THE BLOG
06/15/2013 11:16 am ET | Updated Aug 15, 2013

The Fathers of Women

My mother's father was a quiet man, a stark contrast to his wife -- my very opinionated grandmother -- who, at 82, still makes sure her convictions are heard loud and clear. "Luchi," as his friends called him, spent most of his life in Puerto Rico working with horses and was the closest thing to a Puerto Rican "cowboy." He drank beer, proudly owned a gun, sported a tattoo and drove only Ford pick-up trucks.

Despite his "tough guy" exterior, he defied the stereotype. One of my oldest and fondest memories of my "abuelo" Luchi is when he taught me how to braid my hair. He was also the best cook I've ever known.

My grandmother was five days his senior and felt that empowered her to do anything she set her mind to, which was unusual for a woman in the 1950s. A hospital administrator with two small children, she finished her college degree at nights while Luchi stayed home, cooked dinner and watched the kids.

I come from a line of strong women on both sides. My father's mother served 24 years in the Puerto Rican Senate. Her example influenced my dad to believe strongly in the power and potential of women, and he has always pushed and challenged my sister and me to work hard to achieve our greatest professional goals.

I thought of my father and grandfather, two strong men who champion strong women, this week while speaking at the United Nations Foundation's Girl Up Leadership Summit in Washington DC, where I met 16-year-old Angel Ortiz -- the only boy in a sea of 100 teenage girls.

Girl Up is a campaign dedicated to empowering girls in America to raise funds and awareness for United Nations programs that focus on helping women and girls in the world's hardest-to-reach places. Angel was inspired when he heard a woman from Guatemala speak during a Girl Up event at his East Los Angeles high school. "The way that her husband beat her... all the violence she went through," he said. "I was listening and I thought, I really want to do something, I wanted to get the message out there that women should be treated a lot better."

Angel says he's already recruiting other young men at school to bring awareness to problems affecting girls globally. I told Angel that what he's doing as a boy takes a lot of guts. He credited his mother with instilling these values in him: "She's just a very strong woman," Angel said. "I grew up most of my life without a father and my mother has always been there because my dad was always out. I feel that I've learned strength of character from her."

Some of the issues Angel focuses on include poverty, child marriage, early pregnancy, poor healthcare and nutrition, sexual violence and child labor -- all of which deprive girls around the world of a proper education that would allow them to positively transform their families, communities and countries. Studies have shown that every additional year of schooling can increase a girl's future earnings by 10 to 20 percent, and that women invest 90 percent of their income in their families and their communities.

His goal is to work at the White House so he can engage more people, especially men, in the fight for gender equality. "I know for males it's a lot harder to share their feelings and not really show their emotions," he said. "Most of the girls are facing [these issues] because of males," he said. "So I think that [males] should take responsibility and ultimately say... 'we messed up and we want to help make a change now.'"

I found it insightful of Angel to pick up on one key truth: issues affecting women and girls impact everyone. When half the population of a country, and half of a potential workforce, isn't entitled to an education, the effects are monumental.

It is noteworthy that CNN is airing the much talked about documentary Girl Rising at 9:00 p.m. on Father's Day this Sunday. A 10x10 and CNN Films production narrated by some of Hollywood's most influential actresses, Girl Rising follows nine remarkable girls from nine different countries as they overcome great obstacles to obtain an education. Two of the stories in Girl Rising celebrate the impact a father can have on his daughter.

In the high altitudes of Peru's mining country, Senna says her father named her after "Xena, the Warrior Princess." Her story follows the teenager's discovery of poetry as she fulfills her father's dream of seeing her educated. In another story, Girl Rising takes us more than 10,000 miles away to the streets of Kolkata, India where Ruksana's father is determined to sacrifice everything he has to keep his three daughters in school.

These stories made me realize how ahead of his time my grandfather was. When women were expected to stay at home (whether they wanted to or not), he blatantly ignored the gender norms of the time and supported his wife's professional ambitions. This is the story of today's America, with mothers now 40 percent of family "bread-earners" -- but it is not the case in much of the developing world and, as young people like Angel Ortiz are realizing, it's time for more men at home and abroad to join in the fight.

When girls are encouraged to dream big and are provided with the right tools, amazing things can happen. So, as I say Happy Father's Day to my grandfather, my father, and for the first time to my brother -- and thank them for fueling my own personal journey -- I also encourage every father and brother to join the brave men like Angel who are determined to see not just their daughters, but girls all over the world, gain access to the same opportunities.