March 8 marks International Women's Day -- a day where we celebrate the social, economic and political achievements made by and for women. But celebrating International Women's Day is always such a bittersweet experience for me -- a reminder that while we accomplished a great deal during the first three quarters of the 20th century, the path ahead to equality and freedom from injustice for women is long and rocky. Women from Afghanistan to Somalia, from Guatemala to the United States, still face daily struggles to gain employment, put food on the table and raise their children in peace.
Of the more than 2.8 billion people living on less than $2 a day, UN Women estimates that as many as 70 percent are women. So as we reflect on our progress, how do we ensure that we are maximizing their productivity, promoting equal opportunity, and empowering women to succeed around the world? And where do we start the count? We start with one.
The biggest barriers to personal economic stability, especially for women, are not a lack of knowledge or skill set, but rather a lack of access to finance when it's needed most. Women are the world's greatest untapped resource. That is why we must work to remove those road blocks in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Colombia, to help women launch and expand businesses to transform their lives, strengthen their families and improve their communities.
I've had the pleasure of meeting many inspiring women who are starting and growing businesses, and making significant economic progress. These incredible women all got their start through a small loan from Opportunity International.
Beathe Iribagiza is a good example of the women we help. Her husband and two of her children were murdered during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Despite her tragic loss and pain, she persevered for the sake of her three surviving children. Looking for a way to support her family, Beathe began a small crafts business with the help of a $220 loan. Her business quickly grew, and today she employs four other survivors. Today, her crafts are being sold to upscale retailers in the United States.
Twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda, we are able to see the progress that has taken decades to build. But as we look to recent crises, are we able to respond with greater success and efficiency?
I returned last week from a trip to Tacloban to meet clients whose lives had been turned upside down when Typhoon Haiyan swept away homes and families. Rebecca, an Opportunity International client for 20 years, has been able to transform her family's life and put her three children through college. But late last year, struggling for hours against 20-foot-high water surges and currents as fast 80 miles per hour, her daughter and 92-year-old mother were swept away, never to be found. Rebecca has already overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. Through a new microloan from Opportunity International Philippines, she is moving forward to rebuild a life for her sons and many of the orphans of Tacloban.
These are the stories that help us believe that the world is changing, that we as a global community are coming together to provide the support needed to succeed. International Women's Day reminds us that by investing in one woman, we give her the power to ignite change around the world.
Vicki Escarra is CEO of Opportunity International. She also spent six years as president and CEO of Feeding America, the nation's largest hunger relief organization, and nearly 30 years at Delta Air Lines, where she rose to chief marketing officer.