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Willa Shalit

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Four Principles of Women's Empowerment

Posted: 03/ 5/2012 3:05 pm

The politicians are talking about women, again. Half a century after "women's liberation" and the ERA, male politicians are debating the power women should or should not have over their own bodies. Rush Limbaugh pollutes the airwaves with vile language denigrating to every woman, triggering an effective backlash draining him of advertisers. The president, noting that women vote, will keynote Barnard's graduation.

Amid the gender-tinged noise, a woman of dignity, grace and joy will leave her native Haiti to speak in New York tomorrow. My colleague, Nathalie Tancrede of the Haitian Artisans Business Network, will address a conference reviewing the UN Global Compact Women's Empowerment Principles, an admirable program challenging business leaders to commit publicly to women's empowerment, to align company policies and marketplace practices with the ideal of gender equality.

Nathalie will come wearing her broad smile, a thousand-watt heart shining in her eyes. She brings with her a record of unprecedented success in a context that has known mostly disappointment. Her most valuable tool? Ruthless, unbridled joy. She succeeds because she joyfully refuses not to. Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in Haiti, Nathalie remains committed to economic success to the region by highlighting Haiti's great artists and bringing them to the attention of company's like Macy's and Anthropologie. Where others hear "impossible," she hears "opportunity." I've heard her Nathalie's warm laughter when negotiating with a hard-nosed male colleague, who becomes immediately disarmed. Her joy is the secret weapon that drives her success, the nourishment that feeds her soul when nose-to-nose with obstacles.

In the UN context, "empowerment" means all people, women and men, taking control over their lives: setting their own agendas, and gaining skills. It is both a process and an outcome, a strategy to achieve a goal and the goal itself.

I believe that gender equality is not a zero-sum equation: for women to gain power, men need not lose it. We can share. It will do no harm. The letters "anti" do not appear in women's empowerment. No one is losing. It's all win.

I've spent more than two decades working for women's rights in the US, Rwanda, Haiti, Afghanistan and beyond. I've watched empowerment of women change lives, communities and whole economies. Economics, not just politics, convinced the UN that empowering women is key to achieving the goals of global development and is good business in every market. When women participate fully in economic life across all sectors and at all levels, local and regional economies stabilize, families are strengthened, innovative businesses thrive and quality of life improves for all, especially children -- boys as well as girls.

As my Haitian colleague Nathalie Tancrede demonstrates, empowering women will unleash more joy to a stressed-out, violence-filled, struggling world.

The UN has seven Principles for Women's Empowerment. They're all worthy. But I have experienced four of them personally and can testify to their potency.

1. Women are already powerful. They don't need men's power; they already have their own. They only need an equal playing field, and sometimes a catalyst, to unleash their formidable force. My years of producing Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues immersed me in an ocean of women, many of whom had never known their own power. Most had been stifled, many had been abused. But given encouragement and inspiration, what poured out of them was strength, courage and humor. They did not sit around and whine; they rose up, took action, and seized joy.

2. Economic empowerment is central. Poverty is the great weakened of all: men, women and children. Women control roughly $20 trillion of consumer spending globally, and influence upward of 80% of all buying decisions; still, a vast majority of the world's poorest poor are women and children. Give a woman even a small, steady trickle of self-generated money and she's empowered: money gives freedom to pick options, to make choices -- and choice is power. I know a gifted weaver who today is at peace with her formerly-violently-abusive husband because her weaving brought her money, and her money empowers her to hand him her cell phone to charge, to watch him pedal off on the bicycle she bought him.

3. Women can empower women. Men need not rescue us. KOFAVIV, the powerful Haitian anti-violence organization, teaches females who've been abused -- many as children and adolescents -- how to heal others who've known similar trauma. Terry Lundgren, Macy's enlightened Chairman, last year told a group of dancing, singing KOFAVIV members, "You can help each other, keep helping each other!" He spoke a powerful truth, an empowering truth, and in so doing he avoided the anachronistic model of the white male rescuer.

4. Women's empowerment can be fun. Smiles conquer more than frowns, and laughter is more powerful than anger. Eve Ensler's V-Day City of Joy in the Congo proves it. Here women and girls who have suffered horribly are living, rising and healing with pure joy. The sounds of terror have been replaced with love and laughter.

The arc of history may, indeed, bend toward justice. Women's empowerment has come, however begrudgingly, to culture after culture. Even Americans will one day know there's no real danger in allowing women power to make their own decisions. When that day comes, we will -- all of us, men and women alike -- rise up joyfully as we bring energy and success to this tired world.

Brava to the UN for focusing on women's empowerment. Brava to Nathalie Tancrede for converting the sounds of mourning in the streets of Haiti to the sound of business, and laughter. Let the joy begin!

 

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