Don't Turn Back the Clock: Investing in Women and Girls for Our Future

Read the transcript of a powerful and inspiring speech delivered last week by Global Fund CEO and President Kavita Ramdas at the Professional Business Women’s Association, San Francisco.

Namaste and good morning! Thank you for that lovely introduction. I thank the leadership of the Professional Business Women’s Association for the opportunity to address such an extraordinary gathering of business leaders.  I am also humbled to be among your many distinguished guests today, a list that includes Meg Whitman, Valerie Coleman Morris, and Safra Katz, to name just a few of the many luminaries who will be with you.

I must confess looking at their names, bios, and serenely confident faces,  did nothing to alleviate the serious attack of nerves I had while preparing for this talk.  I now know exactly what JK Rowling meant when she thanked Harvard Univ. for its assistance in a crash weight loss plan that resulted from her agonizing over her remarks to Harvard’s graduating class last year.  And, unlike either the author of Harry Potter, or the many wizards who populate her novels, I stand before you exposed as nothing more or less than an ordinary “Muggle”. (That translates to normal human being for those of you unfamiliar with Potter language!)

What was I thinking, I muttered to myself – this audience contains enough collective business acumen to make even Warren Buffet flinch.  And, I have to speak at 8:30 am, an hour considered uncivilized in any part of the world except corporate America.  I am doomed.  And then, the goddess of small things intervened as she tends to do….while racing through the 200 emails that grow like mushrooms while I sleep, I found this one from Kauchi Chivumba in Kinango District, Kenya.  It said simply:

Dear madam president:

I am glad to inform you that I am recognized and awarded Presidential Award (2008) for actively participating  on “ Promotion  of Girls Education” in Kinango District in the Republic of Kenya.

This noble and happy event would not have happened if you and your Organization did not give full support to enable the our Club ( Role Models Club) to achieve their intended goals towards the promotion of Girls Education in the District.

For this reason, on behalf of the Club (ROMOC) members, I sincerely extend our appreciations to your good and generous Organization for making our dream come true. May I kindly ask you to share with me/ us this happiness and pride because it is for both of us, (Global Fund for Women and ROMOC).

Once again I thank you and the entire Organization for the support you always granted to our Club for the educational activities in our District. It is my hope that we shall continue working together as partners of Education in Kinango District. 

Thank you and God bless you all.

As I read Kauchi’s note, my anxieties disappeared.  I have never been an investment banker, or a corporate lawyer, but I have 12 years of deeply fulfilling experience leading the Global Fund for Women in being one of the world’s most daring social venture funds.  Kauchi’s words reminded me that I do have something I can share with you today – a few things I have learned about taking real risks, making prudent long term investments, and harvesting the fruits of social profit that have arisen out of those decisions.  This is what I hope to share with you all today – my lessons as a SVC (social venture capitalist!).

But, first, let me begin by acknowledging the bad news -  the immense challenges that the current crisis in the global economy poses for our world.  Despite the glimmers of hope in the stock market over the past two days, these are sobering times for all of us, for the United States and for the rest of world. As we watch unemployment figures rise, corporations cut salaries, eliminate bonuses, and face budgets with no margin of error, it is hard not be anxious about our lives, our friends, our jobs, our retirement plans, our healthcare costs.

Yet, for us at the Global Fund for Women, we are acutely aware that those most vulnerable to global market shifts are the same people who are most affected by war, conflict, and natural disasters – they are the world’s poorest – women and children, who also make up 80% of the world’s refugees.  If I have anything of worth to share it is because of what I have been privileged to learn from them.

Lesson 1: nothing yields greater benefits than putting financial resources directly into the hands of women
Investing in women’s empowerment, agency, and voice has led to remarkable outcomes, and is demonstrably one of the most effective ways to move the world towards a more just, peaceful, sustainable and democratic future. I’ll share specific examples of why I learned this lesson a little later in these comments.

Lesson 2: The Case for Crazy Feminist Theory has been made by Hard Data
This view, once limited to outspoken feminist activists, is now widely accepted by governments, business and multi-lateral institutions. Undisputed Data now shows how investments in girls education and women’s leadership reduces birth rates and child mortality, improves health and nutrition for families, contains the spread of HIV/AIDS, and is essential to the functioning of robust democracies.  For every additional year of education a woman receives beyond the fourth grade, average family size drops by 20 percent, child mortality by 10 percent, and her risk of contracting HIV/AIDS drops by over 50 percent. As women’s income improves, so too do child survival rates - 20 times as much as when men’s incomes go up.

