Rebuilding the Global Economy: Will Women Lead the Way?

Helping women helps our bottom line.

The CEO of Goldman Sachs says so. Same with ExxonMobile. Ditto the head of the World Bank. So say women's rights advocates and CEOs of major companies and the highest representatives of government.

These players are in New York this week for the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). CGI -- an annual meeting at which world leaders, business executives and civil society representatives consider ways to solve our biggest global problems -- has taken "investing in girls and women" as a special subject of discussion this year.

Pamela Shifman, director of initiatives for women and girls at the NoVo Foundation, lays it out plainly, saying that there's "a growing body of evidence, that when half the population is oppressed and not able to participate in society, it hurts not only girls and women, it hurts everyone."

What everyone seems to agree on is that promoting advancement for women not only makes a lot of sense, but it's part of the answer to a lot of our societal and economic problems.

Empower Women, Get Growth and Stability

The return on investing in females' well-being, education and opportunities is astronomical. According to CGI, countries' GDP pops up when girls go to school -- each year she attends school will increase a girl's future income by 10 to 20 percent, which has substantial ripple effect throughout a society. Women invest 90 percent of their income in their households, as opposed to men's 30 to 40 percent.

Furthermore, according to the UN Foundation (PDF), women who control their income have fewer children, which has been shown to be inversely related to a nation's income since they can pump more money into local economies. They can take advantage of micro-credit opportunities to further improve their families' lives, such as the micro-loans for sanitation projects pioneered by Matt Damon's organization,, a CGI member.

What's not to like? The business community is starting to warm up to these ideas. In a prominent example, last year Goldman Sachs launched its 10,000 Women project, which will to train 10,000 underserved women around the world in business and management, among other things.

The financial giant's involvement made a big impression on Zainab Salbi, Founder and CEO of Women for Women International, who has spent over 15 years helping women in war-ravaged nations. "For the chair of their board to stand up and say, 'I'm telling you, this is it. We are in the business of prediction, and we are telling you women have a future,' this was a revolutionary moment," she said.

Such important voices continued enhancing the legitimacy of this issue today, on CGI's second day, at a special plenary session on investing in women and girls. Diane Sawyer moderated the panel, where what she called "the power hitters" -- including Salbi and Lloyd C. Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs -- discussed why people should care about helping women.

Blankfein noted that women make sure money moves through society by investing in their families, which disperses funds into the larger economy. Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank, agreed and noted that drawing women into the mainstream economy bears even better benefits. "We know that by giving the money to women, we get a better result ..." he said. "You have to draw them in ... If they're the primary farmers, but they don't have property rights, what's that going to do to their productivity?"

Sawyer noted that not only is empowering women powerful economically, but important for peace and stability. "We've heard the Joint Chiefs say that one of the biggest forces for combating extremism is educating women," she said, turning to Melanne Verveer, the Ambassador-at-Large for Women's Issue at the U.S. Department of State for a response. Verveer agreed that women can be an important force for stability: "The most dangerous places in the world are those places where women are put down in the most extreme way," she said. "Women are on the frontlines of moderation."

Taking Action

The attention of the prominent folks at CGI is already making a difference. Salbi is pleased with CGI's leadership, noting that Clinton and his team are "seriously listening to those of us who are in the grassroots and who are working for these changes."

All members are required to commit to improving the world in some way, and the NoVo Foundation announced two new multimillion-dollar commitments for girls and women at this morning's session. The Foundation's efforts will be directed toward ending gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and alleviating poverty and supporting sustainable livelihoods in a range of other countries. Women for Women International will be a major partner. A number of other commitments to support women and girls were unveiled this morning, including a $500 million effort by pharmaceutical giant Merck, to supply the Gardasil cervical cancer vaccine to 1.7 million women in the developing world.

