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03.07.10

Our Fight Begins Today!

On the 99th annual International Women’s Day, activist Zainab Salbi says the world should be ashamed of the violence and poverty women still face across the globe. Here’s how to reverse the startling statistics within the next 10 years.

On the 99th annual International Women’s Day, activist Zainab Salbi says the world should be ashamed of the violence and poverty women still face around the globe. Here’s how to reverse the startling statistics within the next 10 years.

As I reflect today—the 99th annual International Women’s Day—on a century of progress, I am given pause when I consider the harsh reality of life for millions of women around the world, women for whom survival remains a supreme challenge and empowerment remains a foreign concept. These are the women of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, who have endured rape by the hundreds of thousands in a conflict that has claimed more than 5 million lives. They are the women of neighboring Rwanda, where a genocide that killed 800,000 and raped up to 500,000 more than a decade ago has left thousands of the country’s women and girls HIV-positive and still struggling to feed their families. They are the women of present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which thousands of women were forced into rape concentration camps in the early 1990s and where today, women face forced prostitution, trafficking, and—among the women with whom my organization, Women for Women International, works—an unemployment rate of up to 80 percent.

Like life, peace begins with women. We are the first to forge lines of alliance and collaboration across conflict divides.

Then there are the 25 percent of women right here in the United States who face domestic violence during their lifetimes. The lives of all these women are still marked by instability, poverty, violence, and an inability to access their full human dignity and rights. We cannot have any hope of moving forward on our commitments to a more stable, prosperous world with these statistics affecting half the global population. We must act today.

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And act we have. Earlier today, thousands of women stood together in Congo and neighboring Rwanda to demand peace and development for their nations. They did so as part of a campaign our organization is co-hosting, called Join Me on the Bridge. Supporting them in their calls for war’s end are thousands of women from around the world: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq, Sudan, Mexico, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Gathering on bridges between divided communities worldwide, their unified voices say “no” to war, and “yes” to peace and hope.

These women protest the fact that women make up 70 percent of the world’s poor, 75 percent of the civilians killed in war (along with their children), and, according to the United Nations, receive only 10 percent of global income for 66 percent of the world’s work. They reject the narrative of violence and poverty they have inherited. They embrace a future vision for peace and prosperity, and begin by embracing their neighbors, despite whatever lines of conflict may have been drawn.

Like life, peace begins with women. We are the first to forge lines of alliance and collaboration across conflict divides. If these women—poor women, illiterate women--can stand up to make a difference, so can the rest of us. We must.

It is particularly fitting, too, that 2010 also marks the 10th anniversary of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs are a critical series of commitments the world made to eliminate poverty and hunger, to empower women and girls as equals to men and boys, and to boost global health and ensure education for all. As I pause to reflect on what we have achieved this past decade, I can only look ahead with a renewed sense of urgency. Our commitments are tragically off-track. As we stand with our sisters around the globe on symbolic bridges of peace and development today, I hope the world hears our call for immediate action to keep the promises we’ve made to the world’s most vulnerable people. To do this, we must:

1. Break our silence. As women, we must speak out, speak up, say no to our inheritance of loss and yes to a future of women-led dialogue about women’s rights and value.

2. Unite. We must all put aside our differences within the women’s community to sound a united call for action that these statistics must change and only we can make it happen together.

3. Invest. World leaders must fully include women in all decision-making, from the MDGs to maternal health to monetary policy.

It’s time we show the world the simple truth that women can build bridges of peace and development for the future. So today, on International Women’s Day, I urge you all to Join Me on the Bridge. Join us in helping build stronger nations, one woman at a time. Let us spend the next decade ensuring we are building a better future for all of us.

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Zainab Salbi is the founder and CEO of Women for Women International. The organization has served more than 153,000 women in nine countries, providing financial help and jobs skills.