Op Ed: The Index for Connecting the Dots in Women’s Development

We have good news and bad news. The good news is that improving the lot of women and girls in the developing world is one of the greatest moral, political and economic challenges of our time. The bad news is that the stats are still grim. Seventy percent of the world’s poor are women. Two-thirds of all children deprived of primary education are girls. One in three women will be a victim of violence. In sub-Saharan Africa, women represent 60% of people living with HIV and 75% of young people infected with HIV are girls. Pretty dark stuff, right?

We’ve heard it before, but it can’t be overstated: empowering girls and women is a prerequisite if we are to overcome poverty, disease, hunger, environmental destruction… the list goes on . Yet progress on gender equality has been slow at best. The crucial question is how to accelerate the pace of change.

President Clinton introduced the topic of girls and women at the 2009 annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative saying, “We need to connect the dots on this topic. Indeed, education is the engine of economic empowerment: for every year beyond grade four that girls attend school, their wages increase by 20%. Economic empowerment leads to better education and better health; a study in Malawi found that cash transfers provided to girls and their families to keep them in school not only increased school attendance, but also led to a decline in risky transactional sex – which girls engage in often to earn money for school – and therefore reduces HIV prevalence among these girls. Expanding women’s property rights also leads to greater security. Research in South India found that the rate of domestic violence against married women fell from 49% for non-landowners to 18% and 10% respectively for those who owned land or a house.

Progress on gender equality has been slow at best. The crucial question is how to accelerate the pace of change.


Clearly, the solution lies in mobilizing new resources – human, financial and technical – in innovative ways that can double the impact. That’s the goal of CGI. As we examine CGI’s focus areas (economic empowerment, education, environment and energy, and global health), one thing becomes clear: women and girls are at the heart of each one, both as beneficiaries and as agents of change.

What is most striking is the level of interconnectedness possible if we really want to make a difference on a large scale. Needless to say, international development resources are valuable, whether financial, operational or human. When designing means of social change, we need to consider the possibilities of creating multi-purpose solutions: programs that proactively address multiple issues with the same investment.

Take, for example, Lifeline Energy, a social enterprise. Each organization participating in CGI must make a commitment, essentially a detailed plan for solving a problem in one of CGI’s four focus areas. Lifeline Energy is committed to providing solar-powered and wind-crank lamps and radios to benefit 20,000 poor rural women in Rwanda. Solar lighting mitigates safety risks for women and girls vulnerable to violence when walking in the dark, and boosts productivity and educational opportunities by enabling small business activity or studying the night. It eliminates the need for biomass fuel lamps, which benefits the environment while mitigating the health risks of respiratory disease. This technological innovation also offers income-generating opportunities: women can serve as local distributors, selling the lamps for a commission. A reliable and sustainable radio service further enhances the development opportunities and well-being of rural women and girls by giving them access to information on health, literacy, life skills and economic development. Through CGI’s relationships with partners such as CARE and the Rwandan government, Lifeline Energy will enable women to benefit from every angle of their lives.

Girls and women, and by extension the whole community, reap the benefits they so desperately need.


Another versatile solution provides tools in the present to generate impact in the future. With partners such as the Skoll and Nike foundations, the nonprofit Fundación Paraguaya has implemented programs that address several challenges of rural poverty, such as unreliable income streams and environmental degradation. Poor rural girls attend agricultural schools, while generating income through on-campus businesses to cover running costs and ensure the school’s financial self-sufficiency. The program transforms girls into educated entrepreneurs equipped to be agents of sustainable socio-economic development and environmental protection, with the skills to empower themselves and their families economically and socially in the future.

Girls’ education initiatives are essential. Yet one of the biggest obstacles to keeping girls in school is the fact that they stay home during their periods due to the lack of proper sanitation facilities. These monthly interruptions are the cause of the high dropout rates for girls in adolescence. Social Enterprise Sustainable Health Enterprises’ commitment to making an affordable, biodegradable sanitary napkin, produced locally with natural materials, serves multiple purposes. In addition to improving educational impact by increasing school attendance, it improves social status by reducing the stigma of menstruation and enabling girls to participate more regularly in sports, a key factor in building self-esteem. It decreases the increased health risks of sexually transmitted diseases and infant pregnancy that occur when girls are pressured into sexual activity to earn money to buy sanitary napkins. In addition, local production creates opportunities for income generation and skills development in the community, and the use of local suppliers reduces product costs and reduces the need for long-distance transportation, thereby reducing environmental impact.

The development clock is ticking. As the global economic crisis has exacerbated resource scarcity, we need to optimize investments. By connecting the dots – by designing programs that address multiple challenges simultaneously – we can achieve a multiplier effect: educational initiatives can strengthen economic empowerment, technological innovation can improve health, and access and control of resources can improve safety. With versatile solutions, we can accelerate the process of social transformation and get more for our development dollars. Girls and women, and by extension the whole community, reap the benefits they so desperately need.

Mara R. Wilmoth