Empowering Women to Fight Poverty

Dear Friend,

Each Mother's Day, we honor the women who have made an impact in our lives. We celebrate the love we have received and the sacrifices they have made on our behalf.

Around the world, women play an important role in providing for their families and doing much of the work that sustains them. In so many societies and cultures, much of the daily burden falls to women, as they work in the fields, do domestic chores and care for children. Many women do not just care for their own children, but often take on responsibility for relatives' or even neighbors' children who need loving care to survive.

It is women who keep families intact through the trials of poverty, civil conflict and natural disaster. And it is to women that a disproportionate burden of poverty falls. It is estimated that 70 percent of the 1 billion people living in extreme poverty are women. It is clear that if we do not help women, real change can't happen.

In our work of fostering sustainable development, one of our aims is to empower women through programs that improve their health, increase their access to education and offer them better opportunities to make a living.

In the developing world, waterborne diseases are a major cause of infant mortality and are a general threat to good health. But in the rural areas where Catholic Relief Services works, the closest source of clean water could be miles away. Imagine lugging a heavy jerry can full of water for that distance! Yet women, and even children, must do this every day. It's a tremendous burden. Some children lose so much time and are so tired that they end up missing school or dropping out altogether.

In Ethiopia, CRS has provided the Ethiopian Catholic Church with rigs to drill boreholes to provide clean, safe drinking water to millions of people. It's a good start, but more are needed. I was in Ethiopia recently with award-winning broadcaster Charles Osgood. Charles is a great friend of CRS. I was able to show him how CRS takes an integrated approach to providing clean water, adequate sanitation and health services that dramatically improve the quality of life.

Education is also an important way to improve the lives of girls and young women. One way we encourage school attendance is by providing a hot meal each day as an incentive for parents to send their children to class. This is particularly effective in increasing school attendance for girls. Parents often need more incentive to send girls to school rather than keeping them to work around the house.

This simple hot meal has evolved into a comprehensive approach combining the food with activities that focus on improving access to education, especially for girls. These activities include providing support for teachers, offering health education and medical services, constructing and improving school facilities, and increasing parental and community involvement in schools.

Women are often the poorest members of a community and control the fewest resources. But with more assets, they often do the most to impact their families and communities for the better. That's why it's important to invest in women and their livelihoods.

Through our microfinance programs, CRS aims to help empower poor people, especially women, by providing access to financial services, particularly small loans. Microfinance programs have had an especially high profile since Muhammad Yunus, whom many consider the father of microfinance, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. CRS has been involved in microfinance since 1988. We've established a solid track record of helping the entrepreneurial poor get their feet on the ground in cities, towns or densely populated rural areas.

In India, for example, microfinance is administered through what we call “self-help groups.” These are clusters of up to 20 people, mostly women (generally, about 90 percent of self-help group members are women). These groups link women in rural communities to banks for credit services, and promote women's empowerment. They provide a positive, beneficial way to overcome the discrimination that, for so long, has restricted women's rights and opportunities for development. This economic empowerment has also led to civic and political empowerment. Members of self-help groups are involved in peacebuilding activities, like campaigns to stop alcohol abuse and spousal abuse. And hundreds of women in self-help groups have been elected to offices in their villages.

Through initiatives like these, we hope to make a significant contribution to ending the crippling reality of poverty for women and their families around the world.

Thank you for your continued support and your prayers.

Ken Hackett

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