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Advancing the Women and Girls Agenda in 2017

By Justin Fugle

Advancing women and girls is “an investment that can have an impact in everything we’re trying to do,” said Dr. Tessie San Martin, CEO of Plan International USA, at an event in Washington, DC focused on the women and girls agenda. In collaboration with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a leading non-partisan policy think tank, Plan’s policy event series brought together senior U.S. government officials, the private sector, and Plan’s field expertise to explore how programs focused on women and girls can maintain momentum in 2017. 

Awareness of the challenges and barriers that women and girls face is at an all-time high. Investing in gender equality supports the U.S. government’s standing as a moral leader, advances national well-being, and creates economic opportunities. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have invested in women’s health, economic opportunity, rights, and education, and Plan expects that to continue. This policy event series demonstrated the value of gender programs by focusing on three areas: women’s economic empowerment, women’s contributions to stability and peace building, and the need to focus on gender equality to curb the AIDS epidemic. 

Women’s Economic Empowerment

In explaining the role of development with the private sector, Jim Peters, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Economic Growth, Education, and Environment, touted the importance of a two-pronged approach that includes both education and business: “You create opportunities in business and you educate people to fit those opportunities.”

Rodrigo Bustos, Country Director for Plan International El Salvador, echoed those remarks with an emphasis on the importance of teaching “soft skills” like leadership, public speaking, and hygiene as a way to bridge the gap between education and employment. He saw this exemplified by the successes of Plan’s program to increase self-esteem in Salvadoran girls, which in turn created stronger relationships with corporate recruiters. 

Zoe Markwick, Commercial Director for Skanska, further commented that formal mentoring programs for women and girls is one way to create sustainability in building these soft skills across generations.

Women’s Contributions to Stability and Peace Building

Women’s leadership in peace negotiations is not simply symbolic, it is effective.  When women are given a seat at the table, agreements are 35 percent more likely to last for at least 15 years. Women promote dialogue, build coalitions, and contribute a holistic perspective, considering both the short- and long-term implications of peace. 

Gabriela Bucher, Country Director for Plan International in Colombia, was witness to the successful effects of women’s inclusion on security matters first-hand when, during recent peace negotiations between Colombia and the largest illegal arms group operating in the country, a women’s group advocated for and won three seats at the table for women. 

Robin Lerner, Senior Policy Advisor and Counselor to the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues at the State Department, spoke about her work in Croatia and Kosovo in the late 90s. She watched women transform from being the face of sexual violence to the faces of the new civil society, economic drivers for their families, and links between the international community and their own communities. 

Dr. Joyce Banda, former President of Malawi, spoke about the relationship of women in leadership and the relatively low levels of conflict in her country, stating, “When women are in charge…there is more tranquility and there is more peace.”  

Women and Girls Are Central to Curbing the AIDS Epidemic

With women and girls representing at least 75 percent of new HIV infections in Sub-Saharan Africa, Ambassador Deborah Birx explained PEPFAR’s focus on breaking the cycle of AIDS among adolescent girls and young women through PEPFAR’s innovative DREAMS program. DREAMS take a holistic approach, recognizing that girls’ and women’s exposure to HIV is driven by cultural and health factors. These include child marriage and gender-based violence, as well as gaps in girls’ education and economic empowerment. Ambassador Birx announced that DREAMS has been mainstreamed in PEPFAR’s updated work plans and will be featured in new programs in Rwanda, Haiti, Namibia, Cote D’Ivoire, and Botswana, as well as continue in the 10 current DREAMS countries. 

Danielle Grant, Director of Health at Plan, added the field perspective from Plan’s PEPFAR-funded One Community program in Malawi. Danielle explained that Plan International Malawi expanded village savings and loans after the girls and women prioritized economic empowerment to reduce their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. The DREAMS programs show how closing the gender data gap results in a clearer understanding of the issues at hand, leading to more effective interventions. 

Similarly, Kate Maloney of KPMG highlighted the Equal Measures 2030 gender data initiative, through which Plan, KPMG, and other high-profile partners like the Gates Foundation, Data 2X, and ONE are working to fill the gender data gap to make the UN Sustainable Development Goals measurable and achievable. Gwen Young presented the Wilson Center’s new index to measure women’s leadership and highlighted the importance of data visualization for convincing key decision-makers like Ministers of Finance to invest in gender equality. 

The Plan-Wilson Center policy event series included expert perspectives across all sectors and ultimately reverberated with one conclusion—that investment in gender equality is a necessary tool to create solutions for our world’s largest issues. By addressing gender inequality as a roadblock, global economic, security, and health issues become more stable. With this evidence and experience in mind, Plan remains committed to advancing the women’s and girls’ agenda in 2017 and beyond. 

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