Lesson 3: Despite the Facts – the Titanic of Gender Inequality turns very slowly indeed!
What do I mean by this?  If you ask me how the majority of the world’s women and girls are faring in this downturn the news is pretty bleak. Here’s what we know: According to the World Bank, the economic slowdown will cause an additional 22 children to die every hour. A worst-case scenario predicts an additional 400,000 child deaths per year. A few weeks ago,  Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was in the Bay Area to receive an award.  With painful detail, she described how the current crisis is forcing impoverished parents in her own country to make choices about who to feed and educate, and that cultural and practical realities lead most to prioritize sons over daughters. The  UN estimates that child mortality will hit girls five times harder than boys.    

Despite impressive gains, women and children still form the majority of the poor in the U.S. and the world. Women do 2/3rds of the world’s labor, but are typically paid less than men and balance family and work demands in ways that limit their potential. Forty percent of the world’s women work for pay, yet are disproportionately concentrated in the informal economy with low wages and no job security. They are the last to be hired and first to be fired.  Women not only bear the brunt of poverty, they also “manage” poverty as providers and caretakers of others.  Again, the ironies abound, numerous studies by the AFL/CIO have shown that the single most effective anti-poverty strategy any US government could implement is something that failed to pass over 30 years ago – its called the Equal Rights Amendment.  What is the radical socialist message it preaches: why nothing less than the equality set out as a key principle in our constitution.  Paying women a dollar for every dollar earned by a man in doing the same job instead of 78cents/65cents/or 55 cents cuts the poverty rate in the US in half without spending a dime.  Candidates for CA governor – I hope you are listening up!

Finally, and perhaps most damaging of all, are the statistics that show that tough financial times are harbingers of steep increases in violence against women.  This is not an area in which we have much to celebrate even when times are good – 1 in every 3 women in the world has experienced some form of sexual or other genderbased violence or abuse in their lives. But, according to a study by the National Institute of Justice, men’s unemployment increases incidents of violence against women in the same family unit by as much as 12.3 percent.  Economic instability also increases women’s vulnerability to other forms of violence, including trafficking, as they try to provide for their families by whatever means possible.

At the Global Fund, we are hearing first hand from women about these harsh realities.  So, I am deeply worried as I watch both government and charitable resources shrink in this crisis.. It seems particularly unfair to me since statistics prove that women are not to blame for the current financial mess.  Au contraire – Nick Kristoff, the NYT columnist  recently quoted as study showing  that banks with at least 30% women in senior management positions were far less likely to have made risky and unsustainable loans than those with less than 30% women leaders. We face hard choices; but cutting support to women will only exacerbate an already untenable situation.

Lesson 5: Keep the Faith and Resources Flowing in Bad Times even more so than good.
Despite these harrowing statistics and grim forecasts, I guess you can say that I remain bullish on investing in women.  Its not because of my idealism – its because of my pragmatism.  I have watched women from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe use small grants to change their lives, the lives of their children and families, and their communities. And I have witnessed how thousands of US women and men chose to invest in a crazy idea that started in Anne Firth Murray’s kitchen in Palo Alto 22 years ago to grow it into the largest foundation in the world dedicated to advancing women’s human rights. 

In June 1988 the Global Fund made 8 grants worth $31,000. Today, we have awarded over $65 million dollars to 3,500 organizations started by women in 167 countries.

By now I hope you are dying for me to share my Investment Philosophy with you: so here is is -
1.    Find the most creative, gutsy women you can who are determined to upend the status quo in their own communities.  (We use our 160 member advisory council, our board and our networks of donors, grantees, and colleagues to cast a wide net)

2.    Welcome new ideas and make it easy for Women to bring them to you: I recall this was called low barriers to entry in my econ class in grad school. (We do it by accepting proposals in any language - from Mandarin to Russian and Arabic – handwritten notes and formal emailed proposals all are reviewed)

3.    Let Your Entrepreneurs set their own Priorities – they are the experts – we are not.  (We support women working to improve Health, Education, the Environment, and seeking to end violence in their communities. What works for women in Darfur is not what women need in Argentina and what is a priority in Croatia is of little relevance in East Timor)

4.     Make sure Women are in the Driver’s Seat: too many times programs that claim to “empower” or “uplift” women are long on rhetoric and short on giving women real power (We believe in strengthening women’s leadership, and in ensuring their economic independence. So we check that they control the purse strings in the organizations and networks and associations they run.  BTW this does not mean they do not seek out male allies – most do)

5.    Be Willing to Take Real Risks – if you are the angel investor – you are in all the way.  (We invest in risk takers- that means being willing to get money to places where women can’t own their property or open a bank account; it also means trusting them with general operating support and sticking with them over time – if you only invest in one year and don’t see results and pull out – you will never reap the rewards.  And remember, for innovation to happen you must be willing for many investments to fail – the seeding of many potential success stories is what creates a fertile ground for change to take root.

