USAID Impact Photo Credit: USAID and Partners

Archives for Women

The Courage of Atefa: Afghan Women Learn to be Candidates

It’s hard to imagine someone more optimistic about her country’s future, more determined to be on the front lines of social change, than Atefa, whose last name is being withheld for security reasons.

Women provincial council candidates in training.

Women provincial council candidates in training. Photo credit: Jean-Marc Gorelick

Only 25 years old, and already a teacher with seven years of challenging classroom experience, she is running for provincial council in Kabul, a governing body similar to a U.S. state legislature.  It was an agonizing decision, made with full awareness of the risks she would face, but she couldn’t be clearer about her reasons:  “I am running because I want to serve the vulnerable groups, the women and especially girls. Girls who are educated stay at home because they are not allowed to work outside and even if they are allowed they cannot get good jobs,” she says.

This young woman’s leap into the democratic fray, fueled by a belief that Afghanistan’s successful future will require the talents and commitment of men and women from every walk of life, is occurring in the midst of what is almost certainly the most significant election (presidential and provincial) in her country’s history, scheduled to take place on April 5.

And Atefa is not alone.

 Hundreds of young women – and, to be sure, young men – have signaled their eagerness to be participate in a moment with so many seemingly intractable problems: insecurity, poverty, illiteracy.

Now come the formidable and often frustrating challenges of running for office. Atefa now must run her campaign, meet voters, prepare campaign materials, hone her ability to speak publicly, and present a vision for her country’s future.

USAID is helping women in Afghanistan learn to become candidates. / Photo c/o U.S. Government

USAID is helping women in Afghanistan learn to become candidates. / Photo c/o U.S. Government

First-time candidates often lack the skills needed to campaign effectively. Funds to produce materials can be hard to come by. And, in a country still confronting challenges from those who prefer rage over renewal, many candidates have had their lives threatened.

To address these challenges, USAID supported a campaign school, which began on November 9, 2013, training 290 of 308 women provincial council candidates.

This training is provided by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), through the Supporting Political Entities and Civil Society (SPECS) program.

Each five-day workshop provides candidates with nuts and bolts information on conducting a campaign, fundraising, staff management and voter outreach. On the last day of the training, candidates produce a plan to guide them through the campaign cycle.

The training plays a vital role in expanding women’s political participation, a key component of Afghan democratic development. By enhancing the ability of women to compete for provincial council seats, this program contributes to achieving greater inclusivity in the Afghanistan 2014 elections.

None of the formidable challenges seem to have dampened the enthusiasm of extraordinary Afghan women determined to be valued and included in a democratic Afghanistan.

With her drive and courage, aided by her new tools, Atefa will be ready.

Follow @USAIDAfghanistan; On Facebook: On Flickr: On Youtube

Maintaining Women’s Potential in Yemen

“The women of Yemen should never again be relegated as second class citizens.”
-Attendee of the New Voices of Yemen Dinner, March 3, 2014

This was the heart of the messaging from the New Voices of Yemen: Women Leaders Dinner I attended on my second evening in the country’s capital, Sana’a. These women, a far larger network than the 20 who attended the dinner, gathered together once again to promote women’s political participation in the continuing transformation of the country.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Elisabeth Kvitashvili in Yemen

Deputy Assistant Administrator Elisabeth Kvitashvili in Yemen

With the recent successful conclusion of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference, the women lobbied me to ensure USAID would continue to maintain its support in amplifying their voices, calling for a commitment to the quota of 30 percent women’s representation in constitution drafting, elections, and cabinet positions. They also recognize the need to promote opportunities for women in leading private sector roles in support of much needed economic reforms for Yemen.

Women play such a critical role in all of Yemeni society as demonstrated by the small representation at the dinner of a much, much larger community. Women leaders from the government, civil society, and private sector connect through various networks such as Women’s Integrated Network and Women’s National Committee that they themselves established. These women transcend the country’s north and south divisions as much as political differences. They represent the women of Yemen, young and old.

