This week, I attended the 5th annual Meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). Wednesday morning, I was able to watch the plenary session on investing in girls and women, which brought together a diverse group of leaders from many different sectors, including business, government, and NGOs.
The panel featured Edna Adan, Director and Founder of the Edna Adan Maternity and Teaching Hospital; Lloyd C. Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc.; Zainab Salbi, Founder and CEO of Women for Women International; Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues for the United States; and Robert B. Zoellick, President of The World Bank. The panel was moderated by the ever-elegant and inspirational journalist Diane Sawyer, Co-anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America and Primetime.
President Clinton opened the panel by highlighting the extent to which women are often marginalized economically, pointing out that only 30% of the world’s workforce is made up of women. “Women do 66% of the world’s work, make only 10% of world’s income, and own only 1% world’s property,” he said. According to Clinton, investing in women could “unleash an estimated $15 billion in annual productivity.”
Sawyer then gave an introduction of her own, capturing and heightening the excited energy of the room by asking, “Don’t we all feel when there are times when you can mark the year, mark the millennium, in which there is a great convergence that propels history forward at an unexpected pace?”
Verveer echoed this sentiment, stressing the importance of CGI’s model: collaboration between NGOs, funders, corporations and governments to solve some of the world’s most intractable challenges. “We’re at a tipping point,” said Verveer. “There is a growing global awareness [of the need to empower women] on the part of many sectors, representatives of top companies, an individual the World Bank and NGOs… this is the model we’ve got to bring to the table- the CGI model.”
Zainab, my favorite speaker, advocated eloquently and effectively for the representation of women in key political fora. Highlighting the alarming incidence of rape and violence against women during warfare, Zainab stated that “[Women are] the only ones not raping, pillaging, murdering, but they are not included at the table to discuss solutions.”
Zainab also addressed child marriage, and highlighted education and resources as a solution to this disturbing practice. “In southern Sudan, girls as young as nine years old are being exchanged for cows in marriage agreements. We can criticize these cows, or we can invest in women’s education and show the economic benefit of empowering women as an alternative source of income for parents.”
Throughout the panel, Zainab emphasized three main needs for women: political will and leadership; women mobilizing for change, which she acknowledged is happening globally; and societal acknowledgement of women’s role.
As a final word, she recounted the story of a woman in Congo who was captured and turned into a sexual slave, but who survived to become an advocate for women. “If she is able to rebuild her home and life from zero, we can invest in women and girls,” Zainab stated emphatically.”If she could speak out, so could we, and if she could dance again then so can we. So yes there are a lot of challenges, but we can overcome them.”
Adan, who used to serve as a midwife in her native Somalia and currently runs a maternity hospital there, focused on the importance of sexual and reproductive rights and health for women’s empowerment, highlighting the preventable nature of maternal deaths and injuries. “Reproductive health is affected by nutrition, is affected by the age at which a girl is married, and so many other factors,” she said. “Women are dying in childbirth because nobody cares… people think she’s dying because she was meant to die. She was not meant to die. She could be safe.”
Adan said these issues are not just women’s issues and that we need to engage men: “It is about demanding that men stand up and recognize women belong on this earth.”
While Adan and others framed women’s empowerment as a human rights issue, the representatives from the business sector often spoke about the empowerment of women in financial terms, emphasizing the potential for great profit and return that lies in investing in women.
“This is the highest return on risk space you can have,” Blankfein said. “The need is so great, and the people with whom you operate are so capable and so passionate, that you can actually have a terrific effect…The combination of the two [need and capability] is where you get such an enormous return… there’s plenty for us to do here,” he said.
Sawyer closed the panel as inspirationally as she opened it, telling a touching story about one of her experiences as a reporter in Afghanistan. She recounted a moment when she went to Afghanistan after the Taliban had left for the first time in years, and all of the women streamed into the street and said, “Where have you been? We have been waiting for you for years.”
“If we can harness this energy,” said Sawyer, “we’ll have invented fire for the second time.”
Click here for a list of more than a dozen new commitments made at the Plenary Session that will improve the lives of girls and women around the world. Click here for past IWHC coverage of the 5th Annual Meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative.