Everyone is talking about women and girls this week in Washington, D.C.—from Ban Ki-Moon, the White House’s Valerie Jarrett, the State Department’s Melanne Verveer to Arianna Huffington, the former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, and Melinda Gates. Companies are talking too: Coca Cola, Newmont Mining, Exxon Mobile, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson, Gap, Inc., and Vestergaard Frandsen, among others.
More importantly, these leaders are backing their words with action: On Monday, Melinda Gates announced new grants worth US$1.5 billion for initiatives—including public-private programs—that address women and girls’ health around the world. On Tuesday, Ambassador Verveer announced a new partnership with the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria aimed at targeting women and girls more effectively. And on Wednesday, companies shared stories of innovative partnerships to support new mothers through SMS health messages (Voxiva’s Text4Baby), to enhance garment workers’ health education and skills (Gap’s P.A.C.E. program), and to support the development of women’s business and leadership competencies (ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs).
Amid the talk and commitments, I am constantly reminded of the transformative power of formal employment to pull women out of poverty and improve gender equality by increasing the value of those women to their families. Manufacturing is often the cited example for increasing gender equity, and as a result, women’s health and well-being, in much of Asia.
The corporate sector can play a big role in tackling gender equity by creating jobs for women and equipping them with the necessary skills. However, in order to employ women, barriers that currently prevent women from filling new and existing jobs must be addressed. AIDS, for example, is the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age in low- and middle-income economies around the world. Domestic and other abuse, financial dependence, regulatory restrictions, and a lack of access to adequate health care or equal education are also holding women back.
Leaders from the public sector and the business world alike share the same message this week: Investments in women pay off for families, communities, and business. With the momentum behind us—and the facts glaringly in front of us—now is the time to invest in women’s health, education, and equality. Sustainable growth of the global economy depends on the full participation of both halves of society.
As the theme of the Women Deliver conference this week so concisely argues: “Invest in women. It pays.”