It Takes Women to End Global Poverty

One hundred years ago, a group of courageous women - inspired by the then-unorthodox idea that they deserve the equal right to an education, safe working conditions and the ballot box - organized the first International Women's Day.

This week, as we celebrate the occasion once again and reflect on the great strides made over the last century, we know their work is unfinished. Millions of women still live in a world in which their rights are limited and their skills are not being fully developed.

Gender inequality prevents us from unlocking the full potential of millions of women and girls around the world. Research tells us that there is a direct correlation between gender equality and economic growth. Decades of experience in developing countries show us that women often hold the greatest potential to lift their families and communities from poverty. Yet women in many of the world's poorest countries are regularly denied the tools that will enable them to fight off impoverishment.

To understand this challenge, consider the second-class status that is afforded many women in developing nations.

Women are often expected to provide the great majority of unpaid household and farm work. Those women able to generate income are less likely than men to be working in the formal economy, which often means lower pay, less security and greater risk that they will remain in poverty.

At the same time, women who wish to improve their situation through formal employment or by accessing credit and developing a business often encounter difficulties. Women's ability to control resources and access economic tools is limited by law and custom in many countries in Africa and Asia.

A similar disparity is found in education. While progress has been made toward equality in education, women still face significant disadvantages around the globe. About two-thirds of the world's illiterate adults are women.

Any serious effort to tackle global poverty must begin with improving the lives of the world's poorest women. In my time as CEO of the U.S. Government's Millennium Challenge Corporation, I've learned that we can find some solutions simply by demanding that considerations of gender equality are included in our development plans.

This point is illustrated by the example of Maleribe Leleka, who lives in a small village in the African nation of Lesotho. She was unable to use her savings to buy land because her nation's laws required her to get her husband's permission to apply for a loan, get medical insurance or purchase property.

Because MCC brought a gender-based perspective to development in Lesotho, this was identified as a problem that constrains growth in the nation. As soon as Maleribe learned that Lesotho, working with MCC, passed a law eliminating these restrictions, she promptly invested in a piece of land and began constructing a safe, stable house for her family.

Simple as it may sound, the right to own land has been transformative for Maleribe and other women in the developing world. As a property owner, she now has access to a fundamental economic tool that she can use to improve her life and her community. Her story is a reminder that by closing the gender gap and ensuring that laws and institutions promote women's access to land, property, credit, education and other tools of economic growth, we empower them to provide for their families and contribute more fully to their countries' development.

Now, more than ever, we need a concerted effort to invest in gender equality. As the Chair of MCC's Board of Directors, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has said, "We cannot succeed if humanity is working at half its strength."

Like the founders of International Women's Day, Maleribe Leleka and millions of women around the world are asking for opportunities to access the tools of economic opportunity. Now is the time to answer them.

Daniel Yohannes is CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. Government agency that works with developing nations to reduce poverty through economic growth.