While I don’t have a broomstick to whisk you away to another universe, I hope my slides will encourage you to join me on a quick trip around the globe to see what our current NRI or net returns on investment look like:

Betty Makoni – Girl Child Network, Zimbabwe
First stop, Zimbabwe: most of you may know of this beautiful land only from the consistently bad press it receives.  After a period of great promise right after the overthrow of a white colonial regime, Zimbabwe has unfortunately experienced sustained economic, political and social turmoil particularly in the past 10 years.

As always, the impact on women and girls— of civil strife, the rise of HIV/AIDS and rampant sexual abuse has been horrendous.  Not exactly the place you might expect to find heroines, but its home to one of my role models – Betty Makoni.

In 1998, a 14 year old student called Florence in a school in Harare, the capital, came to her teacher Betty in tears.  Betty listened in growing horror as Florence recounted the sexual abuse she had experienced at the hands of a senior male teacher.  She said she was not alone – other girls lived with this on a daily basis.  They were afraid that if they complained they would be pulled out of school by parents who already were unconvinced of the value of a girl’s education.  Others desperately wanted to make it to college, still others performed sexual favours for food and medicines that their families needed – girls were often subsidizing or being providers for the family unit.

Betty began by bringing together 4 of the most outspoken girl students to create a safe space for the girls in her school – she shared her idea for a “girls clubs” in every school with a friend – Rebecca Zeigler, whose parents told her about a small organization in Palo Alto that they supported each year that invested in women’s rights.  Rebecca helped Betty put together a proposal – it was simple and straightforward and radical and transformative all at once.  They wanted to create a national network of Girls who could speak out without fear about the epidemic of sexual abuse in schools.  They wanted a safe place for girls in every school to write, to speak, to express herself.  They wanted the violence to end.  They wanted the government of Zimbabwe to pass new laws holding perpetrators accountable.

The Global Fund for Women’s $8,000 grant was their seed money – we talked to our advisor and Board member Hope Chigudu on the ground in Zimbabwe.  She said, “ This organization could well be a leader in the field. They are serious women dealing with a very controversial issue. We must support it."

Today, the Girl Child Network includes over 300 girls' clubs that have offered a voice to over 20-thousand girls. In 2006, the Network was awarded the Red Ribbon by the UN Development Program—for addressing the relationship between gender inequities and HIV/AIDS prevention in Zimbabwe.   Betty has received many awards for her work, helping Zimbabwean girls escape trafficking, sexual abuse and assault.  Last year she was honored with the Amnesty International USA's Ginetta Sagan Award for Women's and Children's Rights.

Sakena Yacoobi, Afghan Institute of Learning
From Z to A – moving backwards through the alphabet to a country most of us are familiar with – again not for the most positive of reasons. – Afghanistan.

In 1997, the Taliban rule Afghanistan – the US government is not concerned.  The Russians are out, the cold war is over and no-one is paying attention to the horrors of gender apartheid being inflicted on women in one of the poorest nations on earth.  No-one that is except Sakena Yacoobi.
I first met her in 1997.  She had come from Kabul to visit Afghan friends in Fremont. She was a pistol.  She came armed with photographs of women covered from head to toe and children living in squalor in refugee camps in Pakistan that she spread out for me – she spoke about how the world had abandoned Afghanistan and she told me what was happening to her country.  She said, “our first defense against fundamentalism is education.  Only when women can read the Quran for themselves can they challenge this misinterpretation of our religion by these extremists. “

Our first grant to the Afghan Institute of Learning was for $10-thousand dollars, Sakena used it to buy books, chalk, blackboards and to train teachers.  She sweet-talked the senior religious leader in the community to come and teach at her school – soon he was sending his daughters and daughter’s in law and his wife – and soon every woman in the local community had an excuse to go to the “women’s center and school, because the imam’s family was already there!”.

In 1999, I visited the schools in Peshawar Pakistan and met one of her teachers, Habiba Sorabi, a passionate woman who would go on to become Afghanistan’s first Minister of Women and now serves as governor of Bamiyan Province.  Sakena’s investments were in people power – in woman power – preparing them to lead for a time when her country could dream again.

