They say money makes the world go ’round, and while we’re all well aware of the power that comes from being a breadwinner, for many women across the globe, earning a living is more than just a way to gain respect for oneself and from society as a whole; it’s a way to escape violence.
“I just got back from Benin in West Africa last week, and we were visiting some of our programs there that are focused on women’s economic power, our village savings and loan program where women are able to save together to give each other small loans and use those loans to do things like start small businesses that allow them to help feed their family, help send their children to school,” says Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE, an organization focused on eliminating poverty throughout the world by empowering women.
“And when I was there,” she continues, “we talked to both men and women about what it means for women in the village we were in to start being able to have economic opportunities and to be able to contribute economically to the family, and one man stood up and said ‘You know, for me, this has made a huge difference. I used to abuse my wife. I used to beat her, because I didn’t see her as anything but a burden. I didn’t see her as somebody who had value.’ But once she started being able to contribute economically, his whole concept of her changed. She was able to contribute to the family. She was able to help send their children to school. Their relationship totally changed. He saw her as a partner; he began to discuss things with her and see her as somebody who was actually helping to enhance the life of their family.”
Raising awareness of and proposing solutions to gender-based violence is the theme of this year’s National Advocacy and Celebration conference, an annual CARE event held on International Women’s Day in Washington, D.C. to educate the organization’s volunteers and get them engaged with policymakers.
“I think this is an issue that people recognize is a key problem but is often forgotten and not as talked-about or as visible,” Gayle says. “I think the gang-rape that occurred in India in December [where a 23-year-old woman died of gastrointestinal and brain injuries after being raped by six men on a bus] brought new recognition of this problem in a very visible and very tangible and concrete way, and I think it helped to bring attention to the issue of gender-based violence and really put it on a global stage in a way that it hasn’t been in the past, but I think as a result of that, people are starting to understand the magnitude of the problem, because it isn’t just something that’s relative to India.”
“As an example,” she continues, “the World Health Organization found in a study that up to 59 percent of women in places like Ethiopia have been subjected to sexual violence by an intimate partner, or 62 percent of women in Peru who report physical violence at the hands of their partners, et cetera. So it’s clear that this is a problem that is global and not confined to any one part of the world and not even confined to the developing world, because we know that here in this country, nearly one in five women in the United States have been raped or have experienced attempted rape. We think that it is important to continue to make sure that people are aware of this, but also aware that there are solutions and that solutions are multifold.”
A big part of those solutions, says Gayle—who joined CARE in 2006 after decades working in public health—is giving women the tools to empower themselves. Women and children suffer disproportionately from poverty, and one way of combating that phenomenon is by, as stated in CARE’s mission statement, “strengthening the capacity for self-help.”
“It’s the difference between giving someone a fish and teaching them how to fish,” Gayle adds.
Between the gang-rape in India and the case of Malala Yousufzai, the Pakistani girl shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to attend school, it might appear that 2012 was an especially rough year for women. Gayle insists that’s not necessarily the case.
“I don’t know that 2012 was a particularly rough year,” she says. “I think there were things that were reported on, things that were more visible, but every day in communities around the world those same sorts of situations go on, they just may not be captured in the news. I think the fact that they were captured in the news gives us an opportunity to bring these issues to light and gives us an opportunity to have a discussion and dialogue about it, raise the visibility of these issues—because they’re happening even though we don’t always know about it.”
“My hope is that as a result of these really high-profile situations that we double our commitment to making this world a safe world where women don’t have to worry about rape or violence and that we really put our collective efforts and will together to really do what we can to minimize it so that one day gender-based violence is an exceptionally rare occurrence around the world.”