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Women as Agents of Change

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The world today sees women excelling in a variety of fields, from exploring the universe as astronauts to even leading nations; there are few areas that are left uncharted. Women are believed to be the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world. With perseverance and determination, women around the world strive to prove themselves in order to reach the pinnacle of success.

However, as women scale new heights and expand their horizons, they must constantly struggle to overcome the shackles of inequality and discrimination. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rightly said, "the status of the world's women is not only a matter of morality and justice. It is also a political, economic, and social imperative. Put simply, the world cannot make lasting progress if women and girls in the 21st century are denied their rights and left behind." It is commonly believed that the suffering and denial of the rights of women and the instability of countries go hand in hand.

As women continue to fight for their space in the world, we notice a wave of liberation and empowerment that floods nations worldwide as more and more women become aware of the oppressive atmosphere around them, and begin to raise their voice against it. From the young and courageous Malala Yousafzai, who fought for education of girls in Pakistan, to the women activists in the war-torn region of Syria who demand political reforms, to the scores of Saudi women who led a campaign against the ban on female drivers, to the first woman elected as president in modern Africa -- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia -- these extraordinary women stand as "agents of change" and transcend countless obstacles on their path toward freedom and equality.

In order to continue to fuel this fire within women worldwide, nations across the world must not only revolutionize their economic, social and cultural structure to one that supports the progress of women, but must also take active measures to include women in the political structure of the country as well. Women must be given adequate representation in the government. Women often have different priorities than men and these should be reflected in the decision-making bodies. Through this, women will finally be given the chance to initiate change and overcome obstructions in all spheres, from traditions and cultures to economic and social barriers. President Joyce Banda of Malawi, a strong propagator of maternal health care, launched the "Presidential Initiative for Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood" in Malawi soon after taking office. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, established the "Reach Every Pregnant Woman" program in order to provide healthcare facilities to pregnant women across Liberia.

In India, 33 percent of the seats in the local government level are reserved for women. After this women quota system was introduced in village councils across the nation, it is estimated that close to one million women have joined the elected local government bodies seeking reforms in the political structure and voicing their concerns regarding health, social security, livelihood, etc. In this regard Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile, who is now with UN Women rightly said, "It will send a strong message to the women of India and it will send a strong message to the world that India is leading the way for democracy, for women and for equality."

Governments should take the initiative to make education compulsory for every woman and this must be strictly and effectively implemented. Beginning at the grass-root level, they should aim at improving the infrastructure and teaching methods at public (Govt.) schools, as these are often neglected, in order to provide a healthy learning environment for the students. In addition to this, the government must also aim to reform the private educational sector. In this regard the Indian government has enforced the Right to Education Act, which provides 25 percent reservations for underprivileged children in all private schools. This measure brings India one step closer to a hundred percent literacy rate.

In the words of A. Cripps, "Educate a man and you educate an individual. Educate a woman and you educate a family." Through the education of a woman, a household is transformed in all aspects -- socially, morally, economically and even politically. An educated woman is able to fight age-old prejudices and gender bias logically, rationally and more successfully by being connected and informed globally. She is no longer isolated in her ignorance, but on the contrary, has embraced and been empowered through the connectivity and information that the world has to offer.

As women become more aware of their rights and entitlements, nations must also support their ascent towards liberation by following a zero-tolerance policy for sexual violence perpetrated against women and children. Lack of political will and corruption often pose a hindrance to international efforts to combat such violence. Countries worldwide must send out the unequivocal message that violence against women is not tolerated under any circumstance. As Secretary Clinton once said, "Sexual violence harms not merely single individuals, families, and villages; it also shreds the fabric that weaves us together as human beings."

Women in certain regions of the world also bear the burden of financially supporting their families -- in one out of every three households, women are the sole breadwinners. By working longer hours than men and being subject to numerous forms of financial exploitation like being overworked and underpaid, there exists a lack of equality in the working sector as well. What remains a critical concern is that women earn less than 10 percent of the world's wages but do more than two-thirds of the world's work as they relentlessly strive to support their families and keep their head above the surface financially. Therefore it is imperative that the international community take concrete action toward converting economic exploitation of women into economic empowerment at every level both regional and national by investing in women. With an increase in the participation of women in the labor force, the economy will experience a reduction in poverty rates. When women are allowed to own property and earn money from it, it gives them more power at home and they are no longer vulnerable to deep-rooted traditions and customs that are heavily gender biased. Through such reforms, women are empowered to contribute financially to their families, communities and countries.

The United Nations defines women's empowerment with five main components: women's sense of self-worth; their right to have and to determine choices; their right to have access to opportunities and resources; their right to have the power to control their own lives, both within and outside the home; and their ability to influence the direction of social change to create a more just social and economic order, nationally and internationally.

As we recognize the long road ahead of us to achieve the empowerment of women, we must also acknowledge the progress women have made. Though a vast majority of women are yet to attain the five components of women empowerment, there are scores of women who have become 'agents of change' against all odds and are empowered citizens of the world today.

We must take a stand if we want the 21st century to be one of change and reformation, one that converts oppression into opportunity for women worldwide. Otherwise half the world's population will continue to suffer and struggle, being illiterate, unsafe, vulnerable, and without a voice to support and advocate for their families, communities and nations.

Women worldwide will continue to fight against repression and make their mark in the world. As "agents of change," they will continue to strive to change the system and reform political, economic, social and cultural spheres to create ones that support women and do not suppress them. It is as much up to the international community in its collective wisdom as it is up to every individual to assist women in their endeavors in order to reach their true potential.