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The Power of a Mother

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The Huffington Post's Global Motherhood section joins Mothers Day Every Day, an initiative of the White Ribbon Alliance and CARE, in a countdown to Mother's Day. Pulling together diverse voices, Mothers Day Every Day is raising awareness and calling for greater U.S. leadership to saves the lives of moms and babies globally.

I just returned from a visit to Uganda with CARE, one of the world's largest humanitarian aid organizations. As a member of Congress, I wanted to go so I could learn how key innovations and investments in foreign assistance, particularly those designed to improve the conditions of women and girls in Uganda, have made progress possible. As an appropriator, I wanted to go and see first-hand the results of PEPFAR, a bill I was proud to help write and pass nearly a decade ago to fight the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.

As a mother, however, I wanted to go to be inspired again. I wanted to go because I wanted to see how women benefited from programs that aimed to end poverty, programs that were achieving sustainable improvements in their lives and the lives of their families. I couldn't wait to see firsthand how integrated health programs are not only addressing HIV/AIDS, but also effectively incorporating a comprehensive menu of services for maternal health, access to finance, family counseling, literacy and child nutrition.

Among the highlights from my trip: Seeing how HIV positive women are starting their own businesses through CARE's savings programs, meeting HIV positive families receiving services from innovative holistic health clinics, and a visit to northern Uganda to meet mothers who have been impacted by decades of conflict. I saw how our foreign assistance efforts not only save lives, but have potential to empower women and offer sustainable solutions to combating global poverty.

On the morning of April 5, our delegation took a short flight to Gulu district in Northern Uganda. This region is a post-conflict area where many Ugandan families are finally returning to their homes after years of civil war and displacement. After visiting women's empowerment sites in Gulu, I cannot overstate the importance of gender equity and family planning.

The first visit was to CARE's Northern Uganda Women Empowerment Program (NUWEP), an integrated and holistic development program that focuses on the safety and protection of the people -- particularly women - affected by the conflict. The foundation of the program is Roco Kwo, which translates to "Transforming Lives." Part of the program includes CARE's signature Village Savings and Loans Association (VSLA) program, which has increased the community's capacity to be productive in agriculture and small enterprises.

Despite their past, the participants the delegation met showed remarkable resilience: Many of the women -- and men -- have started their own small businesses raising live stock and selling food. During our visit, several families shared with us how the gender empowerment aspect of the programs have helped improve relationships between husband and wives and have allowed women to be a bigger part of the decision-making process in rebuilding their lives.

After greeting the delegation with a traditional song, a group of 30 women participants from the VSLA performed a short skit to help the delegation understand the positive impact of the VSLA program. The skit called, "We Will Never Give Up," centered on a poor woman in rural northern Uganda whose husband refused to contribute to their daily workload. After the woman received counseling from the NUWEP and joined the VSLA, her life began to slowly improve. Eventually, her husband saw her ability to save and invest money and began helping her share the workload of raising their children and running a business.

Did you know that 70 percent of poor people around the world -- those living on $1 or less per day -- are women? Women are disproportionately affected by poverty, but research shows that they also have the power to improve their families' nutrition, education and healthcare when they have the resources they need and are economically secure.

We know that the longer a girl stays in school, the higher the income of her family when she becomes an adult. She also will have fewer and healthier children. Educating girls for five years could boost child survival by up to 40 percent. In short, empowering women is a crucial step toward lasting change in the world's poorest countries.

VSLAs are transformational because through them we extend financial services to clients who would not otherwise be reached profitably with traditional financial services. Financial inclusion means providing access to a broader array of financial services to poor people that they could use to lift themselves out of poverty. Through financial literacy and financial capability, we are able to address power imbalances brought on by gender imbalances at the household level and community norms that restrict women's participation.

I am grateful to CARE and their local partners for their tireless dedication to improving the lives of women and girls in Uganda. The confidence and courage of the mothers of Uganda was so inspiring -- to come together as a village and rely on each other's business skills for success was a valuable reminder of the power of a mother.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee has represented California's ninth district since 1998.