<< back home

Women Bring Change

by Leah Kaplan Robins

Women shoulder poverty’s heaviest burdens. In countries around the world, they are far more likely than men to be poor, malnourished and illiterate. They face disproportionate levels of HIV infection and lack of access to medical care. Discriminatory laws and cultural norms often prohibit them from owning land or opening lines of credit. And despite their role in educating the next generation, women in developing countries, on average, have fewer educational opportunities than their brothers, spouses or sons.1 The truth is that as many as 70 percent of the global poor are women,2 and their poverty is exacerbated by alarming levels of violence, disease and discrimination.

Yet despite these hurdles, women are society’s most effective agents of change. In his address to ‘Women 2000,’ a special session of the UN General Assembly, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said: “Study after study has confirmed that there is no development strategy more beneficial to society as a whole—women and men alike—than one which involves women as central players.”3

In many cases, what prevents women from assuming this role is their lack of access to resources—whether it’s concrete things like funding, supplies and land, or intangibles like education and access to decision-making power. But when women have the tools, materials and know-how, they are extraordinarily effective organizers.

Women are behind some of the most successful movements for human rights worldwide. They have overturned discriminatory laws, built schools and support networks, and used the soil in their own backyards to feed their communities. And when women are able to access their rights, attain education and health care and live their lives without violence, they pass these freedoms on to the next generation.

Because empowering women and girls has such a ripple effect, AJWS puts special emphasis on funding grassroots organizations that prioritize women. This year, 259 of our 458 grantees support programs that tackle some of the most difficult issues facing women and girls today. In El Salvador, for example, where women farmers face discrimination in the marketplace and a lack of land and capital, an organization called ACAMG (Asociación Cooperativa “Marta González”) gives micro-loans to hundreds of women to buy, raise and breed livestock and start independent local farms. In Liberia, still reeling in the aftermath of its 1999 – 2003 civil war, WIPSEN (Women Peace and Security Network Africa) promotes women’s involvement and leadership in peacebuilding. In Bolivia, where indigenous women often experience dual discrimination for both their ethnicity and their gender, Colectivo Rebeldía (“Rebellion Collective”), organizes women to play an active role in social change efforts and confront deeply held and discriminatory gender norms.

Thanks to efforts like these, women’s leadership is on the rise. Women are orchestrating social change in every sector and at every level. They are defending water rights, land rights and labor rights; promoting disaster relief, conflict resolution and peacebuilding; demanding better education, health care and social services; and advocating for equality for indigenous people, sexual minorities and refugees. And they are doing these things not only on behalf of women, but on behalf of their entire communities.

Fourteen-year-old Iddrisu Rahinatu, a student at RAINS, a Ghana-based organization that works with adolescent girls, sums up the power of women as changemakers: “If the life of women in the community is improved, the whole community stands to benefit.”

This principle has been proved in practice again and again in development efforts around the world. When women are empowered to reject abuse and to pursue their rights, they pave the way for change in other realms—fighting poverty, disease and violence and advancing human rights for everyone. Thus, in order to combat the challenges facing so many communities in the developing world, we must first confront the inequalities that keep half the population from realizing their potential. Only then will change come.


  1. Kofi Annan, UN Press release: http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2000/20000605.sgsm7430.doc.html
  2. United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), “Women, Poverty & Economics,” 2010: http://www.unifem.org/gender_issues/women_poverty_economics
  3. UN Press release: http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2000/20000605.sgsm7430.doc.html

<< back home

Download AJWS Reports

Share AJWS Reports

Donate to AJWS

Your contribution helps empower grassroots leaders and organizations around the world to advance human dignity, civil rights and self-determination.

About AJWS

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is an international development organization motivated by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice. AJWS is dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among the people of the developing world regardless of race, religion or nationality. Through grants to grassroots organizations, volunteer service, advocacy and education, AJWS fosters civil society, sustainable development and human rights for all people, while promoting the values and responsibilities of global citizenship within the Jewish community.

AJWS has received an “A” rating from the American Institute of Philanthropy since 2004 and a four-star rating from Charity Navigator for nine years. AJWS also meets all 20 of Better Business Bureau’s standards for charity accountability.


Join the chorus on Global Voices, AJWS’s new blog about grassroots development and global justice.

More than a million people have viewed Judd Apatow’s hilarious celebrity-studded video satirizing AJWS and Jewish identity. See what everyone’s talking about!

Watch President Bill Clinton, Paul Farmer, Rabbi David Ellenson and other prominent leaders in a video birthday toast to Ruth Messinger. www.ajws.org/ruthtribute

Coming this fall! “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” an exhibit presented by AJWS and the L.A. Skirball Cultural Center.

American Jewish World Service | 45 West 36th Street | New York, NY 10018 | t: 212.792.2900 | 800.889.7146 | f: 212.792.2930

Site Map | News | Contact Us | Privacy Policy | Jobs

© 2011 American Jewish World Service. All rights reserved.