The two women who facilitated the lively and energetic discussion, Entiem and Rabab both represent the dynamic and articulate nature of these new voices of Yemen. They are part of the youth segment representing the future of Yemen.

These new voices play a critical role in assuring Yemen continues on a path toward peace and prosperity, and USAID plans to continue to support their empowerment and equality.

Bringing Hope to Women in Sri Lanka’s Former Conflict Zones

Like most places that have experienced conflict throughout the world, women were deeply affected by Sri Lanka’s 26-year conflict.  For most women who lived in the Indian Ocean island’s conflict zones, displacement, destruction, violence, harassment and loss were part of their everyday life.  The conflict ended in 2009, leaving many women traumatized and in need of psychosocial care, without belongings or livelihoods, and after the loss of their spouses, as heads of households.  Several USAID initiatives continue to support these women by integrating them into society and bringing normalcy back into their lives.

Thaminy Vedaasingham* is one of the BIZ+ program’s beneficiariesOne such initiative is USAID’s BIZ+ program which helps to increase and enhance equitable economic growth in the former northern and eastern conflict zones.  BIZ+ is partnering with small and medium-sized local businesses to create 5,000 new livelihoods and increase household incomes. The program primarily targets women; including war widows, disabled women and female-headed households.

Thaminy Vedaasingham* is one of the program’s beneficiaries. She is 25 years old and lives in one of the worst conflict-affected northern districts of Sri Lanka.  Having lost a limb during the conflict, Thaminy faced many hardships.  This is when Thaminy heard about the vocational training and production center in her district that provides livelihood assistance to war widows, women abandoned or women separated from their spouses or families. USAID is supporting the center to expand production and marketing of rice flour and spices and provide vulnerable women like Thaminy with new skills and sustainable livelihoods.

“The profit of the business belongs to the vulnerable women who work so diligently in the center. USAID’s assistance and support – in the way of building new hostel and storage facilities, and providing new equipment and transportation – have helped us to overcome any challenges and be successful businesswomen.” says Thaminy.

Thaminy is now economically independent and has the confidence to socialize with others.  “Thaminy is now enjoying life without worrying about the leg she lost. She is happy to work and earn for her family and for herself. As a mother, I am very proud of it”, quips Thaminy’s mother.

The Managing Director of the Vocational Training and Production Centre is happy to see the socio-economic business enterprise model with a vision of improving livelihood of vulnerable women come this far.  But above all, he is happy to see how the project has increased hope in the minds of women who seek empowerment through employment opportunities.

* Name has been changed to protect identity 

IWD 2014: An AIDS Vaccine as a Force for Women’s Equality

We’ve come a long way in 104 years of marking International Women’s Day. But far too many women remain left behind in far too many parts of the world.

In sub-Saharan Africa, AIDS is the leading killer of women of reproductive age. Limited education, economic and social dependence on men, and gender-based violence severely restrict women’s power over their own health. Imagine what an AIDS vaccine could change for African women and their children.  Photo Credit: IAVI

In sub-Saharan Africa, AIDS is the leading killer of women of reproductive age. Limited education, economic and social dependence on men, and gender-based violence severely restrict women’s power over their own health. Imagine what an AIDS vaccine could change for African women and their children. Photo Credit: Frederic Courbet

In Africa, a vicious cycle of HIV and AIDS and gender inequity continues to thwart women’s hopes for a healthy and productive life. AIDS is the number-one killer of women of reproductive age in sub-Saharan Africa and the world, and women account for more than half of the people living with HIV in low- and middle-income countries. It’s a human tragedy and an economic one.  Beyond the epidemic’s direct costs, women are a driving force behind Africa’s economy, and their productivity loss takes a toll. Women own nearly one-third of firms in sub-Saharan Africa and grow at least 80 percent of the food.

Inequity in daily life explains much of the disproportional impact of HIV on women. Limited education, economic and social dependence on men, and gender-based violence severely restrict African women’s power over their own lives and health. An effective and widely available AIDS vaccine will help break through many of the related social and cultural barriers.

