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Save Women and Girls, Save the World
Francesca Rheannon

September, 2010

A major focus of this year’s convening of the Clinton Global Initiative is empowering girls and women, as I report in this dispatch from the CGI 2010 conference in New York.

Hillary Clinton took the stage Tuesday, Sept. 21 at the 2010 convening of the Clinton Global Initiative to announce a major new drive: bring new efficient cookstoves to poor women around the world. It’s just one of many programs featured at the conference that aims to improve the lives of women and girls and thereby lifts their families and communities out of poverty.

A public-private partnership led by the UN Foundation, Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, “could be as transformative as bed nets [for malaria] or vaccines,” Clinton told the crowd of 1,500 at the CGI. “Today, because of technological breakthroughs, we can finally envision a future in which dirty stoves are replaced by clean, efficient stoves costing about $25 [a piece].”

Smoke from dirty stoves is one of the top five health risks to poor women and their families. Nearly two million die every year, half of those children under five. It also threatens all of us through its contribution to global warming: greenhouse gases from the soot emitted and deforestation when trees are cut for firewood. And when women have to walk long distances to find fuel, at best they have less time to raise food and care for their children; at worst, as in the Congo, they become vulnerable to rape. Making efficient cookstoves seems like a small thing, but it’s one link in the chain that leads to more stable societies.

Another is access to basic health care and health information by girls. At the plenary on Women’s Empowerment where Clinton spoke, a short video by Girl Effect.org was shown that made the links explicit. Girls are often married off at age 13 or 14 and have children by 15, and segue into their adulthood stunted by child-rearing and economic dependence. But if a girl of age 12 can visit a doctor regularly, go to school, avoid HIV infection through health education and postpone having children until she’s ready, she has a chance to lift herself, her family and her community out of poverty.

It’s those connections the innovative project READ (Rural Education and Development) Global makes. President Bill Clinton praised the organization for its CGI 2010 commitment and for its program of building libraries and community knowledge centers in rural communities in India, Nepal and Bhutan.

Illiteracy is high in countries where READ Global operates. Women, especially in the rural areas of those countries, are most affected. The organization takes a three-pronged approach to combating illiteracy and underdevelopment: education (the lynchpin), entrepreneurship and social development. Each library center is owned and operated by the community members themselves; the revenues to support it are generated out of enterprises under its aegis, like a fishery or printing press.

A funny thing happened on the way to expanding the project across rural areas: it turned out those libraries with a higher level of participation and leadership by women are the most successful, bringing in the most users and offering the greatest amount of programming.

In fact, women’s involvement seems to create a multiplier effect. “What we’ve found is that women are literally starved for opportunity,” Tina Sciabica told CSRwire. “They know that with even the littlest amount of resources they can change their futures. And they’re always really excited to share it with other people in the community, which doesn’t always happen with men.” With the education and training they receive at the READ Global libraries, women are creating businesses and starting loan coops and micro-credit institutions.

READ Global is now formalizing women’s involvement in the libraries by pledging to put Women’s Empowerment Centers in each one. The centers will provide education on reproductive health and HIV/AIDS, as well as training on literacy, micro-enterprise development and women’s legal rights. And it will boost the multiplier effect by training about 20 women per center to become trainers of other women in their community.

Leveraging the resources of other NGOs is another element in the success story of READ Global. Instead of duplicating efforts, which wastes aid dollars, the organization collaborates with groups that already have expertise and programs in a specific area, such as HIV/AIDS prevention.

By making rural communities sustainable and thriving, READ Global hopes to prevent the out-migration to urban areas that destroys social bonds, increases poverty and causes political unrest and conflict.

Repairing the brutal legacy of conflict by empowering women was the theme of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at the CGI 2010. She was elected when the civil war that tore the country — and the bodies of many of its citizens — apart came to an end. Liberia is now stepping up efforts on protecting women from violence. While Sirleaf admitted that rape continues to be a problem, coming out of years of conflict and widespread domestic violence, she told the audience that a tough, new rape law has been enacted and a special court dealing with domestic violence has been established.

But the efforts go beyond protecting women from violence in the courts. In Liberia, as in Nepal, India and Bhutan, empowering women means educating them. Liberia has made primary education compulsory and free for everyone; that means girls who would have been denied an education in the past are now attending school. But adult women, too, are learning. Liberia has created programs giving literacy training to market women and teaching them and others how to improve conditions at work. That’s resulted in a burst of new micro-enterprises that are raising families out of poverty, and with them, whole communities. It’s trickle-up economics — and, women and girls could just save the world.

About Francesca Rheannon

Talkback’s Managing Editor is Francesca Rheannon. An award-winning journalist, Francesca is co-founder of Sea Change Media. She produces the Sea Change Radio’s series, Back to The Future, and co-produces the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility’s podcast The Arc of Change. Francesca’s work has appeared at SocialFunds.com, The CRO, and E Magazine, and she is a contributing writer for CSRwire. Francesca hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, Writers Voice with Francesca Rheannon.



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