03/08/2012 04:59 pm ET Updated May 08, 2012

HelpAge International, Champion of Older People, Receives $1.5 Million Hilton Humanitarian Prize

Today is International Women's Day. Most people will be reviewing the tremendous progress and achievements that women have made in recent decades. What most won't realize, however, is that in many places around the world women's contributions are virtually invisible -- despite the fact that women do 66% of the world's work, produce about 50% of the world's food, earn 10% of the world's income, and own only 1% of the world's property. Yet, particularly in developing countries, women are the backbone of families, communities and food production. This is especially true for older women who are the fast growing segment of the world's aging population.

To acknowledge this invisible role of older women in maintaining the welfare of millions of families around the globe, International Women's Day seemed appropriate to announce that HelpAge International has been selected for the 2012 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize of $1.5 million. HelpAge International is the only global organization that focuses solely on providing assistance to and advocating for disadvantaged older people in the developing world.

The world is aging at a rapid rate. By 2015, nearly 900 million people will be older than age 60, close to three times the population of the United States. Nearly 190 million older people live in poverty with more than 100 million living on less than $1 a day. The world needs to prepare for this monumental demographic shift, when by 2050 there will be more older people than there are children -- for the first time in history. Since 1983, HelpAge has been showing us that it is critical to assure that older people have health and security as they age so they can continue to be contributing and productive members of society.

As we all know, women live longer so they make up the majority of older people around the world -- nearly two thirds of those over age 80 are women. In rural areas, women in developing countries have the primary responsibility for cultivating crops, raising livestock, collecting water and firewood, and caring for their families. Many older women in sub-Saharan Africa also end up supporting several grandchildren in their old age due to adult children migrating to find jobs or because their adult children died of AIDS. And in many countries, women cannot own or inherit land, or if widowed, relatives may take their land. This is where HelpAge often steps in. In 2011 alone, 750,000 older people were helped with financial, legal and social support.

HelpAge has found that to make lasting changes, older people are their own best advocates. So HelpAge has empowered them to fight for their rights to health care, social services and economic and physical security, and older people are now organizing and taking the lead in winning more opportunity and rights for themselves in countries across the globe.

HelpAge International is the 17th preeminent humanitarian organization to receive the Hilton Prize, which is the world's largest humanitarian award. With representation in nearly every country, the work of Hilton Prize Laureates is truly fulfilling the global humanitarian philosophy of Conrad N. Hilton.

Many are familiar with the Conrad Hilton character (Connie) portrayed on the TV show, Mad Men. The writers did extensive research to portray him as the innovative and passionate hotelier that he was -- the first to go international; the first to employ branding on a large scale; the first hotel company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

What wasn't shown reveals more about the man himself. The show did not talk about the passion Conrad Hilton had for the less fortunate. In 1944 he set up the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation to conduct his own charitable work. When he died in 1979, he left virtually his entire fortune to the foundation, with instructions in his last will and testament to help the destitute and vulnerable, paying special attention to children and the work of Catholic sisters. He also said to make grants regardless of race, religion or country. Another unusual aspect for the times was that he wanted the foundation to make grants throughout the world since the Hilton fortune was made internationally as well as in the U.S. This remains a major commitment of the foundation to this day. His son, Barron Hilton, who later ran Hilton Hotels, recently followed in his father's footsteps by committing 97% of his own fortune to the foundation.

Nearly 20 years ago the foundation board of directors decided that it wanted to further honor Conrad Hilton's global humanitarian leadership. A global humanitarian prize seemed appropriate when the foundation's research revealed that most humanitarian prizes were small ones, generally awarded to individuals, not to organizations. The foundation wanted to advance the work of those organizations doing extraordinary work to alleviate human suffering.

The board established the Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 1996 with a $1 million award. In 2005, on its 10th anniversary, the prize was increased to $1.5 million. Because the prize is unrestricted, it allows an organization to take risks, try innovative ideas, or expand into new areas -- things that traditional donors may not be willing to fund. The Hilton Prize is known for its rigorous evaluation process and the prestige of its distinguished international jury, who over the years have included Nobel Prize recipients, heads of state, and leaders of major UN organizations as well as international humanitarians. HelpAge International will now join the 16 previous Hilton Prize Laureates in the collaborative they have established to leverage their individual work by partnering with each other in the field to improve the lives of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable throughout the world.