As we prepare to celebrate International Women's Day on March 8th, consider the state of the world's women.
Seventy percent of the poorest people living in the world today are women and girls. Women work two-thirds of the world's working hours, yet they earn just 10 percent of the income. Two-thirds of the adults worldwide who cannot read are women, and two-thirds of the children who do not attend school are girls. Every minute of every day, a woman somewhere dies from complications due to pregnancy and childbirth. And in many communities, women are still the legal property of their fathers and husbands.
There are many factors that sustain poverty, but one factor that is common to poverty everywhere is the inequality of women and girls. Counterintuitive as it may seem, there is something hopeful in this. Because women are the predominant victims of poverty, they are also the greatest untapped resource the world has in the fight against global poverty.
We know that in Africa, for example, children of mothers who receive just five years of primary education are 40 percent more likely to make it beyond the age of 50. A women with seven or more years of education has 2.2 fewer children and marries four years later. And one extra year of education beyond the average increases a young woman's eventual wages by more than 10 percent. A woman whose business earns money, or whose savings earn interest, invests 90 percent of it into her family.
Woman are the thread that holds together the fabric of society. And if we are ever going to fix the problems of the world -- both here and abroad -- we are going to do it on the backs of strong, powerful women.
If you start to change women's lives, there is a virtuous cycle that begins to improve everything else. I am more convinced than ever that the more women hear stories about other women, the more they will step up and help other women.
That is why, as a Global Ambassador for CARE International, and with the help of CARE's videographers, we set out to find examples of women finding their voices, changing their own lives, and changing the future in the process. We found stories everywhere.
In the slums of Bamako, Mali, we found Jacqueline Dembele, working to save girls from forced labor, abusive husbands, and illiteracy.
In Northern Vietnam, we found Bui My Hanh, who only learned that she had contracted HIV only after her husband and five-year-old daughter died from AIDS. She became an AIDS activist, educating people about the disease, and creating support groups for people living with HIV/AIDS in a place where the disease is regarded as a social evil.
In Bosnia, we found Nada Markovic, a single mother raising three girls, a survivor of the mass genocide of the Bosnian War who started a women's association that helps families put aside their ethnic differences to rebuild their communities.
These women do not speak the same language, they don't look alike, and if we hadn't put them into the same documentary film, A Powerful Noise, they would never have encountered one another.
But they share one thing. In finding their individual power, they are helping empower communities and, hopefully, the generation that will follow.
On March 5th, A Powerful Noise will be shown simultaneously in 450 theaters across America. It will be followed by a panel discussion with leading thinkers on women and poverty. At www.apowerfulnoise.org, you can find ways to join the effort to empower women, as an advocate, as a volunteer, or simply through public displays of support.
In 2006, I traveled to Guatemala and visited a program that helps young women develop leadership skills. At the start of the program, women were encouraged to look in a mirror and explain what they saw. One woman after another said, "I see nothing. I see nothing." At the end of the program they looked in the mirror again. This time they saw something. One after another said, "I see a woman with a future. I see a partner. I see a mother. I see who I am, regardless of what anyone says."
Imagine the world we can create when millions -- indeed, billions -- of women can make statements like that. These are women who have the power to change the world. We have the power to help them do it.
Sheila C. Johnson, a founder of Black Entertainment Television, is a Global Ambassador for CARE International.