Empowered Women are Key to Transforming Communities

By Sarah Emerson

This week, the world paused to commemorate International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8, a time to focus on the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women worldwide. This year’s IWD theme “Gender Parity” resonates strongly with me based on trends I have witnessed around the world.

Despite pervasive challenges, I’ve seen women making progress in gaining greater access to income-generating opportunities and girls attending school. I’ve also witnessed growing energy in support of women’s empowerment, from stakeholders that may have been previously regarded as “unlikely allies.”

As PCI’s Director of Women Empowered (WE) Initiative, I have the privilege to focus every day on promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women as an intrinsic part of our efforts to advance sustainable development and reduce poverty for families around the world.

Investing in economic opportunities for women pays off. To date, the 442,000 WE group members have collectively saved $3.6 million and loaned over $3.1 million of their own money! These groups have also seen incredible feats from Asia to Africa to Latin America of more children attending school, improved household nutrition and enhanced community health.

Every time I meet WE group members, I’m truly humbled and inspired by their determination, perseverance and courage.

On a recent trip to Nicaragua, I was struck by the increasing number of families and communities rallying around and supporting their women and girls. Visiting one WE group on the Caribbean coast, I had the opportunity to meet Alejandro who was active in supporting his wife, Maria, and her participation in her WE group’s bread-making business.

Maria Alejandro and Family

While Maria participated in the group’s regular savings activities and social issues discussions, Alejandro chopped wood for the group to use in their fire for baking the bread. When it came time for Maria to contribute to the baking activities, Alejandro looked after their daughter, as well as other WE group members’ children.

Alejandro and WE children

With research and data mounting around the economic importance of women participating fully in society and business, I can envision ever-increasing support for women like Maria to pursue their own professional endeavors.

Women Empowered Breadmaking

With support from families and communities and improved livelihood opportunities, empowered women can drive transformative change at the household and community level.

Yesterday, I also had the honor to moderate a panel with global business leaders as part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Corporate Citizenship Center and United Nations Office for Partnerships’ 6th Annual IWD forum. The panel focused on the impact women have on the global economy.

New York, New York, USA - March 8, 2016: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Corporate Citizenship Center hosts an International Women's Day Forum, "The Business of Inclusion" at Microsoft. Photo by Ian Wagreich / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce

New York, New York, USA – March 8, 2016: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Corporate Citizenship Center hosts an International Women’s Day Forum, “The Business of Inclusion” at Microsoft. Photo by Ian Wagreich / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce

At the forum, Mekala Krishnan, McKinsey Global Institute’s Engagement Manager, shared that advancing women’s equality could add a staggering $12 trillion to global growth by 2025.

Elizabeth Vazquez, WEConnect International’s President, CEO, and Co-Founder, highlighted ways her organization supports the growth of women-owned businesses, noting that women are already innately capable. She shared, “It’s all about mindset…women have to believe that it is possible to achieve equality in our lifetimes.”

Sharon Ritchey, AXA Financial, Inc.’s Senior Executive VP and COO, brought valuable insights to the panel as well, sharing key findings from the report: “SheforShield: Insure Women to Better Protect All.” The report analyzes the business opportunity the women’s market represents for insurers. Borrowing from Sharon’s words, she said, “Inclusiveness is a precursor to innovation.”

This week offers a special opportunity to reflect on the progress to-date and also what challenges are still in front of us.

Women can be effective agents of change, when they are empowered. And everyone – men and women – can commit to achieving gender parity more quickly. The time is now to invest in women’s social and economic well-being, helping them to create a thriving, successful and healthy life for themselves, their families and their communities now and for generations to come.

Sarah Emerson is the Director of Women Empowered (WE) Initiative, PCI