing access to information on health, literacy, life skills and economic development. With relationships fostered through CGI with such partners as CARE and the Rwandan Government, Lifeline Energy will enable women to reap benefits in their lives from every angle.

Girls and women, and by extension the whole community, reap the benefits that are so sorely needed.

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Another multi-purpose solution delivers tools in the present to generate impact in the future. With partners such as the Skoll and the Nike Foundations, the nonprofit Fundación Paraguaya has implemented programs that address several challenges of rural poverty, such as unreliable income streams and environmental degradation. Poor rural girls attend agricultural schools, while generating income through on-campus enterprises to cover operating costs and ensure the school’s financial autonomy. The program transforms girls into educated entrepreneurs equipped to be agents of sustainable socio-economic development and environmental protection, with the skills to empower themselves and their families economically and socially in the future.

Initiatives focused on educating girls are indispensable. Yet one of the biggest obstacles to keeping girls in school is when they stay home during menstruation due to lack of appropriate sanitary facilities. These monthly interruptions are a driver of girls’ high drop-out rates during adolescence. Social venture Sustainable Health Enterprises’ commitment to make an affordable, biodegradable sanitary pad, produced locally with natural materials, serves multiple purposes. In addition to improving educational impact by increasing school attendance, it boosts social status by reducing the stigma of menstruation and enabling girls to participate more regularly in sports, a critical self-esteem builder. It diminishes the heightened health risks of sexually transmitted diseases and childhood pregnancy that appear when girls are driven to sexual activity to earn money to afford pads. Further, local production creates opportunities for income generation and skill development in the community, and utilizing local suppliers lowers product costs and lessens the need for long-distance transport, reducing the environmental impact.

The development clock is ticking. Given that the global economic crisis has exacerbated the scarcity of resources, we must optimize investments. By connecting the dots—designing programs that address several challenges simultaneously—we can achieve a multiplier effect: Educational initiatives can build economic empowerment, technological innovation can improve health, and access and control of resources can enhance safety. With multi-purpose solutions, we can hasten the process of social transformation and get more bang for our development buck. Girls and women, and by extension the whole community, reap the benefits that are so sorely needed.

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