Earlier this month, activists and civil society representatives, experts, donors and government officials traveled to New York from all corners of the world to attend the 2014 Session on the Commission on the Status of Women.
Having been a U.N. diplomat myself, I have witnessed closely how discussions at such sessions can make a difference. I have a deep respect for the importance of the CSW. Those gathered discussed progress made for the world’s women through the Millennium Development Goals, and to a larger degree, the challenges that have yet to be addressed. More importantly, they pushed for greater efforts on the part of the global community overall.
But outside the walls of the United Nations, there are countless unsung heroes taking small but steady steps to change the way women and girls experience the world today. Imagine if we gave everyday change-makers the podium, just for a few minutes. What would they have to say? What could we learn from them?
It’s no secret. We have a situation of global proportions on our hands, and only together can we turn the oppression, injustice and suffering around.
Consider this: Some 222 million women who want contraception don't have access. A woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth every minute. One-third of these deaths could be prevented if the women who wanted birth control could get it. More than half of all people living with HIV and AIDS are women. The disease is the world’s leading cause of death for women in their reproductive years. Again, deaths that are entirely preventable when we invest in women.
And that's just sexual and reproductive health, one of countless areas where women and girls are denied autonomy to make choices, preventing them from living healthy, safe and productive lives.
This is where the problem often starts to overwhelm us. "It's impossible," you think, "How can I, one person out of 7 billion, create real, lasting change for women and girls?"
But you don't need a podium or deep pockets to be a catalyst for change. Change can start close to home, with a simple question or an act of kindness.
Women for women
We see it every day: women holding other women back. A mother pulls her daughter out of school at puberty. A mother-in-law insists on her young daughter-in-law “proving her fertility” rapidly. A female supervisor passes up her younger counterpart for the promotion because even though she's qualified, she thinks “she's likely to have a baby and ask for leave.”
But when we empower our sisters and our daughters, we are all empowered.
Women, be good to one another. Ask the younger women in your life to tell you about their aspirations, and help those aspirations grow. When their voice is silenced, elevate it by speaking up yourself. Don't be afraid to tell the truth about women's lives, their power and their potential. "Feminist" isn't a four-letter word and we can't keep treating it like one. Say "yes" to opportunity and "get out of my way" to the social, economic and cultural barriers that try to hold you back.
Men who dare
A world full of empowered women isn't one where men are marginalized. It's a world where everybody thrives. For every heart-wrenching story about domestic violence or discrimination against women, there are many more stories that go untold. Stories about men who dare by empowering their sisters, wives, daughters and female work colleagues. Men who stand up for the rights of women they don’t even know.
Be one of those men. Be the one to call out a sexist comment as exactly what it is: damaging and unnecessary. Be the one to speak up when you see physical, verbal or emotional violence taking place against women. Be the one to call on a girl for her opinion, encourage your wife to run for public office or give your daughter the courage and strength to be her own No. 1 advocate. There are plenty of ways you can show your support and caring.
Girls' rights can be restricted from day one, but many start to experience gender inequality as they reach adolescence. Girls in many parts of the world are routinely prevented from what is often taken for granted elsewhere: staying in school, not being married off at an early age, and being allowed to make choices in life.
As you enter this crucial time in your life, I urge to speak up when you see a girl being treated as less important. Being disrespected or violated. Do not turn away. Offer her support, advice and solidarity. Don't convince yourself, "It's none of my business." You may just be the person who helps turn that girl’s life around.
Policymakers and heads of state often forget the impact on women — half their constituency — with each and every decision they make. Funding for women and girls' health, education and economic empowerment is considered last or not at all. This is simply unacceptable.
We also must consider the impact all fields have on gender dynamics. Tax policies, road construction and sanitation systems may not have an obvious connection to women's rights, but without women and men who champion women at the table, we'll never know for sure what negative impact a policy could have on gender equality.
Consider women when making every decision. Ask for their perspective. Check how and if it impacts their lives and makes them better. Champion their needs. We'll build a stronger, healthier world because of it.
She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.