Since I joined CARE in 2006, I've observed an extraordinary shift in the way people think about global poverty and what it will take to solve it. With the help of the development community, policy makers, academia, and social media, the message that girls and women are key to lifting entire communities out of poverty is more widespread than ever.
Girls and women disproportionately bear the brunt of poverty. The UN estimates that seven out of ten of the world's hungry are girls or women. Girls are traditionally excluded from school far more often than boys, denying them skills and opportunities to make a living later in life. Uneducated women often marry earlier, have more children and are often the victims of gender based violence. They have few rights and little say in decisions that directly affect them. These facts clearly show that even in the 21st century there are places in the world where girls and women are vulnerable to deeply rooted biases that support inequality.
CARE's more than six decades of experience shows that programs focused on the empowerment of girls and women are a solution to poverty. But we also know that empowering a woman with the skill to make a blanket or feed her family is not enough. It requires an approach that includes boys and men in addressing gender inequality, poor governance and social and economic exclusion.
Focusing efforts on the empowerment of girls and women seeks to balance the scales, not to exclude one gender over the other. Walk into any poor community where CARE works and you will find that the involvement of boys and men is essential to the success of our programs.
During a recent trip to Benin, a small country in West Africa, I visited a CARE Village Savings and Loan program. The program empowers women with the skills and resources to qualify for small loans to start businesses. As on so many trips I've been on, men at community gatherings go out of their way to share their support for the program and the greater cause of women's empowerment.
One man stood up and said that the program helped him to see his wife not as his burden, but his partner. It wasn't simply that she was able to earn more money for the family; he saw her dedication. He watched her reinvest profits from the business to make their lives better and use her savings to send their children to school. "I saw traits in her that I used to ignore," he said. "Now I respect and value her opinion as my equal."
I have seen time and again how women in these programs gain such respect from their husbands and the community that they are elected to leadership positions traditionally held by men. When the viewpoints of both men and women are heard and valued, communities can have a greater impact on policy and daily life. Giving men and women an equal voice is the root to breaking the cycle of poverty. Without it, global poverty cannot be overcome.
The men in the communities where we work understand better than anyone that empowerment for women and girls is not a zero-sum game. They see in their home and communities what we see around the world; that when you empower a girl or a woman, she becomes a catalyst, creating ripples of positive change that lift up everyone around her; including boys and men.