Helen was an orphan whose parents had died of AIDS. The father of her child was not in the picture. Alone, without family, husband, or money to afford an education, Helen had no resources to care for her baby, or her two younger siblings.
The time I spent with Helen taught me more about the constrictions and hardships of women in developing nations than anything I have ever read, before or since. It was heartbreaking to watch as she tried to take care of her little family.
Seeing no way forward in her home country, Helen eventually left her daughter and younger siblings in the care of others to seek employment as a domestic laborer overseas, putting herself at huge risk of mistreatment as a migrant worker on her own. After that, I did not hear from her again.
Since becoming a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme
, I have witnessed how relentless and harrowing this cycle of poverty is for women and girls around the world. But I have also witnessed instances when the cycle was broken.
This summer I traveled to Rwanda, where I met a woman named Marie Claire from the Musanze district in the north of the country. Just a year earlier, her family had no housing and couldn't afford food or clothes.
But through a program supported by the UNDP, Marie Claire was among 30 members of her community, mostly women, who teamed up to form a savings group. While no formal financial institution in the country would have ever considered Marie Claire for a loan, the savings group gave her the money she needed to start growing beans. In three months, after harvesting and selling her crop and paying off her loan, she had enough money to buy metal sheets for a roof.
Another three months and another loan later, she was growing and selling maize, and had made enough money to pay off the second loan and build a house for her family. She could have been destined for a life of poverty and hopelessness due to circumstances of birth and gender, and yet, in just six months, Marie Claire rewrote her own destiny.
The most powerful part of her story was the sense of pride she conveyed, with tears in her eyes, as she talked about being able to feed her children, house her family, and become a respected member of her community. As a woman.
Women and girls are disproportionately affected by poverty. Women make up just 10% of the world's income even though they do 66% of the world's work. And 60% of people affected by chronic hunger are women and girls. That is a work force, an intelligence source, and a catalyst for change that is being held down and not being utilized
So when we talk about empowering women, we do so in the most literal way, because that empowerment could help create massive growth and transformation in the world on every level. When we empower women to take control of their lives, their finances and their futures, entire families, communities and nations benefit from the domino effect. More children go to school, families are healthier and incomes increase. Around the world.
In a sense, the difference between Helen's story and Marie Claire's story is next to nothing: The average loan from Marie Claire's savings group is just $11. And yet the difference in the quality of their lives and lives of their families is incalculable.
I have witnessed these life-changing results during my travels with UNDP. And yet in 2016, half a billion women around the world still cannot read
, 62 million girls are denied the right to education, and 155 countries have laws that discriminate against women. Helen's story is still being told.
But more women are telling stories like Marie Claire's, and demonstrating that investment in women is investment in our collective future. And that, in fact, women have the power to change the world. For all of us.