In 2010, the world’s women face daunting challenges, yet they are also the most promising and untapped agents of change. Who can forget the ink-stained fingers of the 2,000 Iraqi women who ran for parliament in that war-torn country’s 2010 elections; or the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina fighting for justice and human rights; or the Women in Black in Israel, widely credited with helping force an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon after more than 20 years of war? We must paint a fuller picture of women to be better able to meet their needs while also highlighting their own capacity to meet those needs—and others’—with the right support.
Despite so much progress, the position of most women in the world today is disheartening. Women comprise 70 percent of the poor (living on less than a dollar a day) and 64 percent of the world’s illiterate. Seventy percent of the children who are not in school are girls. Women own only one percent of property globally. They are vastly more vulnerable in the face of crisis; four of every five people displaced by war or natural disaster are women and children.
Yet, from Liberia to Chile, women presidents have proven to be strong national leaders. And women are the largest-growing economic force worldwide. Goldman Sachs concluded that women’s purchasing power will drive global economic recovery. The World Bank has predicted that women’s earning power will reach $18 trillion by 2014. Women have led corporations as diverse as Yahoo, eBay, and PepsiCo in addition to Singaporean Telecommunications and the Middle East’s Gulf One Investment Bank. In Africa, women already are responsible for 70 percent of food production and some 80–90 percent of food processing, storage, and transport.
Even at the local level, women occupy a critical cultural and social space in managing the household and raising the next generation. During conflict, when men depart, women hold communities together and provide health care, food, education, and physical protection. Post crises, they reweave communities, maintaining cultural traditions and assuring continuity for future generations.
As director of the Institute for Inclusive Security, I have seen how women’s dual role as change agent and victim plays out at the individual level. This combination is embodied by the incredible Liberian woman leader I know who rallies for women’s rights and assists abused women during the day while personally battling vicious domestic violence at home each night. It is symbolized by the charming Darfurian woman who mourned the death of her mother while caring for her kids, hosting 500 guests for the funeral, and scheduling a side meeting during the funeral to push for women’s rights with the all-male leadership of an armed movement.
Women are the keys to success in overcoming many of the globe’s challenges: besides representing half of the population, they bring unique perspectives to decision making at the macro and micro levels. Surveys around the world have shown that female parliamentarians emphasize, to a greater extent than their male colleagues, social welfare, family, children, and women’s rights issues in policymaking. Female legislators in Afghanistan, Colombia, Pakistan, and Rwanda have spearheaded the fight for laws against sexual violence. Similarly, in the home, when women have money they tend to spend more on food, school, and medicine for their families than do men.
When I was approached to be the guest editor for this special issue of Solutions, I recognized the opportunity to present a complex portrayal of women: one that recognizes their dual role. Many of the articles in this issue demonstrate that engaging women is the fastest, least expensive, and more effective plan for addressing many of the world’s intractable problems. Several articles explore solutions to the critical challenges women face—sex trafficking, civil war, and traditional restrictions on women’s rights. The head of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, lauds women’s increasing influence around the world; U.S. philanthropist Helen LaKelly Hunt explores how female philanthropists focus on women’s causes; Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Isobel Coleman argues women are making gains in Muslim countries by using Islam to push for their rights; and Indian economist Bina Agarwal looks at how property rights have empowered women and advanced environmental preservation in India. Woven throughout are profiles of extraordinary women who are emblematic of the leaders the world needs.
Solutions presents the reader with a dual challenge—to better understand the complex mosaic that the world’s women represent and to use that multifaceted image in strategizing how to better meet women’s needs while nurturing and benefitting from their enormous strength and insight. As women’s lives change rapidly in the twenty-first century, we hope this issue makes a compelling case for how they can change for the better.