Women and Girls of the World, Spring!

It’s timely that Australia has just appointed its first Global Ambassador for Women and Girls. With the convergence of world leaders in New York last week for the UN General Assembly and for the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, there was an opportunity for these leaders to make, or advocate for, a greater investment in women and girls, who comprise almost 70% of the world’s poor. Some important women leaders were present in person or via satellite link. Aung Sang Syu Ki spoke eloquently of the hopes and determination of the people of Burma to realize a democratic nation, and of the need for other countries to maintain their support. Tunisia’s new Minister of Women’s Affairs spoke of the needs of her country as a result of Arab Spring, which began with a woman posting a YouTube video. The Tunisian Minister voted with her feet and left early because she felt the $700 a night for a room near the UN could be better spent on a rural project for women back home.

After weeks of witnessing the courage of women in the Middle East speak out and demand a different future for themselves and their communities, the moment has come when we must recognise that we all benefit when women and girls step up and assume their voice and power.

A week earlier I’d joined a Write to Change The World OpEd Project in New York (www.theOpEdProject.org) . This project was created as a social venture to redress the imbalance of female voices as opinion formers and as editorial leaders. Women aren’t stepping up and assuming their expertise, power and influence. And yet women have been the force of major change, as we’ve seen most recently in Tunisia and Egypt. At our OpEd workshop we were told that words have consequences and that if we didn’t want to have consequences, we would remain inconsequential. We had to get over our fear of self and share our knowledge and expertise from the viewpoint of ‘mattering’.

Catherine Orenstein, the inspirational woman who founded the project, is an opinion leader on media and mythology and wrote a best-selling book on the role of women in society, using the analogy of Little Red Riding Hood. With Catherine’s leadership, the OpEd Project has 80 volunteer editors, many of whom are editors of significant publications themselves, who provide timely feedback on draft editorial pieces written by participations prior to submission.

Of course some would argue that what’s important is that those with the most expertise should lead the dialogue and opinion forums regardless of gender. Others might say that women have a choice and if they choose not to engage in public forums it’s because they prefer to spend more time with their families rather than assuming overt leadership roles. However over 80% (largely white) male representation in commentary forums is not representative of women’s expertise – and the way the issues and ideas are framed does not usually take into account the experience of women. The number of sold out OpEd workshops is one demonstration of women’s desire to play a more active role in writing and speaking in public.

Catherine told us about a woman who attended a workshop and who, twenty years ago, had been a member of a team that discovered a new vaccine. The woman dismissed her relevance as an expert because, she said, she was only one member of a team and it had happened twenty years ago. Catherine observed that it was a team of men who landed on the moon and they were still freely assuming their expertise and talking about the impact of this moment some forty years later. Hence one of the reasons for the project, to give women the confidence to write OpEd pieces on issues and ideas in which we are expert in order to restore the balance of women’s voices and expertise into the commentary of influential papers, magazines and online posts. The target is to train 15,000 women, and underrepresented male voices, so that they can write and be published.

The under-representation of women’s voices in Australia is similar to the US and that’s why the OpEd project would be a compelling social enterprise for in this country. Research shows that issues of self-esteem and self-worth are as vital as literacy and micro finance programs in terms of empowering women and girls. Without addressing self-esteem we can’t make much progress on the path of political, social, and economic empowerment of women and girls. In countries in the Asia Pacific, poor and low-income women are forming their own circles to speak about their experiences, often of domestic violence or extreme poverty, and gaining confidence through artistic expression and peer support to assume the practical skills to help them to create their own business and sustainable livelihood. Their self-belief gives them the foundation for building a more positive future and of being conscious of themselves as someone who matters.

A pilot leadership program for young women in some Australian schools a couple of years ago called Global Youth Impact gave these young women a deep belief in their own worth and of their potential in their communities and in the world. The program helped them to unleash their own power to act. A Global Girls and Education conference happening here in New York this week, presented by the unique combination of Credit Suisse and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is designed to give girls the stage to speak about what kind of engagement they want with the wider world and what forms of leadership they intend to adopt.

If women and girls have a voice and platform from which to speak they can radically re-imagine and change the world. And that’s the real reason for the OpEd project. It’s also why many of us do the work we do.

Jane Sloane is Vice President of Development with Women’s World Banking in New York, the largest microfinance network in the world with a specific focus on women with 39 global microfinance institutions .