Remarks at 2011 CARE National Conference

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
March 9, 2011

It is such a pleasure to be here. I feel like CARE is part of my extended family. We gather here during the celebration of the centennial of International Women’s Day—which was established to acknowledge, advance and strengthen women’s role in the world. What better place to celebrate then with CARE, now in your 7th decade of working to empower poor women and improve the world. And I’m so pleased to know a record number of country staff, and so many local activists, are here. You are powerful advocates—and we need your power to be unleashed now more than ever.

You’ve already heard from two women I know and respect greatly—Doris Meissner and Helene Gayle. Our world has benefited immeasurably from their contributions and leadership. They continue to make a difference. I not only follow Helene to the podium, but I would follow her in her important work anywhere!

I was in the DRC a couple of weeks ago where CARE is doing such critical work in helping women who are survivors of some of the worst atrocities imaginable to heal and chart a new life. When I was there, a new center was dedicated—the City of Joy—to help women move from pain to power… and I couldn’t help but think about CARE’s “I am powerful” campaign.

We know that investments in women have a positive correlation with poverty alleviation and a country’s general prosperity. Moreover, there is broad recognition that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on gender equality and the empowerment of women is the linchpin to the achievement of all the other MDGs. It is a simple fact that no country can get ahead if half of its people are left behind.

As Secretary Clinton often states, women and girls are one of the world’s greatest untapped resources and investing in them is one of the most powerful forces for international development. This is also why the U.S. has placed women’s issues at the center of its diplomatic and development agenda. And this is why I want to talk to you briefly this morning about a few high yield investments—a “CARE package,” if you will—of tools for women’s empowerment.

First, and most importantly, girls’ education. As Helene said, we know it is the single most effective development investment that can be made, and a key driver of economic growth and social progress—yielding the positive consequences for the future in terms of delayed marriage and childbirth, healthier pregnancies and families. Children of educated mothers are more likely to survive, have adequate nutrition and are more likely to attend school themselves. Girls’ education also boosts income later in life: an extra year of primary school increases girls’ future wages by an estimated 10-20 percent and an extra year of secondary education increases future wages by 15-25 percent.

Today, almost 2/3 of developing countries—thanks to the efforts like those of CARE—have met the goal of eliminating gender disparity in primary education. However, considerable gaps remain, particularly for girls.

For example, in Yemen, nearly 80% of girls who are out of school are unlikely to enroll, compared to 36% of boys. Child marriage is an enormous problem—and I want to salute CARE on your work at the grassroots level to change deeply entrenched practices like this and create incentives to enable girls to go to school and diminish the prospects of early marriage.

On a recent trip with Secretary Clinton to the Gulf region, we stopped in Yemen. There we were reunited with a girl who had been forced into child marriage a few years earlier by her father. She had been married off to a much older man. The 9-year old, named Nujood Ali, was abused and raped. She suffered intensely. She decided that she would get herself to the courthouse and managed to get the bus fare from her aunt. When Nujood arrived at the courthouse, everyone towered over here. Finally, a woman lawyer asked her why she was there. Nujood replied that she wanted a divorce. The lawyer took her case and that of a few other child brides and won. Today Nujood is back in school where she belongs. The Parliament in Yemen has debated raising the age of marriage, but has yet to do so.

Often the best way to help a girl to stay in school and out of child marriage is to provide an incentive that results in income to her family. I heard about a program in South Asia that provided girls with animals. In this case, a girl had received a cow and the income that her family received from the sale of milk enabled her to stay in school. One day, however, the girl’s father told her he was marrying her off. She protested, said she didn’t want to get married and wanted to stay in school. Her father persisted. She responded that if she were going to be married she would have to take her cow. Her father responded that the cow was to stay with him. She, however, refused saying the cow was given to her. Finally, after much back and forth, he told her he was not prepared to lose the cow, and as a result, she escaped a child marriage.

Child marriage is not the only barrier that inhibits access to primary and secondary education. These barriers range from concerns about safety to lack of transportation or proper hygiene. It behooves us to incentivize girls’ education—whether through a bag of flour, can of oil, free tuition, etc. The lack of access to education can follow girls for a lifetime. Of over 700 million illiterate adults, 2/3rds are women.

The quality of education is also a serious problem. Even where school enrollment has increased, too often children are leaving school without acquiring basic literacy and numeracy skills. Improving access to and the quality of girls’ education around the world is essential to achieving the development outcomes that we seek and to promoting gender equality and must be a top priority for all of us.

Second, access to financial inclusion. Today, financial services for the poor have evolved to include savings and insurance, in addition to microcredit. The international community is not only focused on providing the poor with access to capital, but on a more holistic approach to help the poor to become economically independent. The promotion of savings is critical, as is insurance to protect the poor from catastrophes that can wipe away their economic progress overnight.

