Women Are Moving the World Forward

February 11, 2016

Kudos to the United Nations for creating the high-level panel on women’s economic empowerment.

UN agencies, major corporations, and international donors have long recognized the powerful social and economic contributions accrued when women earn income. Hopefully, this high-level panel will incite private and public sector holdouts to promote the changes needed to ensure women have access to loans, lands, and economic rights and “galvanize political will and leadership to implement the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Sue Richiedi

The topic of women’s economic empowerment is pertinent here in the U.S., too.  If you’ve been following the presidential election, you’ve probably heard some candidates discuss family leave and equal pay for equal work.  While setting an equal playing field is a stride forward here, simply creating a playing field for women is a step forward in developing countries.

Creating an environment in these countries where women play a role is key, and we all have seen irrefutable evidence that families and nations benefit from women’s participation in the local economy. We know that women invest their earnings in the health and education of their children. We know that countries’ Gross Domestic Product increases when women enter the formal economy at the same rate as men. We know that organizations are more effective when women are employed, and so on and so on. Certainly no one can still be questioning the important and far-reaching outcomes of putting more money and more decision-making power into the hands of women.

So, if everyone knows these facts, why hasn’t change happened?

Because tide shifts of this magnitude need more than just data. We need a major revolution in societal and cultural norms that undervalue girls and women, in laws that restrict opportunities and resources for women, and in the leadership of formal and informal institutions that perpetuate inequality. But, we also need women to see themselves as leaders and game changers and, for that, women must have the confidence to challenge the status quo and the technical and managerial skills needed to lead organizations, enter the job market, start and expand a business, or run for office.

The good news is there are already millions of women like this. Women with the right mix of confidence and skills who are affecting change through their work, their leadership, and the way they live their lives. They may not be recognized as CNN heroes, Nobel Prize winners, or Women of Courage recipients, but they are on the front lines in the gender equality war. They are women like Phoebe Asiyo, who made history in Kenya as a parliamentarian and the first woman elder of her tribe, or Tina Andriamahefa, who left her job with an international nongovernmental organization to start a nonprofit dedicated to youth empowerment in Madagascar.

I am very lucky. Some would say I’m blessed to personally know hundreds of women like these. As the Senior Director of the Leadership and Capacity Development team at Plan International USA, I have had the honor of training and working with women who take up the mantle of change maker, in small and large ways. Though diverse in age, experience, and education, the women leaders we reach through our Global Women in Management (GWIM) program  run economic empowerment initiatives for the most marginalized and poorest women in their communities, help women launch their own businesses rather than put their futures in the hands of others, and take other women and girls by the hand and lift them up, knowing that when one of us wins, we all win.

What do all of these women have in common? If you ask our GWIM alumni what the training did for them, and we did, they will tell you it is a newfound confidence to speak up and step into roles they didn’t believe they were capable of before the training. They will say that spending a month learning with and from 25 women leaders from around the world opened their eyes to global issues and local solutions; that having the time to focus on one’s own leadership skills and personal goals transformed the way they thought about themselves and their potential; and that acquiring new management and technical skills led them to propose organizational and program changes unimagined before the training. These women and others underscore the critical importance of investing in programs that strengthen self-awareness and self-confidence alongside needed technical competencies.

While I truly believe that GWIM and Plan’s other women’s leadership programs are unique and invaluable experiences that have a tremendous ripple effect, there are many other successful programs in villages and cities around the world with the same goal: to see women economically empowered to improve life for themselves, their families, their communities, and their nations. Sadly, most of these programs struggle to keep going because funding is focused elsewhere.

So, I hope that the UN panel will shine a much-needed spotlight on this issue and encourage greater investments in expanding women’s economic opportunities. With this platform and strong advocacy and partnerships among women leaders, funders, corporations, governments, and civil society, women’s economic equality can be achieved. 

As we say at Plan: “When women move forward, the world moves with them.”