Early last year, philanthropist/film producer Abigail Disney told me—for a special issue I was preparing at Contribute Magazine on new trends in women's philanthropy—that there is a new kind of women's movement under way, one that combines philanthropy and global issues-activism to make change in the world. Unlike the women's movement of the 1960s and '70s, Disney insisted, this one is a "quieter revolution." It is not, she said, "about waving signs around demanding personal rights so much as it is now about funding social change for women on issues of global significance."
What a difference a year makes. Despite the global economic slowdown—and perhaps partly because of it—this new "women's movement" appears to be packing some serious heat at this week's Clinton Global Initiative: there are seven agenda sessions focusing on the plight of disadvantaged women, including one on human trafficking. In the CGI spirit of cross-sector partnerships, Bill Clinton has assembled celebrities, CEOs, and new-wave "philanthrocapitalists" to talk about the "girl effect" and to call on each other to invest in women's empowerment, on stage and off. [According to CGI, each year that a girl attends school, her future income will increase by 10 to 20 percent; women invest 90 percent of their income in their households, versus men's 30 to 40 percent. Further, says the UN Foundation, women who control their income have fewer children, so pump more money into local economies.]
Today's opening plenary, on the topic of "investing in women and girls," zeroed in on some of the challenges still facing the movement. Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs—whose 10,000 Women project is working to give that many women in developing countries business degrees so they can join the world of commerce—agreed that much more needs to be done; Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, defended the push for more progress. "I don't think people should see this as giving a special advantage to girls and women," Zoellick said. "It's frankly just trying to help them catch up." But when pressed by moderator Diane Sawyer to discuss which efforts to empower women need the most work, Zainab Salbi, the chief executive of Women for Women International, said cultural barriers have been among the toughest to break. To be sure, she said, it has been hard to convince fathers in Africa and other parts of the world to abandon the tradition of dowries and planned marriages; Edna Adan, founder of a hospital in her native Somalia that bears her name, said the practice of genital cutting persists in many areas of her country. But the two said it is also time for corporate cultures—business and political cultures and traditions in the United States and throughout the developed world—to become more empowering for women.
And that's when the discussion got really interesting. Sawyer asked Salbi—whose organization works closely with survivors of rape, civil war, and economic devastation—how CGI attendees might best help women "who are afraid to stand up for themselves." Salbi said most women whose lives have been upset by war and famine are already standing up for themselves; more important, she said, is getting others in the world to stand up for them, too. CGI attendees doing work in Africa and elsewhere, she said, need to start including local women in their decision-making. Salbi shared the story of a woman from the Congo, who had been raped and lost a leg to rebels, but who, with the help of Salbi's organization, now runs a business that is making a profit. "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," Salbi said.
She then challenged CGI attendees and fellow panelist Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, to help increase resources for women and girls. Tillerson responded by insisting that "funding is not the issue"—but Salbi disagreed, saying money is still critical for thousands of women's organizations such as hers who are struggling just to help women rebuild their lives from war and survive childbirth. Tillerson then sought to clarify his remarks, saying that big businesses will give more dollars when they can be more confident they will have a measurable impact and actually find their way to those most in need. Salbi persisted, responding that until local women are part of the process that decides how those dollars are spent and distributed, many aid programs won't be as successful as they could be. "Are women part of your decision-making?" she challenged Tillerson. "Are we accountable as women for measuring the impact of these programs? Has business been making us so? We have been giving good speeches here [about the need to empower women] but are you actually doing this when it comes to investing in these programs?"
The question led Goldman's Blankfein to reframe the question, asking, "Are we making all the investments that we can make in women in girls? Are we at capacity?"
The panel succeeded as a reminder of the perception gap that remains between women's advocacy organizations and corporate philanthropy arms over the issue of gender development. Melanne Verveer, who runs the new Office for Global Women's Issues in Hillary Clinton's State Department, gave business at least some points for trying. "What has really changed in the last, recent years, is the way that the business community has come and joined this fight," she told the panel. "It's not in the greatest numbers yet but I think that is changing because the business community realizes it's in their interest...No country [or company] can prosper if it leaves half of its people behind."
To see a video of the panel, Investing in Girls and Women, click here. To hear more from Salbi, see this video interview by The Economist:
CGI continues through Friday. Watch this space for updates.
—By Marcia Stepanek
(Photo: Woman and Child by Lucien PocoBW for istock.com)