Last night, I attended a gala dinner for Women for Women International (WfWI) hosted by and honoring two of the most powerful women in America -Facebook COO and WfWI Board Member Sheryl Sandberg and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. WfWI works with socially excluded women in eight countries where war and conflict have devastated lives and communities. Their mission is to empower victims of war-based rape and torture to rebuild their lives and their communities.
“The best way to save a child’s life is to empower the mother,” said WfWI CEO Afshan Khan in an interview with ABC News. Khan said Clinton was chosen as WWFI’s honoree for her “incredible work” in championing women’s rights and “empowering women to build and transform societies.” Sandberg, according to Khan, has been “a very strong … and an engaged supporter for years.”
Sandberg, who is on the board of The Walt Disney Co., ABC’s parent company, presented Clinton with the “Champion of Peace Award.” Matching the evening’s theme of Stronger Women, Stronger Nations, Clinton emphasized the impact of advancing the rights of women and girls around the world.
“You cannot have real peace and security if you marginalize and exclude women,” said Clinton. “You cannot have decent, just societies if you abuse women. You cannot move on a path to democracy and open economies if you isolate and marginalize half the population. For some that was self-evident, others have had their eyes opened over the past 20 years.”
WfWI’s message to help women help themselves and their communities dovetails with Sandberg’s own nonprofit movement, “LeanIn.org,” which promotes women and girl in leadership. Sandberg talked about starting her career in development at the World Bank, where there was an old saying, “When you give money to men, they spend it on whiskey and themselves…when you give to women, they spend it on their children.”
She said, “If women and girls everywhere were treated as equal to men in rights, dignity and opportunity, we would see political and economic progress everywhere.”
In an interview with ABC News last March, Sandberg expressed her hope that Hillary Clinton would run for the highest office in U.S. government again. In that interview Sandberg said she hoped her 4-year old daughter would one day not ask her why all the past U.S. presidents are male.
“I believe if we had half our companies and half our countries run by women, and half our homes run by men, things would be better,” she said. “We know our companies would be more productive. If you use the full talents of the population, you’re more productive. We know our homes would be happier.”
Clinton reaffirmed the benefits of empowering women. “By helping women in some of the most dire circumstances…you are not only helping them, you’re helping communities and countries – helping make our world more prosperous, more peaceful.” Supporting women and girls is not just a “nice thing to do, it supports global economies,” she concluded.
According to Khan, WfWI focuses on recruiting women on the community level by identifying the most vulnerable households. “Women who enroll in our one-year program learn job skills and receive business training so they can earn a living. They come to understand their rights and how to fight for those rights in their homes, their communities and their nations. They learn how to become leaders,” said Khan.
She cited the example of Jasminka Begić, a WFWI graduate, who successfully ran for mayor last year in her municipality of Doboj-Jug, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Not only was it the first time Begić has run for office, more importantly it was also the first time in the 15 years since the end of the Bosnian War that a woman ran for the office in this municipality.
WfWI is also about connecting women with their less fortunate “sisters” living in war-torn countries. “We match sisters and sponsors together for emotional support and inspiration,” said Khan, who saw first-hand what that connection can achieve. In a trip to Afghanistan last year, Khan recalled how an older woman approached her at one of the classrooms in Kabul.
“Can you take this letter for me?” she asked. It was a beautifully written letter in Pashtu. The woman herself was illiterate but had asked her 11-year old to write it on her behalf to her sponsor. She wanted her sponsor to know about the new skill she had learned and that as a result of her training, she could now send all her four children – girls and boys – to school. “She told me I never thought that anyone – apart from my family – would care about me until I got a letter from this woman at the other end of the earth.”
Rebecca Jarvis is chief business and economics correspondent for ABC News.