Women in Africa are disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS and play a critical role in the global response, from doctors, nurses and lab scientists to counselors, community organizers and volunteers in clinical trials of vaccines and other new prevention technologies. Photo Credit: IAVI

Women in Africa are disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS and play a critical role in the global response, from doctors, nurses and lab scientists to counselors, community organizers and volunteers in clinical trials of vaccines and other new prevention technologies. Photo Credit: Jean-Marc Giboux/Getty Images

Helping to ensure development of an AIDS vaccine is more than a job for those of us at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and our many partners. It’s a passion – from the clinician in Entebbe, to the community organizer in Kilifi, to the trial participant rolling up her sleeve in Kigali. At a young age, I learned the power of vaccines when my parents, who had lost a child to measles, took me to get the measles vaccine soon after it was introduced. As a senior executive in the vaccine industry, I have seen firsthand the transformative value that vaccines have brought to the developed and developing worlds. Just imagine what an AIDS vaccine could do for women in Africa. Today, they face heavy odds that they might contract HIV and potentially leave their children orphaned, but tomorrow they could be confident that they are protected from HIV and live healthy and productive lives.

There has been enormous progress in treatment and prevention, but AIDS still kills 1.6 million people every year. I am proud to work daily alongside the thousands of dedicated scientists, advocates, clinicians, counselors, and community organizers – so many supported by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief through USAID – who are devoting their lives and passions to achieving this sustainable solution for the women of Africa. As we collectively work to find an effective vaccine and ensure its swift distribution to all those who need it, we are already opening avenues to healthcare, education, and support that equalize and empower women.

Want to empower women in agriculture? Use technology.

It’s very difficult to effectively manage responsibilities if you have neither the authority over nor access to the required skills, networks, resources, or decision-making power needed to complete critical tasks. Yet, that is the situation women in Tanzania’s agricultural sector face.

According to research from the World Bank, women form the majority of Tanzania’s agriculture work force – particularly in rural areas, where 98 percent of economically-active women are involved in agriculture. They prepare, plant, weed, harvest, transport, store, and process their farms’ products. In addition to these time and labor-intensive activities, women also cook meals and perform other household management tasks. These are crucial in a country where 42 percent of children under 5 years old suffer from stunted growth, due to malnutrition, and 16 percent are underweight.

Tanzanian women are keenly aware of their responsibilities and the challenges embedded therein. Limited decision-making power, unfavorable regulations, and biased sociocultural norms reduce their access to finance, land, technical training, labor-saving equipment and other productive resources. As a result, barriers are stifling their potential to be leaders of technological invention, entrepreneurship, and legal and regulatory change throughout the agriculture sector. But these challenges are not insurmountable.

In fact, with a little help from the U.S. Agency for International Development, farmers are developing their own solutions.

The Innovations in Gender Equality (IGE) to Promote Household Food Security program, in close coordination with Feed the Future projects in southern Tanzania, is helping farmers address constraints they face when working in agriculture.

This project is a partnership between Land O’ Lakes International Development , the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Development Lab (MIT D-Lab), and USAID.

It offers community-centered technology design training to smallholder farmer groups in the Southern Agricultural Corridor of Tanzania. Trainees, the majority of whom are women, develop prototypes in group settings and receive in-depth coaching from MIT D-Lab trainers.

What do the results of these technology design trainings look like?

  • Time and labor burdens are reduced. These technologies – developed by farmers, for farmers – save time and reduce drudgery, freeing up women’s availability to engage in alternative income-generating opportunities.
  • What’s impossible alone becomes possible together. When we ask IGE farmer-inventors why they never developed the technology design prototypes before that they are designing now, one answer is constant: they couldn’t do it alone. D-Lab’s community-centered design philosophy fosters teamwork from the start, which farmers credit for bringing to life the culture of innovation and invention in their villages.
  • Men and women are working together. Women’s empowerment is a community-wide endeavor, with men’s active involvement and support being a critical factor. The technologies farmers are developing are transforming women’s-only agricultural tasks into tasks in which husbands and wives work together, producing a greater overall benefit for themselves and their families.

