THE BLOG
08/08/2014 02:43 pm ET | Updated Oct 08, 2014

Championing the Empowerment of Young Women - on International Youth Day and Beyond

I was thrilled to receive a book signing invitation recently from a long-time friend, colleague, and champion of women's empowerment issues, Ritu Sharma. Her newly published book, Teach a Woman to Fish: Overcoming Poverty Around the Globe, draws from her own personal experiences working with women worldwide to improve their economic prospects. A singular pioneer in her field, Ritu has been an inspiration for me over the years to continue to expand opportunities for young women and girls in my development work at the International Youth Foundation.

I remember vividly 18 years ago when Ritu burst into my office at Partners of the Americas- a Washington DC-based NGO that I headed up at the time. This young, smart, social entrepreneur wanted to start a "women in development" advocacy organization to secure equal opportunities for women at a time when gender issues were not receiving the full attention they deserved. She wanted to know, could I help? She knew that Partners was already implementing programs for women in Latin America, and I shared my earlier experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Brazil working on these issues. Ritu and I instantly connected on the importance of women and girls as drivers of economic growth and social progress. We also agreed that gender-based violence, restricted work choices, lack of sexual and reproductive rights, and the huge gaps in access to education, would prove to be stubborn barriers to gender equality for years to come, especially without a strong voice working on their behalf.

While I was unable to offer Ritu a grant to jumpstart her plan, I did provide office space and the use of our telephones, fax and other support. From this modest beginning, Ritu grew Women's Edge, later renamed Women Thrive Worldwide, into a leading change-making organization, lending a voice to women around the world. I was honored when Ritu asked me to be the first man to serve on her board.

Since those early days, extraordinary gains have been achieved in areas such as primary school enrollment, family planning, and women's rights - making a profound difference in the lives of millions of the world's girls and women. The fact that more and more girls are completing primary and even secondary school is surely a cause for celebration. Yet far too few, even those who graduate from university, have acquired the capabilities to take that next step toward true financial independence - a decent job or the chance to start and grow their own businesses. Girls and women remain disproportionately impacted by poverty and joblessness, and income inequalities continue to widen. According to a recent World Bank report, laws in 128 countries still present huge barriers for women to own property, access credit, or get a job.

To bridge the gender gap, we need to work much harder to level the playing field. Scaling up gender-specific goals is critical. In 2012, for example, as part of far-reaching efforts to improve job prospects for unemployed youth, the International Youth Foundation launched a multi-sector alliance called New Employment Opportunities for Youth -- an initiative to prepare one million young people in Latin America and the Caribbean for decent jobs. A key component of the plan - co-conceived by the Inter-American Development Bank and five global corporations - is the explicit agreement that half of those beneficiaries will be young women.

That pledge and similar efforts are the result of years of experience in the field seeking new ways to promote the broader participation of young women as full protagonists in the economic growth of their communities. Whether it's adapting the job training curricula to address their specific concerns and aspirations; working with parents to relieve their safety and other worries about their daughters joining the workforce; identifying women working in non-traditional professions to serve as role models and mentors; or developing new gender-specific strategies in program recruitment and job placement, progress is being made.

I'm pleased that the corporate sector is recognizing the long term benefits of promoting women's careers and entrepreneurial ventures, and doing something about it. Caterpillar, for example, is seeking to increase the number of young women engaged in its EquipYouth job training program in 12 emerging market economies. In our work with MasterCard Foundation in Egypt, at least half of the beneficiaries of a program designed to improve young people's employment prospects are to be female. In Kenya, Microsoft supported an initiative to help aspiring young women entrepreneurs living in the slums of Nairobi to launch their own small businesses. The list of champions is growing, but far more needs to be done.

No community or nation can thrive unless everyone - girls and boys, women and men -can fully and equally participate in the economic life of their society. Let's celebrate International Youth Day by reinvigorating our efforts to close the gender gap in all aspects of our development work. And we, of course, have the most powerful allies of all. As Ritu argues so passionately: "Women in poverty are stronger, more generous, and more resilient than you can possibly imagine. They are capable of extraordinary accomplishments if only given a chance."

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