Secretary Clinton is a longtime champion of microfinance, and financial inclusion is a top priority for the U.S. Government. In addition to being a topic of discussion at the G20, microfinance for poverty reduction and economic empowerment is a significant investment in our development work.

Microcredit has lifted up tens of millions of poor women and their families out of poverty. This week, the microcredit campaign issued its 2011 report that showed that 81% of the recipients of microloans—100 million borrowers—were women. Women are a smart investment. They consistently have demonstrated a high loan repayment rate and they invest their incomes in their families and communities. I’ve seen how they benefit firsthand from the loans and training they receive and the life practices (like sending their kids to school, better hygiene, etc.) they adopt.

I remember a trip to India with Secretary Clinton where hundreds of women gathered to meet her in Gujaret. They belonged to the self-help group, SEWA. The then-First Lady asked the women what difference microcredit and the SEWA program had meant to them. One woman got up and said, “I am no longer afraid.” Now not being afraid is empowering itself. However, she went on to say, “I am not afraid of my husband. I am not afraid of the police. I am not even afraid of my mother-in-law.” Now that is a powerful statement!

Yet, despite these successes, 3 billion people in the world remain unbanked, so we have a sizeable gap to close.

Third, access to technology. Technology has the potential to transform women’s lives around the world by providing critical access to information, mitigating severe health and safety risks, and creating an opportunity for financial security and independence. Yet in too many instances, women still lack access to these tools and the potential benefits they represent.

Mobile technology is an essential tool to enable the poor to transform their lives. Cell phones can be used to provide critical health information, to economically empower women who use the cell phone to get invaluable information from the weather to the best markets for their products, to protecting women and girls from violence, to teaching literacy and providing access to financial services. Yet for 300 million women in low-and middle-income countries, mobile technology is still out of reach.

To address these challenges, Secretary Clinton launched the mWomen initiative last October, in partnership with the GSMA, the industry association of mobile service providers, to reduce the gender gap by 50 percent in the next three years. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has announced a grant to GSMA to identify a business model to make the case for a market for women at the bottom of the pyramid. Together, we can bring mobile technology to poor women and empower them to improve their lives and lift their families out of poverty.

Women also lack access to another type of technology that also has the power to be life-saving: clean cookstoves. Exposure to smoke from traditional stoves and open fires—the primary means of cooking and heating for 3 billion people in developing countries—causes almost 2 million deaths annually, with women and young children affected most. That is a life lost every 16 seconds.

The use of efficient cookstoves can dramatically reduce exposure to harmful smoke. More efficient stoves also reduce the time people (usually women and girls) have to spend collecting fuel, which, particularly in areas of conflict, could also reduce the likelihood of their exposure to gender-based violence. The accumulated savings in time and cost can be invested back into families, communities, and economies.

Reductions in emissions achieved by clean cookstoves will not only benefit the environment, but also contribute to women’s economic empowerment. Women can be trained and provided with capital to start businesses around the sale, distribution, maintenance, and repair of clean cookstoves and fuels. The entire clean cookstoves supply-chain can and should be a source of economic opportunity and job creation, particularly for poor women.

To address the need for clean cookstoves, the United States has committed over $50 million as a founding member of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, housed at the UN Foundation, which is an innovative public-private partnership launched by Secretary Clinton with other governments, private companies, and NGOs. It is an investment with high-yield dividends for women and girls.

Finally, I’d like to mention that later this morning, Secretary Clinton will announce a major grants-based program to seek innovative prevention and treatment approaches for pregnant women and newborns in rural, low-resource settings. The partners involved in this initiative include the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada, the Government of Norway, and The World Bank.

Initiatives like these underscore the centrality of investing in women and girls as a fundamental principle of our approach not only to development and foreign policy, but also to stimulating the global economy. If we are looking for ways to meet the demands of the 21st century, fully unleashing the potential and power of women—the theme that brings us together this morning—is the obvious place to begin. The power of women is renewable, it is sustainable, and it can be local or it can be global.

There’s no significant challenge humanity faces that the power of women cannot help us overcome. And there is no significant challenge facing humanity that can be overcome without integrating the power of women into our efforts.

This is a fact, and I am proud that we are partners with CARE in this work. So let’s get out there and make the case for real, immediate and lasting prosperity and an end to poverty around the globe by supporting and advancing the economic empowerment of women. When women progress, everyone benefits—families, communities, countries—and the global economy will benefit, too. Your advocacy is so critical.

Thank you very much for all you do and for all you will do in the days and weeks ahead.