I recently had the honor of visiting Russia with the United Nations Foundation. Its board -- whose members include founder Ted Turner, Kofi Annan, Dr. Gro Brundtland, and Igor Ivanov, among others -- was meeting to discuss the Foundation's work in responding to pressing global challenges. I participated as a member of the Foundation's Global Entrepreneurs Council, a team of high-profile innovators who use their talents to strengthen the Foundation's various initiatives.
While I was there, I did a lot of reflecting on my life as the daughter of Russian immigrants, and on the lives of other women in Russia and around the world.
Since beginning my work with the UN Foundation in February, I've been struck by startling statistics showing the harsh reality of life for many of the world's girls and women. One out of every three women around the globe will be raped, beaten, or murdered. 222 million women lack access to the reproductive health and voluntary family planning services they need to be informed and ready for pregnancy and childbirth. 33 million fewer girls than boys attending primary school. And that's just to name a few.
Organizations such as the UN Foundation are working with community leaders, governments, businesses, and a host of other partners to turn such gender-based hardships into a thing of the past. The Foundation's Universal Access Project, for example, is striving to help all women gain access to voluntary family planning services proven to benefit mothers' and newborns' health, lower poverty rates, and strengthen communities. The Shot@Life campaign is raising funds to help mothers in developing countries protect their children through life-saving vaccines against preventable diseases. And the Girl Up initiative is empowering American girls to raise awareness and funds for girls in hard-to-reach parts of the world, where access to education and health services remain significant barriers.
But a great deal of work still lies ahead. Countries such as Russia, India, and Brazil must act faster and more vigorously to establish laws, institutions, and social norms that allow girls and women to live healthy, safe, and empowered lives.
As an immigrant from the former Soviet Union to the United States, I was fortunate to grow up with the resources I needed to thrive. My family arrived in the U.S. in 1976 with $116 and a dream. My parents, Michael and Ludmila, were eager to raise me in a country known for its freedom and opportunity. It was their entrepreneurial spirit and unwavering encouragement that ushered me from a cockroach-infested apartment in Chicago to the role of CEO of Lifeway Foods, a company my father founded in 1986, and the first Russian immigrant-owned company to go public in America. But it was access to adequate education, health care, and family planning services that made such a leap possible.
My reality -- a reality made possible not just by my parents' encouragement, but also by larger societal norms and safety nets -- shouldn't be any different from the reality of women living in Russia and elsewhere around the world. But for millions of girls and women caught on the wrong side of those statistics, it is. And instead of discovering what they are capable of doing with their talents and interests, many of them can still only wonder.
At the meeting in Russia, the UN Foundation's board members met with a host of Russian dignitaries, civil society leaders, and UN experts to discuss global development problems and priorities. It was evident from the dialogues that emerged that while Russia faces numerous challenges on the road to gender equity, there are many people ready to take on those challenges.
As leaders in Russia and around the world turn increasing attention to establishing the post-2015 development agenda, let's raise our voices to make sure that safety, equality, and empowerment for girls and women are at the top of that agenda.
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