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The Key to Global Recovery

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As national leaders and economic thinkers met in Davos recently to chart the global market's way out of prolonged turmoil, one billion women -- all potential employees, producers, entrepreneurs and consumers -- continued to go largely unrecognized as perhaps the world's greatest potential drivers of a new global prosperity.

The entry of women into the workforce propelled most of the world's developed economies in the second half of the 20th century. The emergence of the baby-boom generation, coupled with the rising number of women in the workplace, added nearly two percentage points to U.S. growth each year. In Europe, narrowing the gap between male and female employment has accounted for a quarter of annual GDP growth since 1995. Recent data from the ILO indicate that if women's economic potential could be harnessed and leveraged on a global scale, in economies where women have been left out and left behind, the impact would equivalent to the creation of one billion new jobs, with all that means for increased production and consumption and higher standards of life. One billion producers and consumers would shape and stimulate the world economy as much as the billion in India and the billion in China.

It's time, long past time, for change. So the Third Billion Campaign, to be launched in New York this week, will activate a global alliance of corporations, governments, nonprofit organizations, foundations, academics, and individuals to remove the barriers that hold women back. The campaign will build on the pioneering efforts of a growing number of global corporations like Coca-Cola, Ernst and Young, and Goldman Sachs that recognize and seek to empower women as an emerging market of decisive importance.

The fundamental characteristics about "the third billion" point to their enormous promise -- and to the problems that leave it unfulfilled. Over half a billion women in the world today are illiterate, assigned to the most minimal economic roles and the most menial tasks. Yet, when women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, compared to only 30-40 percent for men. Women own 25 to 30 percent of private businesses, but receive only 1 percent of government contracts. In post conflict countries, where women are brutalized in war, but afterward remain the bell weather of society, they are rarely seen at the negotiating table marking out the path to a more peaceful and secure society.

Consider the economic investment story of Victoria Kisyombe in Tanzania. A widow who lost her husband to HIV/AIDS, she founded SERO Lease and Finance Limited, a micro-leasing program with the aim of supporting other widows. Initially, the project aimed at training women only in legal rights, business skills and HIV/AIDS prevention. But when that was not enough, SERO turned to micro-leasing. Women are now able to lease equipment like small tractors, milling machines and water pumps to generate income for themselves and their families. With the assistance of the IFC/World Bank, more than 25,000 women have been supported since 2002, advancing life chances for current Tanzanians and future generations.

Over the next decade, the Third Billion Campaign and its partners will raise public awareness, marshal private and public resources, and function as a global voice for the economic value and economic rights of women. We are already campaigning to persuade the G20 endorse new measures to assuring women's access to finance, as well as encouraging governments to open up the procurement of goods and services to women-owned businesses -- no small task given the cultural and systemic differences around the world. But we know from models in the U.S., Canada and South Africa that this can work -- for women, and for the economies to which they have so much to give, and in which they have a rightful place to claim.

National governments need to legislate to protect women and ensure more equal treatment under law. Violence against women has to be prevented and stopped; property rights and inheritance laws -- which too often today leave women with nothing -- have to be reformed. Women will never realize their potential as "economic engines" if they are subject to abuse at home or can't own or exercise control over property.

As Hillary Clinton famously said, "Women's rights are also human rights." They are also key to global recovery and sustained prosperity. Now more than ever, women's rights are also the best economics. That is the animating principle, and the defining mission, of the "Third Billion" campaign. It is a campaign for women, but in the final analysis, it is a campaign for all of us -- from multinational corporations to labor unions, from workers in developed countries whose continued livelihood depend on new markets and new consumers to the one billion women ready to be brought out of a twilight economy to the sunshine of genuine opportunity.