05/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Interior of Empowerment: Reason to Feel Proud as We Celebrate the Centennial of International Women's Day

Today we mark the centennial anniversary of International Women's Day, although we still have a long way to go, there is cause for celebration. The United Nations reports that women are still 70 percent of the world's poor, they are still 75 percent of the civilians killed in war (along with their children) and they still receive only 10 percent of global income for 66 percent of the world's work. The good news is that more and more people are paying serious attention to these appalling statistics as well as to the mind-numbing violence inflicted against women. The rallying cry got much louder with the publication of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's seminal work, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Now on the web sites of dozens of women's organizations around the world, the following quote from Half the Sky has become an organizing principle: "In the nineteenth century, the paramount moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century it was totalitarianism. In this century, it is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape."

The empowerment of women is not only a moral mandate; there is also a growing consensus among government, business and grassroots sectors that it is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism. Indeed six out of the eight Millennium Development Goals relate to empowering women. So just about everyone agrees that the empowerment of women is at the heart of the beast. But what exactly do we mean when we use the word "empowerment?"

As the co-founder of Empowerment Institute, I have thought a lot about this overused word. For the past three decades much of my work has been focused on the empowerment of women, including in oppressed places like Afghanistan, Rwanda and Darfur. Development programs traditionally focus on providing skills and education in the areas of health, finance, literacy, women's rights and entrepreneurship. These elements constitute the exterior aspects of empowerment, and are critical. However, much less attention has been afforded the interior steps of the process, which are equally essential.

The interior steps are the tools that help a woman to identify and transform the inner beliefs that perpetuate her disempowerment, and then to create and implement her vision of empowerment. As a result of centuries of enculturation, millions of poor, illiterate women all over the globe believe that they have been predestined to be secondary beings, married to men who are their infallible masters and who can treat them like cattle or worse. These women deeply believe that their destiny is to suffer silently while they are beaten, raped or even burned alive.

At the core of interior disempowerment is a woman's belief that she has no choice about the course of her life. Conversely, at the very center of interior empowerment is a woman's belief that she is free to choose the life that she wants: her education, her mate, her work, and her well-being. Once a woman believes deep down in her heart and soul that she has the freedom to choose and shape her destiny, her dignity is returned to her. With dignity restored, the inner values of self-esteem, courage, fortitude, and hope are now seeds of possibility. The stronger a woman's interior empowerment, the greater the possibility for her exterior success--getting an education or a job, raising a healthy family or starting a small business.

Culturally entrenched limiting beliefs that oppress women physically, emotionally and spiritually are slow to change. At the same time the extraordinary courage and resiliency of many of the world's most oppressed and traumatized women allow for miraculous changes to take place. At the Empowerment Institute we use a four-step process to help women claim their interior empowerment. Designed for accessibility and replicability, the four steps are simple enough for even illiterate women to follow easily.

In the first step, Awareness, we ask women, where are you now? Such an apparently simple question can open a floodgate of pain. We are asking women to break their silence and tell their stories of unthinkable suffering. This crucial first step in the process of interior empowerment takes immense bravery, giving voice to what has often been held inside for many years. Darfuri women's stories of gang rape and the brutal death of family members are heartbreaking and breathtaking. As one woman, Awatif, explained, "In the refugee camps in Chad we Darfuri women felt like we had been thrown away and discarded by the entire world. Then we were asked to tell our stories and we felt seen and heard for the first time. When I told my story I could release my shame and anger. This poison drained out of me and was replaced with a lot of strength."

Moving to the second step, Vision, we ask women, where do you want to go? Encoded in this straightforward query is the assumption that all human beings have the right to dream, reaching for their highest aspirations. The question itself can feel like a gift of dignity. Having survived torture and rape amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, many women in Rwanda live in a state of profound despair. Clementine reflected on this step. "I was suffering a lot. I lost my whole family in the genocide, a job I loved and the chance to continue my studies. All I could think about was the violence that I, along with every woman I knew, had suffered. I had lost all hope. When I was asked to clearly describe my vision of where I wanted to go, for the first time I began to consider that I could heal from my trauma. Maybe I could even return to school or go back to work. I began to find my self-respect and the first rays of hope that this darkness would one day lift."

With the third step, Transformation, we ask, what do you need to change to get where you want to be? This is a difficult phase as it challenges women to confront the centuries-old cultural beliefs that oppress them. In Afghanistan a potent mixture of desperate poverty, the psychic devastation of war, and the distorted dictates of Islam that hold women back combine with such force that is takes tremendous strength for Afghan woman to change their beliefs. But one woman at a time, one belief at a time, they are doing just this--even if it means losing their lives. Brave Afghan women like Aziza are confronting archaic beliefs regarding shame and honor, fate and predestination. Make no mistake; these changes are revolutionary. Aziza said, "When I examined my beliefs, I finally began to see that God does not want me black and blue, bruised and raped all the time. God's will rules over mine but now I also believe that God gave me a will of my own to shape my own fate. I can take control of my life by going back to school and getting a job. This does not mean that I am a bad Muslim. By taking a stand for my own destiny I can help the other women in my country."

Finally, with Growth we ask, what is your next growth step? Now women are moving their interior process into exterior action. This phase teaches women that not only do they have the power to heal from unimaginable trauma, but also to go beyond healing to create new futures. Awatif learned that sharing her painful story helped other Darfuri women. Her growth step is to write a book about her experience and what is needed to heal the situation in Darfur. Clementine realized that while she cannot change the traumatic events of her past, she was able to open to her pain, allowing it to make her stronger. She wants to empower other Rwandan women with this process. Learning to trust her own inner wisdom for the first time, Aziza was able to stand up to her abusive husband and go back to school to become a baker. Her growth step is to start her own bakery and save money to send her daughters to school.

Awatif, Clementine, and Aziza fearlessly told their stories of brutality and violence. Opening their hearts, they allow themselves to envision a new future. Then they faced and broke free from centuries-old oppressive beliefs, and now their interior empowerment has enabled them to take action to help their families and communities. Their stories make me proud to celebrate the Centennial of International Women's Day. Zainab Salbi, the visionary founder and CEO of Women to Women International, recently said this about reasons for hope: "The difference in these times is that women are speaking out and standing united as they break their silence, demand an immediate end to war and the building of sustainable peace that can allow them to plant, harvest, go to work, send their children to schools, and dance, live and eat without any fear."

So yes, we have a long way to go, but Awatif, Clementine, and Aziza give me real hope that if we combine the interior aspects of empowerment with education in such areas as literacy, health, human rights and entrepreneurship, we will rise to the paramount moral challenge of this century. Ending the violence and brutality against women and girls will unleash a creative force so great that we can barely imagine what the world will become.

Co-Founder of the Empowerment Institute, Gail Straub has pioneered women's empowerment worldwide for over thirty years. She is the co-author of the best-selling Empowerment: The Art of Creating Your Life As You Want It, and her most recent book is the award-winning feminist memoir Returning to My Mother's House: Taking Back the Wisdom of the Feminine.