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Helene D. Gayle

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International Women's Day: The Measure Of A Woman

Posted: 03/ 8/2012 7:41 am

When I want to explain why empowering girls and women is critical to fighting poverty, I often tell a person's story. It's easier to relate to a personal story than to global data telling us that the majority of the billion people who live on less than $2 per day are women and girls. We are often told to never treat a person like a statistic.

But what if conventional wisdom is wrong? What if quantifying results can help us reach our goals?

Rina Begum is a real person -- but she's also a statistic. When CARE met her, Rina and other women in her remote village in Bangladesh lived under virtual house arrest. Local tradition forbade women from leaving home without male escorts. Women who dared do so were subjected to public sexual harassment and even violence.

Many women and girls around the world face similar limits to their freedom. For example, in parts of Nepal, women are confined to sheds while they menstruate. Adolescent girls, who cannot go out in public, are denied the opportunity to go to school. With restricted movement, women are less likely to earn income and less able to access health care. Furthermore, in too many places such rules often go hand-in-hand with forced child marriage.

CARE invited Rina and more than 2 million other Bangladeshis to participate in a program designed to fight malnutrition. Called SHOUHARDO (a Bangla word meaning friendship) and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the program combined direct nutrition-focused interventions such as child feeding with indirect interventions that struck at the roots of the problem -- most notably the deep inequalities between women and men.

Hear more from Dr. Helene Gayle, CEO of CARE USA, and keep reading below.


Rina lives in one of 408 villages and urban slums where groups of 20 women and 10 adolescent girls gathered regularly to discuss how to confront the barriers holding them back. The groups discussed their lack of decision-making power, violence against women, barriers to education, and early marriage. They received literacy training, and learned basics of Bangladeshi law.

The women in Rina's group confronted the men in the village about the harassment of girls and women until it eventually ceased. They stopped four child marriages with police assistance. And, most noticeably, women and girls began leaving their homes and moving about more freely.

But what happened to Rina and her neighbors was more than a story. Researchers evaluating SHOUHARDO were actually able to quantify the growing influence of women in their communities. For example, they found a 46 percent increase in the proportion of women who participated in decisions about the use of loans and savings.

So what does greater gender equality have to do with child malnutrition? A lot, according to a recent study of SHOUHARDO published by the Institute of Development Studies. SHOUHARDO reduced the proportion of young children with "stunting," a measure of the shortfall in growth due to malnutrition, by an astounding 28 percent in less than 4 years. And women's empowerment played a major role in that drop, researchers found. The young children of women who were part of empowerment efforts like Rina's were taller than those of women who participated only in traditional programs that included direct nutritional support such as regular food rations.

Poverty-fighting organizations have known for decades that empowering girls and women yields benefits for entire families and communities, but here was clear proof. This was empowerment you could measure with a yardstick.

On International Women's Day, CARE is shining a light on the need for more such evidence in the growing movement to empower women and girls. After all, how can you celebrate wins -- or more importantly, replicate them -- if no one is keeping score? We drive home that point in a new report titled "Reaching New Heights: The Case for Measuring Women's Empowerment."

In the report you can read, among other things, more about Rina. Her destiny was not to be confined in her home or even her group's meeting room. "I had to explore beyond it," she said. The statistics showed that, in this way, Rina was not unique. And that is exactly why her story is so important.