05/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Aug 15, 2011

Empowering Women: Taking the Fight Global

March is Women's History Month in the United States -- a time when Americans take a long look at our often uncomfortable history, acknowledge the significant progress we've made, and honor the women and men who helped push women's issues to the forefront. And, in the vein of Women's History Month, I recently finished reading Gail Collins' new book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. In the book, Collins documents the sexism and exclusion waged against women in America, and how the feminist movement worked to create social change. Throughout my life in politics, I witnessed examples of such discrimination on a daily basis. To be sure, sexism and oppression of women is still a significant problem in the United States, but the changes I have seen over the course of the past 50 years have been huge.

My organization American Jewish World Service (AJWS) puts a great deal of emphasis on empowering women in the developing world because of the high levels of discrimination that they face. Of the 1.3 billion people who live on less than $1 per day, approximately 70% are women. Of the farming work that is often exported to places like the United States, women do 80% of the work and receive 10% of the land. In countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, women and girls are raped as a tool of war. Estimates put the number of rape survivors in the hundreds of thousands and high numbers of these survivors test positive for HIV.

The statistics and facts can be overwhelming, but there are positive changes happening in communities throughout the world. Research and reports show that when women are empowered, given access to education, and become vocal leaders in their communities, those communities thrive. Jews around the world recently observed the holiday, Purim, which, among other things, celebrated the role of a Jewish heroine -- Queen Esther -- who saved her community from destruction. My experiences traveling throughout the developing world and working with our grantees have shown this to be true, and the women we work with exemplify this on a daily basis. I have met Queen Esthers in every community I've visited.

Most on my mind, now, is Sonia Pierre, a Haitian-Dominican woman who serves as the executive director of MUDHA, the Moviemento De Mujeres Dominico Haitiana. In addition to its work in the Dominican Republic advocating for the rights of Haitian-Dominican immigrants, organizing community health education, and building gender-equity movements, MUDHA has taken a leading role in helping in recovery from the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti almost two months ago. Sonia Pierre, an AJWS grantee since 2003, has been a driving force in this work, driving hours from the DR to Haiti to bring supplies, water and food to our partners in Haiti, where incidentally there has been a sharp rise in gender-based violence since the earthquake. Women like Sonia, and the women she works with at MUDHA, demonstrate the importance of bringing women-led organizations into the center of their communities.

True equality for women, both in the developing world and in the United States, will not be realized until there is an end to gender-based violence and discrimination, until women have equal economic opportunities, until women have full rights over and education about their bodies, and until women's voices and lives are held in equal value with men.