Years ago, I made an important choice.
As head of Women Thrive Worldwide, an organization that works to amplify the voices of women and girls in developing countries, I needed a better understanding of the lives of the roughly 829 million women around the world who subsist on little more than one U.S. dollar a day.
That's why, for about 10 years, I've travelled to countries around the world to live with the women and girls on whose behalf we advocate. I work where they work. I sleep where they sleep. And I try to do it all on less than a dollar a day.
It's an imperfect window on the experiences of women and girls living in poverty. I always allow myself plenty of clean water and do not count travel expenses toward my daily spending. I also have always had the safety net of being a middle-income U.S. citizen, which affords me a level of security most women and girls can only dream of.
Since I started my Dollar-a-Day trips, women around the world have opened their homes to me. They've offered me a place to sleep. They've allowed me to work alongside them in the fields and sit at their tables and talk with their families over dinner.
But most importantly, they've taught me important lessons about generosity, perseverance and community.
In Burkina Faso, I received the gift of aspiration.
A subsistence farmer named Mariam took me in and taught me that women can do AMAZING things with just a little bit of support. A small private donation I made to her community's women's association jumpstarted a very successful soap making business.
Women like Mariam don't want a handout. They want friendship, respect, and a little help getting started. They don't sit passively waiting for the world to help them. Instead, they are working 18-hour days and undertaking extraordinary efforts to make their families' lives just a little bit better.
Sharing the burden can make things easier. Mariam reminded me often of the important role that men play as allies, even in cultures that do not share American mores. Her husband has two wives -- not uncommon in her village -- but he has worked hard to help her become more powerful, more independent and more successful.
In Nicaragua, I got the gift of inspiration.
Lorena gave me a place to sleep and the opportunity to share her burden for the day. Scrubbing tables and dishes in a lonely restaurant on a dusty beach road, I learned that--here, as in the States -- the dreams of daughters are powered by the elbow grease of their hardworking mothers. Lorena works long hours so that her daughter -- recently returned from Florida -- can do something different with her life.
In Sri Lanka, I received the gift of generosity.
Malini taught me that generosity knows no bounds. This hardworking woman was barely getting by when her nieces came to live with her. Malini could have turned them away. Instead, she feeds and cares for them and makes sure they go to school.
She could have turned me away too, but she didn't.
Sometimes women just need someone to witness their struggles and their triumphs -- they just need to know that someone really sees them and knows how hard they are fighting for the people they care about.
Now I'm home with my own family, and I have the luxury of self-reflection. After the thousands and thousands of miles, sleepless nights swatting mosquitos in thatch-roofed shacks, and blistering days gathering food with local women, I can say these two things:
- First, you cannot presume to know anything about women in poverty until you go and learn directly from them, and
- Second, women in poverty are stronger, more generous, and more resilient than you can possibly imagine. So many who I've met have a perseverance, generosity and strength that awes me. They are capable of extraordinary accomplishments if only they are given the chance.
Still, the simple acknowledgement of these women's characters is not enough. This year, as every year since I helped found Women Thrive, I'll be calling on Congress to invest in the success of women and girls in developing countries. I hope you'll join me.
You can get involved online at http://www.womenthrive.org. By amplifying their voices, you can make a world of difference for women like Malini, Lorena and Mariam.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction in celebration of #GivingTuesday, which will take place this year (2013) on December 3. The idea behind #GivingTuesday is to kickoff the holiday-giving season, in the same way that Black Friday and Cyber Monday kickoff the holiday-shopping season. We'll be featuring posts from InterAction partners all month in November. To see all the posts in the series, visit here; follow the conversation via #GivingTuesday and learn more here. For more information about InterAction, visit here. To see what Women Thrive is doing for #GivingTuesday, click here.
And if you'd like to share your own #GivingTuesday story, please send us your 500-850-word post to firstname.lastname@example.org.