News Column

CARE CEO Shares Global Lessons on Girls, Women

May 9, 2013

As one of the most influential nonprofits in the United States, CARE USA, which is celebrating 20 years in Atlanta, has spent the last several years working on alleviating poverty by devoting attention to the development of girls and women in impoverished countries around the world.

Amid the conversation about women and their role in American society, CARE Chief Executive Officer Helene Gayle says the lessons her organization has learned through its work around the globe provide some interesting insights for women in the United States.

Editor's note: This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Why does CARE focus on empowering women and girls in its fight against global poverty?

A: The majority of the estimated 1.5 billion people who live in extreme poverty are girls and women. Women do the majority of the world's work but earn less of the world's income; do most of the world's farming, own less of the world's farmland. Clearly, girls and women bear the brunt of poverty.

The flip side of that is if you invest in the life of a girl, you can really change the status not only of that girl but for generations afterward. A girl who's educated, she'll be less likely to get married off at 13, she'll be more likely to have fewer children when she does get married because she's getting married later. She's more likely to earn an income, helps to support the family, the family's lot in life improves because you have a woman and a man contributing to the resources of the family. She's more likely to be a real partner to her husband, their children have a different future, etc. And that's where you start seeing catalytic change.

And all the data around the world and in this country show that if we have greater inclusion of women, we have better economic outcomes, better policies are made (and there is) more inclusive thinking.

Women in this country also understand what it means to be left out of the equation.

Q: Is there an endpoint on the focus on girls and women? Will CARE have someday accomplished all of the change that needs to happen for girls and women throughout the world, or is it really a never-ending effort?

A: Right now, disproportionately girls and women are left out. Will there ever be a day where that won't be the case? I sure hope so, but we haven't quite found it here yet either.

Q: What kind of challenges do you face in nations around the world on changing those views about women?

A: It takes time. Breaking the isolation is a huge part of empowerment. In Guatemala, we went to a women's empowerment circle. We were talking to one of the women and she said, "When I first started this, I look in a mirror, and when they said tell me what you see, I said, 'I see nothing,' because that's what I felt about myself."

They learn some skills, they learn how to do numbers, they learn some basic things that give them a sense of mastery.

Then the woman said, "Well, now if somebody asked me to look in a mirror, I see someone with a future, I see someone who is loved, I see somebody with self-confidence."

Second (is) helping people to see why it is not beneficial to keep out 50 percent of your population; working with gatekeepers in the community; and shifting the social norms within a society. A program around gender-based violence that I went to in Bangladesh (was in) a community where beating one's wife was just what was expected. So, a team of men working with CARE started talking to these men -- why do you engage in violence? Helping people to deconstruct the behavior and understand why this is unproductive. Once the men realize there are other ways of solving concerns, giving them negotiation skills, helping them to understand how to have a dialogue, they started changing. They then started meeting with other men and teaching them. And they started becoming monitors for gender-based violence within their community.

Third, how do you have policy change that also supports it? We finally passed recently the (reauthorized) Violence Against Women Act. That kind of legislation is happening around the world.

Q: Are there places where it's too soon to launch into these efforts?

A: We meet people where they are. The situation in Afghanistan may be very different from what we can do in Peru.

Q: What lessons from CARE's work might apply in the U.S.?

A: Making sure that we are looking at shaping young girls' lives as early as possible.

Oftentimes in our dialogue around our own sense of empowerment, we're not also making sure that as women's roles shift that boys and men also have the opportunity to think differently about their own roles. Clearly we have a long way to go in terms of women's true ability to fully realize their potential here.

Q: How does CARE approach the shift in men's roles?

A: In a project in Uganda, a man's wife started a business, became more economically supportive in the family, the rate of domestic violence went down, and he also started seeing her as an equal partner. Their relationship shifted; he started doing more of the household chores. At first his peers started laughing at him, and then he explained why it was actually good that he did household work, because his wife wasn't as tired, they had more fun together. And so he became a role model. Then it starts replicating and the norms start shifting.

Q: What are the lessons for men and women raising families in the United States?

A: It's catching children early and having them see that, in fact, both boys and girls have brains, can learn.

In a program in Ecuador, a woman could take out a loan to start a business if she agreed to send her daughter to school. This is in a community where it was not thought that educating a girl had much value, because a girl was expected to grow up, get married early, start having children and that was her value.

The wife talked about how different it made her son's reaction to the daughter. He saw her in a very different way.

Source: (c)2013 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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