Global Fund grants were steady companions as Sakena build AIL into the powerhouse it is today – it runs schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan that reach over 350,000 children, both girls and boys.  It manages health clinics and mobile libraries and its women’s centers teach women about their rights under the new Afghan constitution and how to challenge the government if they seek to erode those rights – the young women who marched recently on the streets of Kabul protesting the new law governing Shia marriage are a good example of what comes of “educating women” – it’s a dangerous business, makes them demand real justice and equality!

Today, Sakena is a member of the Global Fund Board of Directors; and is internationally recognized for her contributions to women’s rights and non-profit leadership— she is an Ashoka Fellow and a Skoll Social Etrepreneur and most recently received the 2009 Henry Kravis Prize in Leadership.

Amanda Centeno, Mujeres Constructadoras
And, finally to our own hemisphere – the tiny Central American Nation of Nicaragua.   Amanda Centeno Espinosa was 19, when she was kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured by the National Guard of the then-dictator of Nicaragua, Somoza. She fled to Mexico, but her two brothers, several friends and relatives were murdered. A refugee who was given the chance to go to school, Amanda went on to study law in Germany and returned to Nicaragua almost 20 years ago.

Returning to her hometown of Condega, Amanda noted that while the civil war was over, women were still waging a battle for economic security and independence.  Few women had the education or skills to be able to do more than domestic and agricultural work. Amanda was determined to throw a wrench into that status quo…….together with a few like minded women, she founded Mujeres Constructoras a group that has trained women in non-traditional skills such as carpentry, construction, welding, plumbing, electrical work, and furniture making. Amanda’s dream is give women “a chance to break the mould with an awareness they can work on different areas, and that roles are not determined by sex.” Today, in addition to the training in non-traditional trades, women can take courses in steel reinforcement and general building techniques, business administration, mathematics, and social sciences courses. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch destroyed over 500 homes in Condega, and Mujeres Constructoras was there to help rebuild them. 

In Conclusion:
Returns on Investment – I think we’ve just seen 3 examples of the first lesson with which I began this talk: nothing yields greater benefits than putting financial resources directly into the hands of women

We know these investments make a difference – not just in the lives of women, but in their families and in their societies.  And, we know it is the support of individuals like you who make it possible for us to do this work.

Today, the Global Fund for Women raises over $10 million each year from 15,000 individuals in 43 countries. Individual donations make up 48% of our revenue, foundations 31%, and corporations less than 6%.  I’m thinking the business leaders in this audience might help us change those numbers in the years to come!  Last year, we made over 650 grants worth $8.6 million dollars.
Lesson 3 reminded us that the Titanic of Gender Inequality turns slowly, but it does turn: when the Global Fund for Women started 20 years ago, 55% of girls worldwide were literate and only 2 countries banned female genital mutilation: Sweden and the UK. Women in developing countries could hope to live on average for only 53.7 years.

Today 74% of girls around the world can; 30 countries now ban female genital mutilation and women in the developing world can now expect to live on average 10 more years, and they can expect women to play leadership roles in their nations – Rwanda has the highest % of women in parliament of any nation in the world followed closely by South Africa.

We have indeed come a long way.   But there are as Frost reminded us, “miles to go before we sleep”.  If you are wondering what you can be doing to stretch your financial resources further in this tough economic climate, by now you’ve read our Wall Street Journal, you’ve gotten advice from Suzie Orman, your tax advisor, and your accountant.  And now, here’s news from a Global SVC – your best return on a charitable investment is to put it towards investments in women’s rights both here at home and around the world.  You have great resources you can turn to – the Women’s Funding Network is a membership association of over 120 women’s funds reaching creative social entrepreneurs and activists in the US and around the world – their Moving Millions campaign needs business women like you to step up and lead with confidence.  Never thought you could make a million dollar gift – what if you and your best 4 buddies got together and made a gift over 5 years to a women’s fund of your choice?? – the California Women’s Foundation is working on the same issues of violence, poverty and education in Oakland, the Central Valley, and South Central LA, as the Global Fund for Women does in Pakistan, Peru, and the Philippines.  You really can put your time, talent, and treasure where your heart is and where the data tells us the future lies.  A future in which women and men are equal partners, standing shoulder to shoulder in confronting the world's challenges.

Women represent more than half of the world's human potential. And our time has come.  We are, indeed, the ones we have been waiting for. 
Thank you.


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