03/08/2012 02:40 pm ET Updated May 08, 2012

International Women's Day: A New Paradigm of Respect

Today is International Women's Day. My life has been impacted by the stories of many strong and courageous women who have defended the rights of others, upended systems of oppression, and sacrificed their own lives and safety so others could be free. Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth worked to free slaves using their own freedom to bring freedom to others. People like Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges -- normal people who stepped into history by committing simple acts that became milestones in the Civil Rights movement. And an unlikely hero of mine: Audrey Hepburn who, as a little girl, worked on behalf of others, running notes to Jewish people hiding from the Nazis; and even later in life, worked on behalf of the poorest children in the world.

Today, I want to highlight the work of one woman who has been a source of inspiration for many in the social justice world: Amy Carmichael. Amy grew up in Ireland in the late 1800s and, as a little girl, Amy desperately wanted blue eyes -- but her eyes were brown. Through a series of life-altering events, Amy ended up moving to Bangalore, India to live a life of service to the poor. In India, Amy learned that many girls were sold or given up by their families to serve as forced prostitutes in the local Hindu temples. She met a little girl named Preena (which means pearl-eyes), who had run away from the temple. The plight of young girls like Preena tore at Amy's heart and she knew she had to do something about it.

Obviously, it would have been hard for a white person like Amy to spend time among the poor in India without drawing attention to herself. So Amy came up with a disguise that helped her avoid being detected. She wore a sari and used tea bags to dye her skin dark brown. It was at this point Amy realized that something she thought was a weakness, her "plain" brown eyes, was actually an advantage. If she'd had blue eyes, she would never have been able to mix with the crowd in a land where everyone was brown-eyed. She began to understand that her brown eyes were a gift from God.

Amy rescued and cared for hundreds of girls--and later boys, too--over the course of her lifetime. The children called her Amma, which means "mother." And she, in turn, took care of them with a mother's tender care.

Amy once received a letter from a girl who was considering going into missionary work. The girl asked what missionary life was like, and Amy responded by saying this: "Missionary life is simply a chance to die."

It's really interesting how some things we may not like about ourselves, or things we view as weaknesses, can actually be assets. Amy's brown eyes that made her feel different from her family were one reason she was able to be effective in rescuing little girls from slavery. In a world so focused on externals with artificial attractiveness set up as the ideal, it can be hard to see the truth about ourselves -- we were created uniquely, we are not mistakes.

We have underestimated the power women and girls have in our world. We have minimized them by measuring their worth based upon a hollow cultural standard few can attain. Around the world, women and girls are oppressed, deprived of an education and bought and sold and raped for profit. It is time for men to stand up and speak out and create a new paradigm of respect for our sisters around the world.

Know this, girls and women: you are absolutely beautiful. God doesn't measure you according to the world's standards or compare you with some airbrushed model on a magazine cover. You are undeniably beautiful. You are significant. You were created to impact those around you. You have power and dignity.

Happy International Women's Day. Use your power for good.

[Suggested reading: "Half the Sky" by Kristof and WuDunn]