Last weekend marked International Women's Day and the theme for this year was "Make It Happen". In countries affected by war and conflict, the need for effective action to empower women couldn't be more urgent, nor the stakes any higher.
Despite hard evidence that women's economic equality is critical to fighting global poverty and driving sustainable development, progress has been slow. Women still earn only 10% of the world's income and own only 1% of property. Only 50% of women participate in the paid workforce, compared to 80% of men, and 75% of women cannot get bank loans. Of the world's 57 million children out of primary school, the majority are girls.
(Photo credit: Les Stone)
In countries affected by war and conflict, the gap is even wider. Afghanistan and the Congo are often cited as the "worst countries for women" by development experts, due to the many layers of discrimination women face, including gender-based violence, lack of reproductive rights, and minimal economic opportunities. Meanwhile in Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria, women's rights and freedoms are being eroded in the face of rising extremism.
At Women for Women International, we see the many dimensions of inequality at first hand, working with thousands of women survivors of war who have never been to school, cannot read or write, and never had a paid job. They have grown up being told that their place is in the home, their function is to bear children, and their voices don't count. Many have also lost husbands and family members, been uprooted from their homes, and suffered unspeakable violence. These women are trapped at the bottom of the economic pile - and their diminished life chances impact everyone in society.
But, while it's important on a day like International Women's Day to highlight the scale of the task ahead, and the need to pick up the pace of change, we shouldn't forget that women all over the world are striving to "make it happen" every day of the year. They aren't waiting around for someone else to find solutions or open doors for them.
This is just as true in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Congo as it is here in the UK. For a widow, refugee or single mother who is the sole source of support for her children, being a passive victim just isn't an option. While much of the work women do is still unpaid, undocumented, and unrecognised, it's also the lifeblood of families and communities. Without it, societies couldn't function.
This is the inspiration behind the recent Women for Women International campaign, developed with LIDA, which celebrates women's critical roles and capacity to drive positive change. It's the reason why the organisation aims to inspire people to "support a woman, not a charity".
Because that's where "making it happen" starts - with individual women like Esther Mukunde from Rwanda, a genocide survivor who dropped out of primary school and struggled to feed her children. After taking part in a year-long training programme, she set up her own farming business and now supports her family and sends her children to school. Or Zarghuna from Afghanistan, who was forced into an abusive marriage at age 6 to settle a family dispute. She now employs a team of 120 men and women in her thriving embroidery business.
Women like Esther and Zarghuna are not charity cases, and they don't want your sympathy. Rather than giving them a hand-out, Women for Women International aims to connect more women like Esther and Zarghuna with UK 'sponsors', forging a one-to-one connection. By making a monthly donation of £22 for 12 months, sponsors will help fund women through a year-long holistic training programme, equipping her with the tools she needs to turn her life around and fulfil her potential.
(Photo credit: Women for Women International)
Women will learn a vocational skill, along with basic numeracy and business training, so she can generate an income to support her family. After going through the programme, she will earn on average five times more than she did at enrolment. This boost in household income results in better nutrition and family health, and keeps children in school. From unpaid subsistence farmers and domestic workers, women become business owners and employers, bringing jobs and income to their communities.
With increased economic independence, women begin to participate in family and community decision-making. Equipped with knowledge about their health and their rights, they can make informed choices about their own lives, as well as those of their children - to leave a violent husband, practice family planning, attend health clinics, or send their daughter to school.
Through my work with Women for Women International, I've seen women's resilience and determination create the most amazing success stories, and be a powerful catalyst for change. When we invest in women and equip them with skills and resources, they pass on these benefits, multiplying the returns.
That's why, despite all the challenges and obstacles that remain, I firmly believe that women can "make it happen" - and that the result will be stronger, more peaceful societies for everyone.
Support a woman, not a charity, and be a part of making it happen at supportawoman.com