What technologies are farmers developing?

blog-1

Photo Credit: Giselle Aris

Mwanahamisi Goha’s palm oil technology design group, called Jitegeme group, consists of two women and three men. They collectively developed the palm oil extracting machine prototype pictured above, which can extract 20 liters of palm oil in 30 minutes. This is a major improvement, because standard models typically take four hours to extract the same amount of palm oil (a popular product on local markets) and require two people to operate instead of one. This new prototype also allows operators to sit instead of stand.

blog-2

Photo Credit: Giselle Aris

Arafa Mwingiliera and Habiba Njaa’s peanut sheller group, Ukombozi, in Morogoro, grinds nuts using a prototype they developed with three other group members. This technology can shell up to 20 kilograms of peanuts in just five minutes – an amount of work that used to take an entire day when shelled peanuts using their bare hands. Women in southern Tanzania often sell peanuts as snacks along the roadside to passers-by and use them in place of cooking oil to season vegetables. Peanuts are high in protein and calories, making them a good source of nutrition and energy, especially for young children.

Photo Credit: Giselle Aris

Photo Credit: Giselle Aris

Amina Hussein, Veronica Hogo and other members of the rice thresher technology design group, Lupiro, test their prototype, which they designed using locally available and affordable materials. This technology can thresh 15 to 20 100 kilogram bags of rice per day without crop loss due to spillage (which occurs when farmers thresh rice by hand). The productivity levels achieved by this prototype are a massive improvement compared to traditional hand threshing, from which farmers yield only two to three 100 kilogram bags of rice per day with up to 5 percent of crops lost to spillage. Rice is one of the main staple crops of Tanzania, and, along with maize and horticulture, is one of the Feed the Future target value chains. These value chains are essential to Tanzania’s food security, which has motivated many farmer technology design groups to develop prototypes that bolster their productivity.

blog-4

Photo Credit: Giselle Aris

Stella Malangu, a member of the rice winnower technology design group, Jitambue, in Morogoro, smiles after using the prototype she helped design and build. It generates wind to separate rice from chaff and other unwanted particles and pests before storage. When farmers in this group winnowed rice using traditional methods, which required them to stand and be in constant motion, they were able to clean one 100 kilogram bag of rice per day. With their new prototype, these farmers can now winnow six 100 kilogram bags of rice in just three hours. This technology has dramatically reduced time and labor burdens! And it has even led male community members to become involved in what was previously only women’s work.

What’s next?

Every technology needs investors. Even in cases where inventors have designed functional prototypes, they still require:

  • Resources and skills to transform prototypes into successful commercial products
  • Media attention to accelerate the time it takes for locally popular products to become nationally and regionally renowned and adopted
  • Policy change to address major constraints for women working in Tanzania’s agriculture sector

IGE is working in each of these areas to ensure technology continues to help transform the lives of smallholder farmers in Tanzania. For more information on how you can get involved, visit our website.

No Birth Should Be Left Up To Chance

Giving birth ranks among the scariest moments for any mother. It certainly was for me. I was living in Hong Kong at the time when my second child was born. And he was born in a hurry. He came so fast that I actually thought I’d give birth in our car on the way to the hospital! Fortunately, that didn’t happen and I safely delivered my son Patrick surrounded by a team of well-trained doctors and nurses, not to mention my loving (and relieved!) husband by my side.

Mozambican mother holds her newborn. Photo credit: MCHIP

Mozambican mother holds her newborn. Photo credit: MCHIP

But I’m one of the lucky ones.

As new research released today by Save the Children reveals, 40 million women give birth without any trained help whatsoever. What’s more, two million women give birth entirely alone.

I met one of those women in Nepal about five years ago. I was there visiting our programs in the south of the country and stopped in to see a mom who had given birth a month prior. She sat with us and talked quite matter-of-factly about how when she went into labor with her third child, she didn’t panic. She merely laid down in a clean part of her house, caught the baby when she came out, cut the umbilical cord and wrapped her to keep her warm.

