03/08/2013 12:44 pm ET Updated May 08, 2013

Empowering Women Around the World

Today we celebrate International Women's Day and this year's theme, "A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women," is a reminder that too many women still live their lives in fear of violence, abuse, and discrimination.

Women across the world face many challenges -- but it's hard to ignore the crippling effects that violence can have on their daily lives. One in three women worldwide will experience violence. These are the facts. But this does not have to be the future.

UN Executive Director Michelle Bachelet emphasized this, saying "Change is possible. And change is happening."

We're seeing this change as women around the world demand that their rights be protected and their voices be heard. They've taken to the streets in India -- as well as in other countries -- to demand an end to rape. On Valentine's Day, activists around the world participated in One Billion Rising -- a global demonstration calling for an end to the violence.

And just yesterday President Obama signed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act into law, expanding protections for women who suffer abuse in the United States.

As we see a growing international commitment to ending violence against women, we also need to see a rising understanding that women aren't just victims: they're also the solution. Even as civilian women are often military targets, they also hold the keys to peace. Involving women in active roles as peacemakers and peacebuilders -- giving them a seat at the table during negotiations and ensuring that their voices are heard -- is crucial to reducing violence.

Last December, the president issued the National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace, and Security. The NAP has a simple goal, "to empower half the world's population as equal partners in preventing conflict and building peace in countries threatened and affected by war, violence, and insecurity."

Women are critical not just to ending war but to preventing it. By improving women's economic opportunities, we help reduce poverty and global instability. Studies have shown that women use their money to invest in their families and communities -- when a woman gains access to income, she's more likely to spend it on nutrition, medicine, and housing.

A growing number of women, in traditionally male-dominated societies, are starting their own businesses, running for elected office, and becoming leaders in their communities. U.S. government small grant programs, as well as initiatives by private partners and multilateral institutions from the United Nations to the Inter-American Development Bank are empowering women -- through education, microfinance, job training, and other important programs.

Yet, women still comprise 70 percent of the world's poor and own only 1 percent of its land. We can act to provide them the resources they need to become central participants in creating economically productive and peaceful societies, or we can continue to let their potential go untapped. A federal budget that shortchanges women undercuts our efforts to promote sustainable development, long-term prosperity, and stability.

Change doesn't just happen -- it requires effort and commitment. On International Women's Day, we're reminded how critical it is that we continue the progress toward empowering women around the world.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it best: "Women's equality is not just a moral issue, it's not just a humanitarian issue, it is not just a fairness issue. It is a security issue, it is a prosperity issue, and it is a peace issue." We know that investing in women is not just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do.

In the coming weeks, I'll introduce the International Violence Against Women Act, a bill that would make combatting gender-based violence a U.S. foreign policy priority. My bill will be another step toward ensuring that all women, no matter where they live, have the chance to live a life free from the fear of violence.

We need to build on the promises we've made, the progress we've already seen, and the potential of women around the world. A promise is a promise -- and we have the opportunity to change the lives of millions of women by eliminating the threat of violence and empowering them to build safe, stable, and prosperous communities.