05/21/2012 07:59 am ET Updated Jul 21, 2012

Dear G20 Leaders

Dear G20 Leaders,

I find it's always best to say it like it is, right from the very beginning, so here goes. I'm writing you this letter because, when it comes to economically empowering our girls and women, there is simply not enough being done by the world's most powerful countries. Reading through the strategic vision of the G-20 agenda and The Heinrich Böll Foundation's monthly "G20 Update" newsletters, I was disappointed to see that the issue of closing the gender gap was one that was hardly mentioned. As an exclusive group of finance ministers, central bank governors, and heads of state, I get that you're not in the business of philanthropy -- and I don't expect you to be. When you meet up at the summit next month in Mexico, you're going to want to find practical ways to stabilize the economy and restore growth in a world that is still experiencing the aftermath of the global financial crisis. I'm here to tell you that there are 3.5 billion ways to do just that, and for this once, they don't come in the form of dollar bills. I hope this letter is able to put a human face to the research asserting that unleashing the economic potential of girls and women is a long-term investment necessary for the sustainable, upward progression of the global economy. Overshadowed and quite frankly abused by 'history' for far too long, I hope to share 'her story' by telling you about some of the most courageous women I have ever met, and how they continue to build their communities even in the face of overwhelming opposition. This is a letter written for and by the 3.5 billion girls and women in our world today. As one of those girls, let me tell you where my story begins.

Last summer, I spent three months in South Africa working for a non-profit organization developing a Career Management Workshop for their Business Development Centre. I envisioned building a workshop that would equip prospective employees with practical business tools required to enter and find success in the job market. The idea was to cover the basic fundamentals of career management, so that more people could be equipped and empowered to take control of their own careers. After over two and a half months of conceptualizing, assessing need, conducting research, compiling information and getting the right people on board, my vision was ready to turn into a reality. Two pilot workshops, each a week long, were able to hit the ground running before my time in South Africa was up. Interestingly enough, eight out of the thirteen learners who attended the first workshop were women. The second pilot saw an even greater difference in gender ratio, with eleven women in attendance as opposed to only two men. It's important to note that while the pilot workshops were offered to a pool of potential candidates consisting of both genders in equal numbers, more women decided to take advantage of the opportunity compared to their male counterparts.

During this time, I was also volunteering at the local health clinic with the HIV/AIDS Support Group. This team of ten women was responsible for a wide range of services, including but not limited to educational awareness, providing antiretroviral treatment, as well as home visits to infected and affected families.

The passion and conviction in their voices was evident as they spoke to high school students, traditional healers, and community members alike about the risks of HIV and how to avoid infection. When we visited homes to check up on patients, I felt compassion in their touch and understanding in their eyes. These women were unified by the shared belief that it was their moral obligation to fight against the disease that was tearing their community apart. What made this an act of courage was the fact that there was something else that bound them together: they were all HIV positive. I asked them where their strength and resilience came from. What motivated them to pursue such work? One of the women told me she wanted to kill herself after she found out she had AIDS. She feared that if she did not do it herself, her husband would. Even just a few years back, not much was known about the disease, and the stigma surrounding it was enough to ostracize anyone who was brave enough to disclose their status. Many of the women then revealed to me that they were physically abused by family members and excommunicated from their churches for deciding to join the HIV/AIDS Support Group. I found it curious that there were no men on the team, to which the women explained to me that the men in their communities were silenced by fear and denial. To these women, however, fear and denial was not an option. As one of the women put it, "If I don't do it, who will?"

If the research doesn't convince you (but maybe it will, so let me just include here that according to an IFPRI report, "empirical evidence shows that increasing women's control over land, physical assets, and financial assets serves to raise agricultural productivity, improve child health and nutrition, and increase expenditures on education, contributing to overall poverty reduction"), then I hope these women will. To me, the solution lies in this: women care. Their empathy, resilience, and determination to uplift their communities can and will drive the economy forward as long as they are provided with the opportunity to do so. Indeed, I'm not the only one coming to the same conclusion. Industry leaders like Nissan, Google, Norton Rose and Scotiabank are showing their support by partnering with initiatives like the G(irls)20 Summit. Already, tens of thousands of people have joined the global 'What's Your Number' campaign. Our message is clear: Finding ways to economically empower girls and women is an issue that should be at the forefront of the discussions you will have at this year's G20 Leader's summit, not considered as a mere afterthought.

Maybe someday I'll be able to do something more impactful than write an impassioned letter to the most powerful people in the world, but right now, this is the best I've got. I sincerely hope you do the best you've got. Because if you don't, who will?


Veronica Cho

The G(irls)20 Summit highlights ways in which girls and women can play a leading role in global economic development and progress, and generates tangible, practical recommendations for the G20 leaders to act upon. This year the summit will focus on the opportunity gained in terms of strategically engaging women in agriculture and the opportunity lost as a result of violence against women. Veronica is this year's South Korean delegate. She very much hopes at least one of the G20 leaders reads this, and writes her back. So what are you waiting for? Spread the word; let's get that response we deserve.