International Women’s Day

Youth in Kayole slums

Eleven years ago, I traveled to Kenya with my mother and 10-year-old daughter. We were 3 generations of women seeking to connect with and learn from the stories of others.  We met so many women and girls on our journey, and their stories are forever etched on our souls.  As we celebrate International Women’s Day today, I wish to honor those memories and share pieces of their stories here.  As these girls stood at the crux of growth and possibility in their lives, how did the world fare in nurturing their dreams and potentials?

Our visit first took us to the Kayole slums of Nairobi to visit with a women’s self-help group. As we picked our way through the garbage, rubble and open sewage ditches that lined the markets, we met a number of small, women business owners – tailors, hair dressers, and street vendors. Along the way, we were accompanied by an energetic group of young girls. They chatted with my daughter about her name and her life in the US. One of the girls, named Mercy, wore a t-shirt with ‘Smart Girl’ emblazoned on the front. As I watched their interactions, these girls glowed with a passion, curiosity, and boldness that was contagious.  Eleven years later, they are all grown up.  Did Mercy hold on to her spunk and voice? Did the very powerful women role models in her life continue to embolden her vision and dreams for the future?

The next day, we drove north of Nairobi to visit a rural community. There, we met the “Gitithia 5”, a family of orphans living alone in a home that an elderly grandmother had opened to them.  They were being supported by a local church-based microfinance group that had established a modest social fund to care for the most vulnerable in their community.  With each loan repayment, members pledged to contribute an additional fee. They had chosen to sponsor Rose, the youngest girl in this family, visiting her regularly and contributing to her school fees and basic household needs. While devastatingly poor and alone, this sibling group stayed together and experienced community generosity rather than end up on the streets of Nairobi.  Today, these children are all grown up. Did Rose stay in school?  Did she continue to stay connected in her community, in turn contributing to the life and care of others?

On the way back to Nairobi, we visited a small boarding and day school serving in an urban market community. Located at the junction of major national and international trade routes, this market bustled with truckers, bars, and prostitution rings. Here we met baby Joy. Just a few weeks old, she had been found abandoned in a basket behind their school.  This was not the first time.  Young women in this market community are so vulnerable to exploitation and abandonment.  As the school received baby Joy into their community, and we took turns holding her and breathing in her peace and warmth, we all prayed for the young mother and the sacrifices she endured.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, a comprehensive and transformative agenda for global gender equity set forth by 170 member states at the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women.  25 years later, many accomplishment have been made, including women’s increased access to education, healthcare and political participation. But we have also seen powerful pushbacks and damaging reversals of hard-won advances, as noted in UN Women’s just-released report Women´s Rights in Review 25 years after Beijing.” Poverty, discrimination and violence are still strongly present in the lives of women and girls. Under-representation in power and decision-making is still the norm. 

  • Globally, progress on women’s access to paid work has ground to a halt. Less than two thirds of women (62 per cent) aged 25-54 are in the labor force, compared to more than nine out of ten (93 per cent) men.
  • Women continue to shoulder the bulk of unpaid care and domestic work, and are on average paid 16 per cent less than men, rising to 35 per cent in some countries.
  • Nearly one in five women (18 per cent) have faced violence from an intimate partner in the past year. New technologies are fueling new forms of violence, for which policy solutions are largely absent.
  • 32 million girls are still not in school.
  • Men still control three quarters of parliamentary seats.
  • Women are largely excluded from peace processes, representing only 13 per cent of negotiators and only 4 per cent of signatories.

To catalyze systemic and lasting change the report points to the need to vastly increase financing for gender equality, to harness the potential of technology and innovation, and to ensure that development is inclusive of women and girls who face multiple forms of discrimination.

Here in the US, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s hard-won right to vote, we also acknowledge that we are an incredibly generous country.  Since 2014, we have given over $350 billion every year to a broad range of causes, including religion, education, human services, health, arts and culture, the environment and animal welfare.  But when it comes to supporting women’s issues, public support wanes. Only 1.6% of US charitable giving goes to nonprofits helping women and girls.  And about 71% of those nonprofits have budgets of less than $50,000.  If we want to truly impact the lives of women and girls, we will need to do more.

As I reflect on the stories of Mercy, Rose and Joy, and the generosity they experienced in their communities in Kenya, I am heartened.  Their stories have impacted my life and they have impacted my mother and my daughter as well, as all three of us continue to commit our lives to the advancement of gender equity.  Please take this day to look around you and honor all of the hardworking programs that work so diligently to serve women and girls every day. Recognize that their task is huge and growing, and do what you can to offer your support, encouragement, and advocacy. It’s the right work to be about and it’s a work that has profound and untold implications for future generations.  Happy International Women’s Day.