When she had finished telling her story, and I had stopped shaking my head in amazement, I couldn’t help but compare her experience to mine. After all, both of our children came into the world faster than we had anticipated. However, while my husband was there to drive me—fast—to a first-class hospital, this woman had no one. Her husband was away in India on business and her two daughters were in the next village. Even if she could manage to get herself to the nearest clinic, which was 2 kilometers away, she would have had to travel on foot. So she did the next best thing; she left it up to chance.

Fortunately for this mom both she and her newborn survived. But for too many women in the same situation, the outcome is much more tragic.

So many things can go wrong when a mother gives birth without a skilled birth attendant (SBA). Things such as prolonged labor, pre-eclampsia and infection—which are perfectly manageable when an SBA is present—can mean a death sentence in the absence of one.

For this reason, Save the Children is partnering with world leaders, philanthropists and the private sector to commit to ensuring that by 2025 every birth is attended by trained and equipped health workers who can deliver essential health interventions for both the mother and the newborn.

Because no birth should be left up to chance.

Crafting Economic Empowerment for Women in North Lebanon

On a sunny October morning, I was blinking back tears of pride as 39 women, hailing from poor families, some with Down syndrome, gathered on a terrace to receive certificates celebrating their completion of a handicraft and soap making training workshop supported by USAID. Atayeb el Rif (Rural Delights), a cooperative that specializes in local gourmet foods and delicacies, organized the training as part of a grant it received under the USAID Lebanon Industry Value Chain Development (LIVCD) project to enhance the economic status of women in North Lebanon.

The USAID LIVCD project is a five-year project that provides income-generating opportunities for small businesses while creating jobs for rural populations, in particular women and youth.

The USAID LIVCD project is a five-year project that provides income-generating opportunities for small businesses while creating jobs for rural populations, in particular women and youth. Photo Credit: DAI

North Lebanon, an area that has seen a large influx of Syrian refugees, had already been facing many economic challenges, most notably loss of income due to scarce employment opportunities. USAID has intensified efforts in this region to help Lebanese communities hosting Syrian refugees through targeted assistance. The grant, launched in May 2012, helps provide economic opportunities for women and youth in rural areas, and thereby decrease migration to already over populated urban areas and improve Lebanon’s economic stability. As part of the grant, a six-day training workshop, related to accessories, needle work, soap making, and soap decoration skills, was provided to 120 women in three areas in North Lebanon, Batroun, Koura, and Donnieh. In addition to the training, each woman also received a tool kit containing $150 worth of supplies, tools, beads, molds, and threads to enable them to start their own small production home-based enterprises.

I was impressed by the array of handicrafts on display, ranging from beautifully decorated soaps to beaded fabrics, done with meticulous attention to detail and most of all passion. In fact, it was easy to sense that passion as the women enthusiastically shared their stories with us. “This training opened new opportunities. I will start producing accessories soon, and I hope to be able to open my own little shop to sell them. I also plan to benefit from the project’s assistance in marketing and to attend exhibitions and fairs to display my handicrafts,” commented one of the participants. But it was a 23-year old participant with Down syndrome, whose testimonial touched all attendees as she spoke with courage and pride about the prospects of this opportunity in ensuring a better income for her family.

The USAID Lebanon Industry Value Chain Development continued support to the women after their training graduation by providing ongoing coaching. USAID also facilitated the women’s access to markets by helping them to rent space at holiday events and fairs to sell their products to generate additional income. The USAID LIVCD project is a five-year project that provides income-generating opportunities for small businesses while creating jobs for rural populations, in particular women and youth.

I walked away with a basket of beautiful soap accessories that I can hang around the house for a profusion of scents. But most of all, I walked away inspired by the determination of these women to go beyond their potential in order to be the catalysts for change and growth in their community and country.

Participants receiving their certificate of attendance. Photo Credit: DAI

Participants receiving their certificate of attendance. Photo Credit: DAI

Why support efforts to abandon Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting?

February 6th marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.

I am often asked why the Office of Population and Reproductive Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is engaged in programming that will eliminate female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). “What is the connection with family planning?” I’m asked.

“Nothing… and a lot,” is my answer.

