It is no coincidence that March -- the beginning of spring, the season of rebirth and renewal -- also happens to mark both the United States' Women's History Month and International Women's Day, celebrated by United Nations member states each year on March 8.
The official United Nations theme for this year's International Women's Day was "A Promise is a Promise: Time for Action to End Violence Against Women." It is a theme whose urgency is brought into sharp focus by the international tragedies that have dominated recent headlines: In Pakistan, a young girl sustained critical wounds simply for believing that she had the right to go to school. In India, a woman who boarded a bus after a night at the movies was attacked by a group of men and ultimately lost her life.
In fact, a promise is a promise, and I join women everywhere in demanding that the one renewed by the United Nations will be followed by the action the world so desperately needs. Like many issues highlighted with their own days or months of observance, the welfare of women has long been subject to a familiar pattern of events, drawing well-intentioned but often empty proclamations until it cedes the spotlight to a new problem at hand, shelved until the following year like so many times before.
By contrast, the non-profit I founded -- FXB International -- recognizes the urgency in taking action. In 1992, I led a FXB mission to raid six brothels along the Thai border that rescued several Burmese women and underage girls held as prostitutes and helped them to return to their homes. Many of these women, some of which were brought into sex work by human traffickers, are today living successful, self-sufficient lives, free from the violence and subjugation they once faced.
But we demand, too, that our leaders recognize the violence that takes a more insidious form, violence that does not leave its victims with visible scars but that nevertheless inflicts untold harm on women across the globe. This violence is the failure to recognize that, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously declared, women's rights are human rights.
This violence manifests itself in the barriers women encounter every day to such basic necessities as education and healthcare. It manifests itself in the stigma faced by women dealing with HIV and AIDS. It manifests itself in the lack of resources for women struggling to provide their families with food and clean drinking water.
The elimination of such structural violence is a core mission of FXB, which operates on the conviction that the best way to help vulnerable women and children is to strengthen the social and economic capabilities of their communities. And through my work at FXB, I have had the opportunity to come into contact with women whose drive to improve their own futures is truly inspirational.
One such example is Claire from Rwanda, who at age 17 was left to care for her three younger siblings and two cousins after her parents passed away from AIDS. HIV positive herself, Claire was forced to move her family to a shed in the backyard and rent out their home for income. In 2005, Claire and her family enrolled in the FXB-Village-Network program, which has been operating for more than 20 years and amongst other things provides food, educational support, medical care and grants to open small businesses. Today, Claire is thriving as a student at the Kigali Institute for Science and Technology, where funding from FXB has allowed her to study dietary therapy for people with HIV while still supporting her family.
Another is Granny Ban, a 72-year-old woman in Thailand who lost both her husband and daughter to AIDS. After their death, she took in her two young granddaughters, struggling to meet the children's needs and helping them to overcome the stigma of poverty that followed them to school. With the help of the FXB-Village-Network program, Granny Ban now has a flourishing vegetable garden, a fish pond and a couple of pigs, and knows how to sustainably use all three to support herself and her girls.
These two cases are far from isolated successes -- my years at FXB have showed me that the resilience of these women is even more remarkable for its frequency the world over. I have seen it in the woman in Colombia who used her FXB training to open her own laundry business, where after two years in the program she was earning $15 a day and became self-sufficient, and in the women in India who, after participating in a FXB program, become empowered and financially stable enough to leave their abusive husbands and provide for their children. In taking action against violence in all forms, FXB has enabled the women it serves to do the same, and the results are truly extraordinary.
If the headlines mentioned earlier illustrate the dangers of treating women's welfare as anything less than a human rights issue, the stories of Claire, Granny Ban and so many others are a hopeful testament to the inverse: When women's rights are recognized as human rights, women, their families and their communities can grow and thrive. With International Women's Day behind us and Women's History Month nearly over, we must work with the belief that the best way to honor the women of the past is to build a future where all people, regardless of gender, are afforded the same essential rights that all deserve.