16/03/2015 08:47 GMT | Updated 13/05/2015 06:59 BST

International Women's Day - Not Just A Day For Women


The temperature may have dropped below freezing but that didn't stop thousands of people from swarming onto the streets of New York to join the UN Women march for gender equality on International Women's Day this year. I was proud to be among them, walking in solidarity with countless other campaigners calling on governments and global leaders to 'step it up' for gender equality.

What struck me most about the march was the sheer diversity of participants. There were women, men, children, young feminists as well as more seasoned campaigners, political figures and global leaders as well as representatives from civil society groups and countless individuals who turned up simply because they had something to shout about. The march was a true reflection of how varied the women's movement has become.

This can only be a good thing. At the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, we know that the biggest changes happen when people work together. Our efforts to empower women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging markets have supported over 100,000 women in more than 70 different countries, but we could not have achieved this reach without our incredible partners - and that includes corporations, governments, banks and financial institutions as well as those in the non-profit sector.

Thanks to funding and pro-bono delivery support from Accenture, for example, we are running a project that will reach 15,000 women in Rwanda, providing business training, mentoring and access to financial services via mobile phones. ExxonMobil has helped us transform the lives of women like Catharina in Indonesia, who received critical access to information through our Business Women mobile learning tool, which prepared her to open a second business and increase her income so that she can support her parents. Visa is supporting a project that will enable 2,500 women in Nigeria to become branchless banking agents, helping to extend banking services to thousands of Nigerians living in rural areas. And Bank of America is helping us to provide mentoring to women entrepreneurs like Sulet in South Africa, who says her mentor helped her to 'maintain confidence and perseverance' as she established her coaching business.

The private sector has not always played such a prominent role in the fight for women's empowerment. This year's International Women's Day events marked a pivotal moment - 20 years since world leaders came together at the historic Beijing conference on women's rights in 1995. Businesses were not part of the discussions at Beijing, where governments and civil society groups took centre stage. Since then, however, there has been a growing realisation that businesses can help to empower women both within and beyond their own workplaces. Our own work is a testament to this progression.

The need for this type of collaboration has never been more pressing. On Monday I attended the launch of 'No Ceilings', a joint report by the Clinton Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation into the social and economic gains that have been made for women and girls over the last two decades, as well as the gaps that still remain.

Chelsea Clinton summed up the findings neatly by saying, "We cannot mistake progress for success". Of course strides have been taken towards a more equal world: gender gaps in health and education are closing and awareness of violence against women and girls has risen. But there is still much work to be done, as women around the world remain shut out from fully participating in their economies and political systems. At the current rate of progress, it will take over 80 years to fully close the gender gap in economic activity.

I believe that part of the solution to this challenge lies in empowering our younger generations. That was my message at the 'Young Women and Girls Forum: Inspiring Leaders' event in New York, where I spoke to a room of inspirational young women about seizing opportunities to accelerate progress on gender equality. One of the key levers for this acceleration is technology. At the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women technology is a crucial part of everything we do, whether it's using mobile phones to help a saleswoman in India place orders and track her sales, or connecting a woman entrepreneur in Malaysia to a life-changing mentor in Spain via the internet. Young women and girls must be able to share in the huge economic opportunities that technology can unlock. With the right tools, today's young women will become tomorrow's drivers of development.

This year's International Women's Day catalysed a series of events and conversations that involved people and players from all sections of society. For me, it offered further proof that so-called 'women's issues' do not just affect women - nor should they be seen as the sole responsibility of women. We all have a part to play in making women's rights a reality, once and for all.