Other international leaders and organizations are also paying attention to women's issues. Last week the United Nations announced that it will put in place a single powerful agency to promote women's rights. Similarly, President Obama created a White House Council for Women and Girls. And UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf collaborated on an article called "Taking Women's Rights Seriously."

Corporate leaders aside from Goldman Sachs are taking action as well. The Nike and the NoVo foundations are partnering on "The Girl Effect" to invest over $100 million in advocacy, awareness and programming to help adolescent girls in developing countries. And ExxonMobil's $1.5-million Educating Women and Girls Initiative promotes women's and girls' education, training and leadership.

Challenges Remain

The fact that women's issues are getting traction is both wonderful and depressing.

It is wonderful, of course, because women desperately need the help this attention can bring them. Jennifer Buffett, Co-Chair and President of NoVo Foundation, mentioned to me that only half a penny of every development dollar goes to an adolescent girl. "Women and girls have been left out of the equation," she said.

But that same thing means it's a victory tinged with the bitterness of neglect. Over half a century ago, both the United Nations' Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights espoused women's rights. Yet despite such good intentions, women around the globe still face monumental challenges. They suffer repression, abuse and poor health care. They are frequently reduced to second-class citizens and sometimes to the level of chattel and even slaves.

In the face of such tremendous benefits associated with the empowerment of women, it is notable that the treatment of the female half is as dismal as it is in so many societies around the globe.

Buffett described the uphill battle women face. "In the developing world, girls are so vulnerable," she said. "They're pulled out of school young. They're vulnerable to AIDS. They're married off as soon as they can be ... then they can't bring up the economy of their families because they're not skilled."

One of Salbi's concerns is women's exclusion from the decision-making table. "Women are over 80 percent of the world's farmers and they own about 2 percent of land in the world," she said. "We cannot address environmental issues, sustainable farming issues, industrial agriculture issues, food crisis, if we are going to ignore that. How can you have a policy that ignores the people that are doing the work on a daily basis?"

Shifman pointed out that women must also contend with gender-based violence. "So often violence against women and girls -- particularly violence ... at the hands of family members or violence that is sanctioned by the state, such as child marriage -- is just accepted," she said. "For so many years this was seen as just life. This wasn't seen as violence."

Anti-sex-trafficking activist and winner of this year's Clinton Global Citizen Award Ruchira Gupta has spent decades combating this kind of institutional violence. She noted the example of a condom-distribution program run by the National AIDS Control Organization of India and supported by international foundations such as the Gates Foundation and CARE International.

The program uses brothel owners as condom distributors, so that "when we find a 14-year-old in a brothel and try to get to her, we can't get the pimp into jail because he's working for the program, which is funded by the Gates Foundation," Gupta said.

"The Gates-funded program in India is trying to prevent men from getting AIDS, but not trying to prevent the women from the men. We are saying it is important to put in money for condom distribution, but it is also important to put in money to find other sustainable livelihood options" for the girls.

"What we can do," according to Shifman, "is give them an asset other than their bodies ... We should give them other things they can do ... other options."

"We Are Better Than This"

From all accounts, the world community is intent on doing just that. New York Times columnist and CGI participant Nicholas Kristof has pronounced this a new era for women in his new book on the importance of women's empowerment, Half the Sky, co-authored with Sheryl WuDunn.

"In the nineteenth century," they write, "the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world."

Incidentally, Buffett said, "there are more people enslaved in the 20th century than there were in the transatlantic slave trade in the 19th century." This is a problem borne in large part by women. "Poor women and girls are the most vulnerable," she said. "They're easy prey."

In Salbi's view, women are vulnerable across the board. "You name it -- whatever the challenge is -- and women are disproportionately impacted by it."

With a problem that monumental, Salbi thinks that every argument -- moral, economic and otherwise -- must be employed to make progress. But she reminds us that "the only way we can sustain the change is if it is seen at the end of the day as morally the right thing to do."

Jennifer Buffett agrees. For her, it comes down to a simple fact: "We are better than this."