FGM/C is a striking example of women’s lack of agency—a graphic illustration of powerlessness to make their own choices about their lives. If a girl cannot make a decision not to be cut, she also likely will not have the right to make her own informed decisions about her health, her education, or decide when and whom she marries, when to start a family, and what size that family will be. The Office of Population and Reproductive Health is engaged in FGM/C because we care about providing girls and women with the ability to decide for themselves how they will live and thrive.

When USAID first began working on the issue in the 1990s, individuals and groups in both the developing and the developed world were starting to look at the issue through the prism of women’s human and reproductive rights, as well as health. International consensus statements and treaties such as the International Commission on Population and Development (1994), the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995) and more recently, the United Nations General Assembly adoption of a resolution banning FGM/C worldwide in 2012, have made strong statements on the need to combat violence against women, including FGM/C, and have called on governments to adopt policies to prohibit the practice and to support community efforts to eliminate the practice.

While FGM/C is clearly a violation of a woman’s rights, it is a health issue as well. Studies conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) showed negative obstetric outcomes and a 2013 meta-analyses by the Norwegian Knowledge Center for the Health Services showed that prolonged labor, obstetric lacerations, instrumental delivery, obstetric hemorrhage, and difficult delivery are markedly associated with FGM/C. These results can make up the background documentation for health promotion and health care decisions that inform work to reduce the prevalence of FGM/C and improve the quality of services related to the consequences of FGM/C.

Since 1997, when WHO issued a joint statement with the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) against the practice, international attention and effort has gone into counteracting FGM/C. Of the 28 African countries where FGM/C is practiced, 22 have passed laws or provisions banning it, as have 12 industrialized countries with migrant populations from FGM/C-practicing countries. While prevalence of FGM/C has decreased, for example, from 99 percent to 97 percent in Somalia and 89 percent to 84 percent in Mali, UNICEF reports that the percentage of girls and women who reportedly want FGM/C to continue has remained constant in countries including Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal and the United Republic of Tanzania. An increasing number of women and men in practicing communities support ending the practice, yet every year millions of girls still undergo this painful and demeaning procedure.

The same elements that will transform a culture from performing FGM/C on its girl children – the values, and norms that inform the expected and accepted ways that people behave in a culture – will also bring increased acceptance for the use of contraception and information on family planning. Our work in FGM/C is as much about empowerment as it is abandonment of a practice. To quote former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spoke on Zero Tolerance Day in 2011, “All women and girls, no matter where they are born or what culture they are raised in, deserve the opportunity to realize their potential.”

Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting

February 6th marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.

While in Senegal, I had the opportunity to meet “village godmothers” who had endured Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) as young girls. Each described the raw pain of the excisor cutting her as the worst she’s ever experienced. Today, these women are standing in solidarity to prevent their daughters from being cut and advocating for reproductive health for girls in their village. With them are other activists and the government, who are working together to eliminate FGM/C in Senegal. Since the first Senegalese village publicly rejected FGM/C in 1998, more than 5,500 communities in Senegal have stopped cutting women’s genitals.

Every year, more than three million girls in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and among diaspora communities in the West are at risk of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. According to the World Health Organization, as many as 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide currently live with the consequences of this dangerous practice.

The procedure, which involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia, is largely performed on infants to girls as old as age 15. As the women I talked to in Senegal testified, it is extremely painful and generally carried out without anesthetics and  using implements ranging from kitchen knives and razor blades to cut glass and sharp rocks. The health risks are great: in the short term, death from blood loss is not uncommon, nor is serious infection that can cause long-term problems. FGM/C may result in infertility, incontinence, pregnancy complications and increased risk of obstetrical problems like fistula and infant death.

Genet, Tsiyon and their friends are the first generation in Kembata, Durame Woreda, Ethiopia, who do not have to undergo FGM/C at their young age. Their mothers are not willing to let them be cut because they have realized the consequences of that practice during their own lifetimes.

Genet, Tsiyon and their friends are the first generation in Kembata, Durame Woreda, Ethiopia, who do not have to undergo FGM/C at their young age. Their mothers are not willing to let them be cut because they have realized the consequences of that practice during their own lifetimes.

