March 8th is International Women’s Day (IWD), observed throughout the world as a day of action for women, a time to seek specific improvements in women’s lives and to commit to ending the suffering that women experience merely because they are women.
Unlike Mother’s Day, IWD is not a time for present-giving or taking mom out to dinner; it’s a serious day and one that has brought needed changes. The 1975 Icelandic Women’s Day strike led to the election of Vignis Finnbogadottir, the first woman president of Finland. IWD has also been the site of continuing violence against women. In 2011 in Egypt, at the height of the Arab Spring, hundreds of men came out to attack women. “Go home, go wash clothes,” some said. As one reporter noted, Mubarak was easier to dislodge than misogyny.
The UN officially sanctioned the IWD in 1996 with a special theme each year: Ending Violence Against Women, Women and Peace, Ending Poverty and Hunger, and Human Rights have been among the themes.
Special attention to the lives of girls is increasingly a part of global concern, and for good reason – girl children face significant risks to their life and health. They are subject to child marriage (in developing countries, one in three girls is married before 18 and one in nine by the time they are 15). They lag far behind boys in attending school and school is often unsafe. Seemingly simple barriers like lack of access to sanitary pads keep girls home for a part of every month. Globally, 62 million girls, six to 15 years old, are not in school. Annually, three million girls in 30 countries are at risk of female genital mutilation, usually performed between infancy and 15 years of age.
According to the World Bank and various UN agencies, the major reason child marriage occurs and girls don’t get educated is poverty and a key component in ending poverty is closing the gender gap. For example, it has been shown that if African countries had closed the gender gap in schooling between 1960 and 1992 as quickly as East Asia did, it would have produced close to a doubling of the per capita income growth in the region: see this detailed analysis explaining the benefits of supporting advancing the role of women in the economic and wage earning sector.
With the exception of Gates Foundation strategies and those of some European government donors, high wealth individual donors, foundations and the newer effective giving “charity” evaluators have not yet jumped on the equality bandwagon. We are still in the low-hanging-fruit stage; the biggest, and most immediate bang for your buck comparisons in determining where to fund. Over time, I hope there will be room for looking at investments that will contribute significantly in the longer term to ending poverty.
One possible factor in getting to that stage may be more reliance on a wider range of experts, including women and developing country experts. Foundations, individual US and European wealthy donors and especially the effective giving/altruism community have been criticized for being substantially male and pale (Foundations in general have been better at diversity than the other two groups). As an interested observer, I’ve been regularly surprised by the absence of women among the thought leaders and content experts called upon by newer players in the giving field (with a respectful nod to the women who have managed to find places and a modest voice–a too-modest voice.) There is no dearth of highly qualified women and International Women’s Day is a great time to give them a shout-out. Here’s three:
Dr. Helene Gayle, who is currently CEO of McKinsey Social Initiative, a nonprofit organization that implements programs that bring together varied stakeholders to address complex global and social challenges. Dr. Gayle is former CEO of CARE and has broad and deep knowledge of women’s issues as well as health, poverty and development. She made waves at CARE when she turned down funding for agricultural assistance that required the developing countries to buy US farm products, saying that this impedes local economic development.
Rachel Kyte, CEO of Sustainable Energy for All. In her previous job at the World Bank group, Ms. Kyte, a longtime advocate for sustainable development, oversaw the work on climate change adaptation, mitigation, climate finance, and disaster risk and resilience. Ms. Kyte offered Peter Singer and me great advice on issues related to climate change and population, noting in particular advances made in women’s participation in economic development combined with the current political fragility of continued support for those efforts.
Newly-appointed Deputy UN Secretary General Amina Mohammed, who formerly served as Nigerian Minister of the Environment. Mohammed was Ban Ki-moon’s special advisor on post-2015 development goals.
Hundreds, indeed thousands of highly qualified women are experts in ending poverty, providing quality health care, evaluating effectiveness, managing the environment, immigration, and human beings and maintaining a commitment to the importance of women’s equality.
Gloria Steinem noted recently in the New York Times a failure of modern culture in which women are simply not recognized as people. “As has been true forever, the person with the power takes the noun — and the norm — while the less powerful requires an adjective.” Elon Musk is not described as a “male entrepreneur,” he is merely an entrepreneur. Paul Farmer is not a “male anthropologist and doctor,” he’s just a doctor.
Isn’t it time to turn to women as people and don’t we have a lot to offer?