By Lynne Stockstad, General Manager, Worldwide Public Sector, Microsoft

“Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world,” Larry Summers wrote as chief economist of the World Bank. As someone who has worked for years in the traditionally male-dominated IT industry, I wholeheartedly agree in the importance of providing women and girls with the education and opportunity to achieve their potential.

Every year on March 8th, International Women’s Day, we celebrate the progress made towards achieving gender equality, but also reflect on the many changes still needed. Great strides have been made in the past century towards female equality, but inequality persists in many areas like access to education and health, while many economic sectors and career paths remain dominated by men.

At the United Nations, UN Women is leading the commemoration of International Women’s Day. At Microsoft, we work with many UN organizations at the frontline of supporting women’s rights and gender equality. By developing innovative programs and campaigns, often with partners from civil society and the private sector, these organizations are having a real impact on providing women and girls with opportunities and a voice.

On International Women’s Day I wanted to share some of the outstanding work the United Nations has underway to address gender inequality.

UN Women

UN Women is leading United Nations efforts to ensure equal participation for women in all aspects of life, with a special focus in 2012 on their economic empowerment and political participation.

The World Economic Forum’s research on 134 countries has found that countries with greater gender equality have economies that are more competitive and grow faster. To promote gender equality in the private sector, UN Women, together with the UN Global Compact, has developed the Women’s Empowerment Principles, a set of actions companies can take to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community.

Women hold only 19.5 percent of seats in parliaments, still far below 30 percent recognized as the critical mass needed to advance a gender equality agenda. UN Women is working with partners to support electoral law reform around the world to facilitate the inclusion of women as candidates and voters and provide training for women candidates.

UNESCO

UNESCO, the lead UN organization for education, has led a variety of female empowerment-focused programs to ensure future generations of women and girls have the skills and education needed to compete for jobs and improve their livelihoods.

A UNESCO-supported eco-friendly textile dyeing factory in Bamako, Mali is providing employment to 200 women, trained to use new equipment and empowered to manage the site themselves. The new facility has not only reduced health hazards for women working in the factory, but they’re also exporting their products throughout the surrounding sub-region.

IWD-UNESCO Mali

Pictured is Mariko Awa Bamba, a fabric dyer in the Dianéguéla district, in Bamako, Mali. Copyright: © Lâm Duc Hiên

To encourage women in science, UNESCO partnered with L’Oreal 14 years ago to establish the Women in Science Programme, which seeks to recognize women researchers through awards and fellowships who have contributed to overcoming the global challenges of tomorrow.

Using the power of community radio, UNESCO is giving women in Nepal a voice by supporting the woman-operated and -managed Radio Nari Aawaj. The station broadcasts daily discussions on contemporary matters like health, employment, women’s rights and environmental issues. As one regular listener to Radio Nari Aawaj said, “for the first time, we have the possibility to voice our opinions and concerns and to be heard. We can speak for ourselves and not just through someone else.”

IWD- UNESCO Nepal-Radio Station

Nepal – Radio Aawaj signboard Copyright: ©UNESCO/Terhi Ylikosk

 

WFP

Meanwhile, the world’s largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger, World Food Programme (WFP) is spearheading efforts to empower women as a critical means of improving food security and fighting hunger globally. Far too often, women have unequal access to resources, education and income, and participate less in decision-making.

WFP’s Women4Women campaign aims to fight hunger and malnutrition amongst women by providing nutritious meals to school girls and pregnant or new mothers.

One of the girls receiving free school meals through WFP is 12 year old Molly, pictured below.

Molly at lunch 1

Copyright: © WFP Rein Skullerud

Molly’s World’ is a collection of videos showing scenes from her daily life growing up in the slums of Nairobi, showing how similar girls like Molly are to other teen girls all around the world. Take Molly’s quiz and provide a nutritious meal to a young boy or girl in school.

 

UNHCR

Refugee and displaced women face a multitude of challenges and barriers to work, including legal restrictions, physical and psychological trauma, and lack of financial resources. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) initiates programs to enhance the economic independence and rights of refugee and displaced women and girls.

As part of its ‘Women Leading for Livelihoods’ campaign, UNHCR staged a series of Regional Dialogues with more than 1,000 forcibly displaced women and girls living in countries as diverse as India, Colombia, Jordan, Uganda, Zambia, Thailand and Finland, with the aim of giving female refugees a voice.

The annual Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative (DAFI), funded by the German Government and UNHCR, support tertiary education for refugees, including many women and girls. In 2011, DAFI enabled 1,680 students to pursue higher education in 40 countries. DAFI has helped women like Lemma, an Afghan refugee living with her family in Russia since age 2. Now 21, she works as a nurse in the outpatient clinic of Magee WomanCare International, UNHCR's partner organization that provides medical services to refugees and asylum-seekers.

 

 

At Microsoft, in addition to the work we support through partnerships around the world, we also have programs aimed at reducing education gaps and gender inequality in otherwise male dominated fields. The DigiGirlz Technology Program, for example, provides girls with the opportunity to improve their technology skills through courses such as Visual Basic and HTML programming. Since its inception in 2000, the program has grown each year and now reaches more than 3,700 students worldwide.

 

These programs are just a few examples of the scope and diversity of action being taken to address gender inequality, and I find it encouraging that so much progress is being made across the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Through continued effort and committed partnerships, there is hope that we will help future generations of women face even fewer barriers to making a real impact.

Find out more about International Women’s Day here.