03/18/2015 05:21 pm ET Updated May 18, 2015

Giving Women a Voice: A Conversation With Dr. Helene Gayle of CARE USA

I first heard about Dr. Helene Gayle in 2006 amid the excitement and anticipation surrounding her new role as president and CEO of CARE USA. She was greatly respected and admired for her record of accomplishments and leadership at the CDC, USAID and Gates Foundation.

Thanks to CARE's role as a key partner in the Gap Inc. P.A.C.E. Program for advancing women, I have been very fortunate to work closely with Helene since 2008. Through her support and guidance, our teams have made a real difference in the lives of more than 30,000 female garment workers and women from developing or poverty-stricken communities in Asia.

As Helene prepares to move on from CARE later this year, I wanted to take this opportunity to share and learn from her experience and personal reflections as a leader in international development and empowering women.

How did you get involved in women's development work? What motivated you?

I spent much of my career working on HIV/AIDS prevention around the world. I saw firsthand how gender inequity is inextricably linked to increased risk for HIV. Women were disproportionately at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted disease largely due to social and economic inequity. They simply didn't have the negotiating power, for example, to make decisions about safer sex. This opened my eyes to the key role empowerment can play in improving the health and wellbeing of women everywhere.

And that's one of the things that ultimately attracted me to CARE, where women and development work go hand-in-hand. We focus on empowering women and girls, because our experience has taught us that women, when equipped with the resources they need to succeed, have the power to lift themselves and entire communities out of poverty.

We also know women play a critical role in their communities and households. Women in poor countries invest more of their income back into their families. When women are empowered, they make healthier choices for their families and have more say in family decisions.

What has changed over the years as you've practiced in this field?

A lot has changed in the development space and more changes are coming. We've had to learn to be more nimble and innovative in our approach.
We've witnessed significant shifts in the patterns of poverty and inequality. In spite of global progress in reducing absolute poverty, wide gaps persist within and between countries. Today, some 72 percent of poor people live in middle-income countries.
We're having to look at how best to operate in those pockets of countries where we're needed most and how to link with social movements that advocate for the poor. Local and national capacity has to evolve considerably. Increasingly, that means our job is less about direct implementation and more working through local partners and building their capacity.

How has your approach to partnering with business evolved over time?

There was a time when many NGOs looked at the private sector as the dark side. But, as I first learned from my Gates experience, if you're looking to have an impact on a wide scale and make sustainable changes in the communities that we serve, corporations often are an essential partner.

For example, I look at the tremendous work that CARE and Gap Inc. have done over the last decade through Gap Inc.'s P.A.C.E. (Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement) program. We are bringing critical life skills to thousands of female garment workers, improving their employability and impacting the health and well-being of themselves and their families. This program focuses on CARE's core constituency - marginalized women - but also has a direct link to Gap Inc.'s supply chain. This goes well beyond writing a check; it's a true partnership.

CARE has even forged its own social enterprise. We created a separate arm of CARE that incubates profit- generating businesses that help alleviate poverty. The goal is the same: make sure poor people can benefit economically, socially and environmentally from economic growth.

What role is technology playing in your work?

Technology is our ally in the fight against poverty. You've probably heard about how cell phones double as lifelines and mobile banks in some African countries. In rural Tanzania, CARE has partnered with the big mobile operator, Vodafone, to create a mobile phone-based money transfer service. Users can deposit, withdraw and transfer money using their cell phones. Talk about financial inclusion. Mobile technology has also allowed us to take CARE's Village Savings & Loan model to the next level, linking small savings groups to the more formal banking sector.

In Bihar, the poorest of India's 28 states, we're using mobile phones to connect mothers and children to frontline health workers to help reduce infant and maternal mortality rates. In Bihar, mobile phones are changing lives by saving them.

Social media is also an increasingly powerful tool for involving the public in the fight against poverty and social justice.

What's the most pressing issue facing women today?

The repercussions of gender inequity can be astonishing. If women had equal access to resources as men, 100-150 million fewer people would suffer from chronic hunger.

And as we celebrate World Water Day, it's important to note how something as simple as access to water affects women differently than men.

Improved access to water can literally transform the lives of women and girls in developing countries. It can give them back the time and opportunities they sacrifice daily to trek long distances to collect water. It can improve the health of a woman and her family. We most often see these gains when women are part of the decision-making process around water in their communities.

We have learned that improved access to water can even have subtle but powerful effects on social dynamics at home and on a woman's or girl's feelings of self-worth, status and confidence. In a study conducted by CARE Ethiopia, 67 percent of women who were given improved access to water reported feeling more equal. 68 percent felt a greater sense of control over household resources, and 67 percent had increased feelings of respect or dignity.

What do you most want people to know about the women you strive to help advance? What action would you like people to take?

The women that CARE helps to advance are heroes in their own right. They overcome incredible odds and circumstances daily and yet they keep fighting. Our work is essential to women who feel like no one is giving them a voice.

I think of women like Biti Rose Nasoni, who by saving just pennies a week alongside her neighbors in a CARE Village and Savings Loan Group in Malawi, scraped together $2 to start her own doughnut business. She started earning several dollars a day in profit and she and her husband eventually used the money to send her kids to school and invest in the family farm.

The triumphs and challenges of women like Biti Rose should inspire us all to take our own actions to help. I would tell people to seek and find organizations, like CARE, that are developing solutions and get involved.

Helene has not yet announced her next career move, but I know that whatever she chooses to do, women and communities around the world will continue to benefit from her inspired work.

CARE is a leading humanitarian organization that serves people in the world's poorest communities. CARE focuses on empowering women to help their families and communities escape poverty. Learn more through CARE's website and follow @CARE and @helenegayle.