Small investments in women can yield big returns
The stats tell the story — being a woman in a developing country means you’re poor and hungry, and face systemic discrimination in education, health care and employment.
These stats in part reflect why the Virginia Gildersleeve International Fund (VGIF) has devoted the last 45 years to empowering women and girls around the world.
The New York-based non-profit has done so while proving that with a little money and a little ingenuity, a lot can be accomplished. VGIF awards $3,000 to $7,500 grants to projects in developing nations that might not make it onto the radar of larger non-governmental organizations.
Promoting gender equality can solve larger community problems
In war-ravaged Sudan, VGIF funds helped Hope Ofiriha, a partnership between European, African, Australian and North American volunteers improve the lives of displaced, elderly women and their local communities. Through a micro-loan project, 43 women were given a total of 60 milking goats, which they bred and leased to young families. The goats provided a means for the women to buy food, clothing and medicine, and provided much-needed nutrition for the young families.
“In five years, at least 225 families will directly benefit,” says Eileen Menton, VGIF’s president. “And today, each family contributes $2 to the project as a way of taking ownership.”
With the help of VGIF, the Rural Development Women Welfare Society (RDWWS) in Andhra Pradesh, India, has grown from an organization with 25 members to one with 850. The organization teaches rural women how to sustain themselves with skills such as candlemaking, toymaking, pickling, tailoring and medicinal plant cultivation.
It’s entrepreneurial projects such as these that allow VGIF to contribute to meeting the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, eight issues at the heart of equitable and sustainable development for the 189 nations involved. Several of the goals — which nations agreed to meet by 2015 — address issues directly involving women including promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women, improving maternal health, as well as combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, women are the key to the fight against hunger. If women in rural areas had the same access to land, technology, financial services, education and markets as men, agricultural production could be increased and the number of hungry people reduced by 100 to 150 million (United Nations, 2011).
Investing in women = Investing in communities
Helping lead the path to change are passionate women like Dr. Jackie Shahzadi, Campus College Chair for the College of Humanities and Sciences at the University of Phoenix Southern California Campus. Issues involving equity and justice for women worldwide have long been a topic close to Shahzadi’s heart. She lived in Iran for more than 10 years and witnessed the rollback of women’s rights with the repeal of family protection laws after the Iranian Revolution.
“I am committed to the mission of VGIF, because I have seen the needs of women on a global basis. My feelings are very much in line with Kristof and WuDunn’s book 'Half the Sky,' a book about global gender inequality with stirring examples of how women have worked for equity in spite of great odds,” says Shahzadi, who is currently serving her third term on the VGIF board.
“Women are half the world, but they don’t have half the world’s opportunities,” she says. “I think it’s a social justice issue for me. I don’t think women can be truly free until all women are free. It’s a sisterhood.”
That connectedness is fitting considering that two of the biggest contributors to VGIF, in both time and money, is the membership of the International Federation of University Women and the American Association of University Women, whose missions are to empower women and girls through lifelong education. IFUW and its national affiliates also receive VGIF funding for its projects.
Statistics show that educated women are powerful catalysts for change. For every year beyond fourth grade that a woman attends school, the mortality rates of her children drop 10 percent, and each additional year of a mother’s formal education corresponds to her children remaining in school for an additional one-third to one-half year (McKinsey & Company, 2010).
In addition to improving life outcomes for their children, women generally work to ensure the welfare of their communities as well.
“[I]f you want to speed up reconstruction, development and poverty reduction, the intelligent thing to do is put earnings in a woman’s hand,” says Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Managing Director of the World Bank Group (McKinsey & Company, 2010). “In fact, women usually reinvest a much higher portion of their earnings into their families and communities than men do, spreading wealth beyond themselves. This could be one reason why countries with greater gender equality tend to have lower poverty rates.”
The belief that women are changemakers drives the mission of VGIF, and inspires the hundreds of volunteers who make the work of the organization possible, says Fay Kittelsen, Executive Director of VGIF. Every day the non-profit is proving that empowering women is about more than reaching gender equality — it’s about creating sustainability for communities around the world.
“So much can be done with a small amount of money,” Kittelsen says. “It would seem to be a small amount, but in these areas it can make a tremendous world of difference. Other organizations have been inspired when they see what can be done with a small grant. It has a ripple effect.”
United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2011). The state of food and agriculture 2010-2011 (ISBN 978-92-5-106768-0). Rome, Italy: Electronic Publishing Policy and Support Branch.