How serious is global poverty? Picture this: more than a billion people struggle to survive on less than a dollar per day. Seventy percent of those are women.
This past week, I was privileged to represent the UN Foundation campaign Girl Up at the CARE Conference on global poverty in Washington DC. CARE, a humanitarian organization with programs in 84 developing countries, seeks to identify and redress global poverty. Frankly speaking, the causes of global poverty are extremely complex, with factors ranging from inequitable distribution of natural resources to historical imperialism to corrupt governmental regimes and tribal warfare. One of my teachers joked as I left class for three days in Washington DC, "I wish you could just give each poor family a Mercedes Benz and end global poverty just like that."
Unfortunately, ending global poverty is not quite that simple -- but it's a lot simpler that most people would expect. And as Teen Advisor to the UN Foundation Girl Up campaign, I think I know the answer: empowering women and girls.
As I learned from CARE, women work two-thirds of the world's working hours, produce half of the world's food, yet earn only 10 percent of the world's income and own less than 1 percent of the world's property. Gender-based violence or GBV, which includes rape, domestic violence, child marriage, female genital cutting, is at epidemic proportions in many countries around the world. In fact, at least one out of three women globally will be beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. In some countries, that rate reaches 70%.
And believe it or not, violence against women has direct economic consequences. Asides from the obvious human rights violations, the economic costs weigh heavy on the individual household and on the country. A 2006 UNDP study found that in Guatemala, the cost of GBV was equivalent to 7.6 percent of the nation's GDP, and in Bangladesh, it is estimated that a single incident of domestic violence can reduce a household's monthly income by 4.5 percent. Lost wages, medical costs, legal fees--these add up. Global poverty is directly tied to the oppression of women.
But luckily, there is a solution. Both CARE and Girl Up stressed the importance of empowering women in developing countries -- and the US's crucial role in supporting the efforts. Women and girls play a crucial role in local economies and the health and well-being of their families. Women who are educated are more likely to have fewer and healthier children. HIV/AIDS spreads twice as quickly among uneducated girls than among girls that have even some schooling. The results are clear: educate a girl, empower a woman, change the world.
Yet these solutions do not come out of a void. All of us, as global citizens, share responsibility. Former Senate majority leader Bill Frist emphasized in his opening speech at the CARE conference that although we can't all be millionaire musician Bono and donate millions to poverty, "what we can all do is share our narrative," or in other words, spread why we care about the global poor to those around us. As Teen Advisor to Girl Up, I'm proud to say that my narrative is that of a girl who believes in the power of other girls and women.
I played my part this past week when I lobbied the offices of Pennsylvania Congressmen and Senators. Along with other concerned constituents and a CARE staff member, I paid visits to each high ceilinged office to sit down earnestly with a Congressional staff member and share our narratives and our concerns about global poverty. I, a graduate student from Bryn Mawr, and a retired schoolteacher from Pittsburgh, were able to tell our government that we as constituents expected the United States government to play its part in solving global poverty.
We lobbied for an entire day, walking from Congressional chamber to chamber. Our requests were simple and humanitarian: to protect the International Affairs budget in the fiscal years ahead, particularly the poverty fighting accounts, and to support the implementation of a new, integrated strategy to prevent gender-based violence. Some offices met us with cautiously polite reception; others lauded our efforts.
Most Congressional staff members, both Democratic and Republican, still winced at any request relating to the budget. Yet contrary to popular beliefs about the enormity of money spent abroad, the foreign aid budget accounts for a miniscule 1% of total GDP. As long as those foreign aid dollars are directed towards programs that directly empower women and lift up communities, I can't think of a better use for our money.
You can donate personally to CARE or to the United Nations Foundation. You can lobby our government to support aid as well. You can call your Congressional representative. You can make a loan on kiva.org. Whoever you are, there is a part you can play.
We can't solve global poverty by giving each poor person a Mercedes Benz, but we can do our part by supporting foreign aid programs that empower women and girls and fight gender-based violence. It's simple, really.