By Elizabeth Yuan
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(CNN) -- In Africa, 40 first ladies have banded together to use their positions to fight HIV and AIDS.
In Kandahar, Afghanistan, an American former reporter is running a cooperative that employs both women and men to produce a line of soaps and bath oils that will eventually wind up in U.S. and Canadian stores.
Similar efforts to empower female survivors of wars and genocide are under way in dozens of other countries, thanks to organizations like the U.S.-based Women for Women International.
"Stronger women build stronger nations," Zainab Salbi, the founder of Women for Women International, has said. Last month the group won the $1.5 million Conrad Hilton Humanitarian Prize for its work in providing emotional support, financial aid, skills training and business services to women in war-torn regions.
On Tuesday, Salbi will join Rwanda's first lady Jeannette Kagame, Sarah Chayes, founder of the Afghan soap cooperative, Arghand, and other women to discuss -- among other topics -- how women can gain influence in the economic and political power structures of developing countries. They will meet at a CNN-hosted conference, the Inspire Women Summit, in New York City.
Although inroads have been made by some women in developing nations, significant gender gaps remain, particularly in access to education and employment, as well as health care, according to a United Nations report following up on the Millennium Task Force on Gender conference held in Beijing in 2000.
"The issue ... is not simply that women are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden of poverty," the report said, "but that investment in their efforts to earn a living and care for their families will both help their households as well as help to break the inter-generational transmission of poverty. Education ... is clearly important in assisting them to move out of the more exploitive margins of the labor market and into improved conditions of work."
The U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) has estimated that 117 million children worldwide do not attend school, 62 million of them girls. Ending that disparity by 2015 is one of the United Nations' eight Millennium Development Goals.
In addition to measurable differences identified in wages and education opportunities, cultural barriers in some countries make it more difficult for women to achieve status and participate in the political process, according to the report.
For Chayes' organization, Arghand, the goal is to demonstrate to Afghans and outsiders that opium doesn't have to be the country's No. 1 industry.
Although the area where she and co-op members planted roses for the soaps that they manufacture has turned into a battle zone, Chayes told CNN that orders keep coming, and she plans to hire a few more people.
Besides the empowerment that comes with making something people want to acquire, Chayes said she has seen the three males in the co-op become more comfortable with working with women and being led by a woman. Eventually, she envisions, the co-op members will be able to run it without her.
In Rwanda, where 810,000 children are orphaned, in part because of the 1994 genocide, about a quarter of a million people aged 14-19 also have HIV/AIDS, according to UNICEF. Kagame, who led the First Ladies' Campaign until this year, has been trying to mobilize the business community to respond.
The continuing HIV/AIDS crisis further complicates the landscape in many countries, according to a U.N. white paper.
"Young women are disproportionately vulnerable to infection; elderly women and young girls are disproportionately affected by the burden of care-giving in the epidemic's wake," the report said. "Gender inequality and poor respect for the human rights of women and girls are key factors in the HIV/AIDS epidemic."
Another U.N. document notes that, in the next decade, it is anticipated that "one in four women" in developing countries will become infected with HIV/AIDS, compared with "one in five" men.
In the last 15 years, women worldwide have increased their political participation -- in some countries, despite ongoing conflicts. In Iraq and Afghanistan, about a quarter of the parliamentary seats are occupied by women. Still, increasing participation among those "with the most direct stake in outcomes of policies and programs" is a key part of the follow up to the Beijing conference agenda. The share of seats in global national assemblies, according to one U.N. report, is approximately 16 percent.
"Institutional changes are needed in civil society, the media, political parties, legislatures, and the judicial system, in order to support women's policy agendas and to make the transition from policies to practice," says Anne Marie Goetz, a U.N. adviser on governance, peace and security.
In Liberia, where a long civil war ended three years ago with 200,000 people dead, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became her country's first female president and Africa's first female head of state. Johnson-Sirleaf will be among the women featured at the Inspire Women Summit.
During the gathering, the women from the developing nations will meet with some women from the United States who have achieved roles of influence in government, business, public health, arts and the military. They include: author Eve Ensler; AIDS advocate and pastor Kay Warren; Marine Col. Adele Hodges, the first female commanding officer of Camp Lejeune; and philanthropist Susan Dell.
Featured will be three representatives from San Francisco, a city that has women serving as its police chief, fire department chief and district attorney: Tammy Fong, Joanne Hayes-White, and Kamala Harris.
Harris, the first African-American woman in California history to hold the district attorney job, told CNN that domestic violence began to be taken seriously as a crime only in the last 25 years, as women gained more equality, particularly in law enforcement.
"It's by no coincidence that as women became police officers and lawyers and judges that we started to say that ... beating up a woman is a crime."
Today, one in six American women has been the victim of rape or attempted rape, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women.
Kay Warren, a two-time cancer survivor, gets asked why she and her pastor husband Rick Warren should care about AIDS. In a commentary she wrote for CNN.com in July, she pointed out that "HIV/AIDS carries a stigma unlike cancer or most other diseases." It can lead to the loss of a job, housing, and even divorce or beatings for women, Warren wrote.
In November, she and her husband's Saddleback Church will host a Global Summit on AIDS and the Church to challenge Christians to do more.
Ending violence against women and girls is the issue at the heart of V-Day, which has raised more than $35 million so far. Created in 1998 by Ensler, the author of "The Vagina Monologues," V-Day coincides with Valentine's Day and spotlights areas worldwide where women are experiencing violence.
One panelist at the CNN Inspire Summit has been subjected to a fatwa, or death sentence by religious decree. Ayaan Hirsi Ali fled Somalia -- and what she says was an arranged marriage -- for the Netherlands, where she later became a member of Parliament. Her controversial 2004 film "Submission" was a criticism of how women are treated under Islam and drew death threats. Her filmmaking colleague, Theo van Gogh, was murdered.
Ensler's new play, "The Good Body," isn't treading on that territory. Rather, it examines how women of all cultures and backgrounds obsess about their bodies and, as Ensler puts it, "fix, hide, bury their bodies in order to be good."
And Ensler said the time to do that isn't now, given the war and escalating threats.
"I think women need to take all the energy and time and money we are spending fixing ourselves, and we need to take back the world," she told CNN.
CNN's Brooke Anderson and Betsy Anderson contributed to this report.
Zainab Salbi is the founder of Women for Women International. Last month the group won the $1.5 million Conrad Hilton Humanitarian Prize for its work.
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