By: Janna Oberdorf, Director of Communications and Outreach for Women Deliver, and Mariko Rasmussen, Communications Specialist
Today is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. When we think about how far women have come in the past 50 years, let alone the last 100, we are amazed at the power of women to make a better future for themselves. But, our work isn’t over yet – we have to keep fighting and keep pushing to reach full gender equality and equity.
To both celebrate how far we’ve come, and the even greater potential for the future, CARE is chronicling the advances and struggles of women by releasing the “Top 10 Myths about Women.” For each myth, CARE will take a look back and honor a “myth-buster” who did something remarkable to dispel that particular piece of female folklore during the last 100 years. Each myth also will come with a second “myth-buster,” someone who is positioned to lead the way in disproving the myth in the future.
At Women Deliver, we’d like to tackle this myth: “Women Can’t Lead.”
It’s true that there aren’t enough women in power in 2011 – today, just over 19 percent of the seats in national parliaments are held by women. Women hold only 16.4 percent of the seats in the 112th US Congress and there are only 18 female heads of state. This lack of women in power has an impact – countries where women’s share of seats in political bodies is less than 30 percent are less inclusive, less egalitarian, and less democratic.
But, women don’t have an easy road, and there are major barriers for women striving for positions of power. Women account for two thirds of the 1.4 billion people currently living in extreme poverty, hindering the advancement of women and further affecting their participation in decision-making processes. Discrimination, economic dependency, legal limitations, gender-based violence, social and cultural barriers like traditional gender roles/responsibilities, and other abuses prevent women from enjoying their rights and entering politics or other leadership positions. If women do not have security, power or resources as individuals or as an organized political interest, they cannot hold public or private institutions accountable. If they cannot demand accountability, they are less able to determine collective goals. As a result, policymakers and providers are under-informed about women’s needs and preferences.
We’ve seen firsthand that when women are empowered and given opportunities, they can not only lead – they can succeed. To celebrate International Women’s Day, we produced a list called the “Women Deliver 100: the most inspiring people delivering for girls and women.” Amongst this list are powerful women heads of state, leaders of international organizations, CEOs, and high-level government officials who are shattering perceptions of women and fighting for the rights of girls and women around the world.
Heads of State: Tarja Halonen, the President of Finland, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, have lead their nations into the 21st century with not only a strong focus on governance, but a strong focus on equality. Halonen, a believer in the power of education to promote gender equality, convened the first International Colloquium on Women’s Empowerment in 2009, gathering almost a thousand female leaders to brainstorm ways to educate and empower women worldwide. Her partner in that endeavor, Sirleaf, is the first and only female head of state in Africa, and she has mad women’s empowerment a priority in post-civil war Liberia, pushing to prosecute violence against women, and emphasizing girls’ education and women’s economic opportunity.
Government Representatives: From the Philippines, to Cambodia, to Nigeria, to the US, women representatives are making their mark on national and international laws and policies. Janette Loreto Garin, Deputy Majority Leader in the Philippine House of Representatives, co-authored the groundbreaking Reproductive Health Care and Population Development (RH) bill, which is poised to transform the lives of every woman in the Philippines. Mu Sochua, a Member of Parliament in Cambodia and the first female Minister of Women’s and Veteran’s Affairs, mobilized 12,000 women to run for local elections in 2002 – 900 won. Saudatu Sani, Chairperson of the House of Representatives Committee on MDGs in Nigeria, has convinced her government that investing in women pays – inspiring her government to create a budget line dedicated to “reducing the maternal mortality rate,” a critical first step in increasing funding. And Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, is a strong reminder of the power women can yield when unafraid to ruffle a few feathers to speak out on women’s rights.
Leaders of International Organizations: Heads of UN agencies and international NGOs, women like Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE; our own Jill Sheffield, president of Women Deliver; Nafis Sadik, former executive director of UNFPA; and Thoraya Obai, former executive director of UNFPA, have proven that multi-laterals and NGOs can organize and energize the world (and world leaders) to act and improve the lives of girls and women. Through their organizations, CARE, Women Deliver, and UNFPA, they have made an impact on millions of lives, raised millions of dollars for women around the world, and held governments accountable for their laws and policies that either lift up, or hold down, half of the world’s population.
Corporate CEOS: Breaking into the boys club of corporate CEOs isn’t easy, but Andrea Jung, Chairman and CEO of Avon Products, Inc., has made women a priority not only as a consumer, but as employees. Jung has recruited more women to Avon’s board than any other large public company, and ensured that the percentage of women in Avon’s top management exceeds any company on the Fortune 500, all while keeping Avon profitable and successful.
Women leaders have unique strengths and perspectives necessary to become a driving force in leading change. These women are just of few of the many who have blazed the trail for future leaders, providing not only inspiration but a concrete example of what can be achieved. “Women Can’t Lead?” Well, these women are disproving that myth every day.