FGM/C has no basis in any religion, nor is it done for health benefits. Instead, the practice has been perpetuated for centuries through socio-cultural, psychosexual, chastity, religious and aesthetic or hygienic arguments. Almost all of these are linked to girls’ social status and marriageability and the practice is often seen as a necessary step towards womanhood. In many cultures, girls and women who are not cut are stigmatized and their families can be ostracized. The Sengalese, largely because of work done by the USAID funded non-governmental organization Tostan, created a community education program that has changed social norms. The program, the women tell me, has shown them that despite common perception that FGM/C is a good thing, it is in reality very harmful to their daughters.

USAID has supported FGM/C abandonment efforts since the 1990s, after being approached by many African women who asked why we were doing nothing about this issue. The Agency began programming and introduced an official policy that states the practice is not only a public health issue, but a violation of a woman’s right to bodily integrity. USAID assistance on this area has been a multi-faceted approach, focusing on surveillance, research, and program implementation.

The Agency has collected important information about the distribution and practice of FGM/C at the community level in 16 countries. This information is shared with all partner and donor organizations and used for decision making about program priorities and implementation approaches. A recent USAID-sponsored comparative analysis of data on FGM/C shows that although FGM/C prevalence is decreasing in many countries and among numerous communities, many girls are being cut at earlier ages and the service is increasingly performed in medical settings. To validate and improve interventions, USAID has supported important evaluations of existing programs.

When communities as a whole understand the physical and psychological trauma FGM/C causes, social transformation takes place – and this has proven to be the best way to ensure lasting support and an eventual end to the practice.

Syrian Women: Critical Partners for Peace

As negotiations to halt the violence in Syria continue, I am reminded daily of the essential role that Syrian women must play in order to resolve the crisis. Two weeks ago, I represented the U.S. Government at a high-level preparatory conference organized by UN Women and the Dutch Government to prepare women for a voice in the upcoming Geneva II talks. The compelling briefings and written declarations by delegates underscored how important women’s perspectives are to progress.

Despite their widely varying views regarding the future of Syria, the women who gathered in Geneva unambiguously called for an immediate end to violence, unfettered humanitarian access, and support of the Geneva 1 communique and diplomatic negotiations. Most importantly, their declaration also emphasized that women must participate robustly in all talks.

Syrian refugees in Ankara, Turkey

Credit: AFP/Adem Altan

I have no doubt that the perspectives of women will add breadth and depth to the conversations. Syrian women and girls are experiencing the conflict in specific ways. They are coping with sexual violence that can have a significant impact on their health, well-being, and position within their families and communities. They are assuming non-traditional roles as their husbands, fathers, and brothers go off to fight or are targeted by violence. They are facing the risk of being married off young in exchange for dowries to put food on their families’ table, or to pay rent.

Last week, Geneva II negotiations began and fortunately, for the mediators and for the Syrian people, women were included on government and opposition delegations. Today, the talks focus on enabling humanitarian aid for Homs. Women at the talks are reminding delegates that a diverse coalition of women called for medical and humanitarian aid weeks ago. These women can also help garner support for negotiations back home in Homs, in Aleppo, in Damascus and elsewhere, because they represent a constituency on the ground, living the violence every day.

The participation of these women will be invaluable because like other women before them, including in Sudan, Uganda, Iraq, and among Israelis and Palestinians, they raised unique issues during negotiations. Women focus on the need to re-establish civilian security; they emphasize the need to maintain and rebuild communities; and they focus attention on the needs and interests of the displaced. Women are well-connected to war-affected communities back home; they help create lines of communication to increase local knowledge and ownership of talks and support for negotiated solutions.

As negotiations continue, women will remain a critical resource in pushing for peace. They will be able to provide insight to the situation on the ground and best strategies for rebuilding and reuniting communities torn apart by the conflict.

It is in the global community’s own interest to ensure Syrian women’s continuing role and influence in dialog and problem-solving at both the local and national levels. Without their involvement, peace is likely to be harder to attain, more tenuous, and more fragile.

Page 1 of 24:1 2 3 4 »Last »