09.23.09

Global Power Gals

At this week’s Clinton Global Initiative, everyone from stars to CEOs called on the world’s top corporations to invest in women’s empowerment. Lynn Sherr reports.

Diane Sawyer called it “a convergence.” Ambassador Melanne Verveer, who runs the newly created Office for Global Women’s Issues in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, said “we’re at a tipping point.” And former President Bill Clinton connected all the dots: “I think empowering women is central to what the world has to do in the 21st century,” he said flatly, introducing the panel on “Investing in Women and Children” at the Clinton Global Initiative’s second day of meetings in New York City.

The critical word was “investing,” and if ever a case was to be made that its time is now, it was up on the stage at the Sheraton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan this morning. With Sawyer moderating before a thoroughly appreciative crowd of several hundred business and philanthropy leaders—not to mention former Senator and astronaut John Glenn, and actors Goldie Hawn and Ben Stiller—six panelists emphasized the successes and challenges in funding projects focusing on girls and women around the world.

In modern war, 90 percent of all casualties are civilians; 75 percent of them are women and children.

“Investing in women is investing in families,” said Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, whose 10,000 Women project aims to give that many women in developing countries business degrees so they can be productive in the world of commerce.

Gallery: The Ultimate Power Women's Dinner “I don’t think people should see this as giving a special advantage to girls and women,” explained Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank. “It’s frankly just trying to help them catch up.”

So why now? And why girls and women? The statistics are chilling, and there are plenty:

When times are tough, and prices go up, it’s the girl who is taken out of school.
When there’s not enough food, the boy gets fed; the girl doesn’t.
And it’s worse in time of conflict. In modern war, 90 percent of all casualties are civilians; 75 percent of them are women and children.

And yet, even in war, women are succeeding, said Zainab Salbi, a survivor of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq who now runs the nonprofit Women for Women International. She told the story of a woman from Congo, who had been brutalized and raped and lost a leg to the rebels, but with the help of Salbi’s organization now runs a business that is making a profit. Women, she said, “are the ones who are taking the kids to school, they are the ones who are keeping the health system going. So I find it amazing that the only group of people who are not fighting and are not burning and not raping, and the only group of people who are actually keeping life going in the midst of wars, are not being heard and not being included at the decision-making table.”

Edna Adan, founder of a hospital in her native Somalia bearing her name now (and the first woman to drive there!), said the single most important gift was “the gift of knowledge,” to wipe out the illiteracy that has kept women down for so long. Her own rise in a country that has not long appreciated women’s value was the result, she said, of “determinedness and hard-headedness.”

But as Ambassador Verveer pointed out, “Government can’t do it alone. What has really changed in the last, recent years, is the way that the business community has now come and joined this fight. Not in the greatest numbers yet,” she lamented, “but I think that’s changing, because the business community realizes it’s in its interest.”

Bingo. Listen to Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, the second-largest corporation in the world: “Philosophically, we are committed because it’s critical to our own sustainability in the countries in which we operate,” he said. “A large part of our activities today and in the future are in less-developed parts of the world. So our longer term success is built around the ability to have a productive work force, have communities that are stable. And it’s not just financial commitment, but human-resource commitment.” In fact, he said, “funding is not the issue. Not necessarily.”

Salbi politely disagreed. “Women and girls still get so little funding,” she insisted to sustained applause. “Less than one cent of every development dollar goes to women and girls. The political decision to say we must invest much more in girls and women is not really there yet.”

To be fair, the dozen or so newly funded projects announced earlier by President Clinton were enormously impressive: commitments to help women’s groups, from Palestinian business owners on the West Bank to schoolgirls in Ghana; from providing sanitary pads and health education to adolescents in Africa so they can stay in school, to screening tests for cervical cancer across the globe. The funders range from Nike to Merck; from Cherie Blair’s foundation to Girls Inc. And that’s just a tiny sampling. But the panel agreed there are plenty of challenges remaining: programs to end female genital cutting, to change attitudes, to educate women about their own health so that problems are curable as maternal mortality are wiped out. “These women are dying silent deaths,” said Edna Adan, the midwife, who said she was shocked when, after 50 years of work, she treated a woman in Somalia bearing her 21st child. The audience gasped.

Zainab Salbi wisely reminded everyone that it was not just a developing-world issue, that one out of four American women suffers from domestic violence. “It is really a global issue,” she said, then smartly ticked off the game plan.

“It takes three things to accomplish a lot of the changes we’re talking about. One is, we need leaders to say, ‘We’re going to invest in women as a way to change the world.’” Goldman Sachs, for example. Second, she said, was for women to get organized, as they are now. But the third, she said, “that’s the one that needs a lot of work: We can’t actually get into environmental issues or climate change or ending poverty or wars if we don’t invest seriously in women.”

The men with the money stepped up to the plate. Lloyd Blankfein made it clear that investing in women remained a priority at his shop, calling it “a recruiting tool and a retention tool” for his staffers. Rex Tillerson said they’d concentrate on places where they can have the most impact.

Starting, at last, with girls and women.

Lynn Sherr continues her coverage of women's empowerment on this week's Bill Moyers Journal . On the Journal , Sherr interviews Kavita Ramdas, president and chief executive officer of The Global Fund for Women. For listings and program information, go to pbs.org/moyers.

Lynn Sherr is a former ABC News correspondent, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and Tall Blondes, a book about giraffes. She is also co-editor of Peter Jennings: A Reporter's Life. Her most recent book, a memoir—Outside the Box: My Unscripted Life of Love, Loss and Television News—is out in paperback.