Ritu Sharma is co-founder and president of the U.S.- based nonprofit Women Thrive Worldwide and has been a leading voice on global women’s issues for more than 20 years. She is author of the recently released book, Teach a Woman to Fish: Overcoming Poverty Around the Globe. It was my pleasure to have the opportunity to talk to her about the book and her thoughts on how we can further promote female empowerment and secure a more equitable world.
What was the impetus for writing Teach a Woman to Fish?
Ritu: This book comes at a seminal moment for women and girls. In a lot of places, people —and policymakers especially—are beginning to have tough conversations about how the world really treats women and girls. The violence and injustices have been going on for millennia, but we have reached a tipping point where women and our male allies are not going to stand for it anymore.
What I wanted to do by writing this book was highlight the women and girls around the globe – and there are around 829 million of them – who are in deep, excruciating poverty, but are overcoming it every day.
These are women who are scraping by on little more than US $1 a day. And yet, they are finding ways to break through the barriers, and to break free of their circumstances to give themselves and their families better lives.
Is poverty the singular global issue that should top our list of priorities?
I’d say yes, and so would a lot of other people. The reality is that poverty is at the root of just about every ill the world has. Poverty is at the crux of many conflicts, gender-based violence, disease, environmental distress, and so much more.
Poverty also creates the perfect fertile ground for terrorist groups like Boko Haram, which has kidnapped hundreds of women and children in the last few months in Nigeria.
Some will certainly say that—from a national security standpoint—Britain and the U.S. should be more focused on places such as Syria than taking on a global issue like poverty. But from my viewpoint, global poverty is a national security issue just as much as it’s an economic issue and a moral one. The poorest countries today are the Afghanistans of tomorrow.
Empowering women is at the heart of this effort because women not only disproportionately experience poverty, but also because women invest what little they have directly back into their families and communities.
As the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Well, when you teach a woman to fish, everyone eats for a lifetime.
It is a big task, can it be done?
It’s an enormous undertaking. But in so many parts of the world poverty is about powerlessness, it’s not a permanent condition we should just live with. One important way that we can all help end poverty is to add our power to the mix.
That means calling your elected officials and urging that foreign policy prioritize programs for women and girls. Or, as another example, using the power of the purse and only shopping at stores that source their products ethically.
At the end of each section in the book, I list four to five things that the reader can do to help women in countries across the globe. The actions are specific and concrete, don’t take much time, and they will make a difference.
If Hillary Clinton decides to run for President, do you think this will help?
Hillary Clinton did more than any other U.S. Secretary of State to advance women’s rights globally. That’s without a doubt. But what I’ve learned over the years is that when a new leader comes to power, they can—and sometimes do—erase their predecessor’s efforts.
The long-term solution for women and girls has to be about more than who leads at a given point in history. Laws on the books outlive presidents and prime ministers. That’s why, in the United States right now, we’re fighting for bills like the International Violence Against Women Act.
But if there’s one take-away from this book, it’s that people have power and worth. The poorest women around the globe are showing their grit each day, and now it’s incumbent on us to stand with them for the long haul.
We know what the solutions are to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in just a generation. We now have to do it.
Follow Ritu Sharma: @RituThrive