Women in Developing Countries: Sowing the Seeds for the Future | Wilson Center

Women in Developing Countries: Sowing the Seeds for the Future

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Webcast Recap

On July 30, 2010, Wilson Center on the Hill sponsored an event looking at the challenges faced by women in developing countries, and how the United States can shape a new, more effective development policy that recognizes the key role of women. Sheri Fink, a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Senior Fellow, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, moderated the discussion.

Sarah Degnan Kambou, President of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), opened her remarks by identifying the primary problems facing women in developing countries, which range from an unmet need for contraceptives to illiteracy to lack of political representation. Furthermore, "women do most of the world's work for the least compensation and also tend to lack access to land, property, or credit." Degnan Kambou stressed that addressing these issues is crucial to the future of many developing countries.

Indeed, the benefits of healthy and educated girls and women are manifold and interrelated. For example, girls who are healthy tend to stay in school, and girls who attend school have lower rates of HIV and are afforded greater job opportunities and earning potential. Moreover, women who earn income spend more on their families than men do; "a child's probability of survival is increased by 20 percent when household income is controlled by the mother rather than the father." Thus, healthy, educated, and economically-empowered women drive progress in one of the most important ways by having fewer, healthier children who will stay in school longer and eventually contribute to economic growth and sustainable development.

Degan Kambou stressed that more investment in women and girls is needed, especially in the areas of health, education, economic opportunities, and political participation. Research on gender and development issues, sex-disaggregated data, and advocacy are all keys to empowering women, which, as Degnan Kambou pointed out, is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do.

Robin Lerner, Counsel for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, rounded out the discussion by pointing out how the U.S. Congress can take steps to help women in developing countries. The manner in which the U.S. government approaches women's issues will ultimately affect the "effectiveness of foreign policy and the effectiveness of aid" and is therefore of utmost importance. However, Lerner first identified some of the organizational problems that are impeding an effective U.S. response. For example, at the U.S. Department of State should there be a single Office of Global Women's Issues or a bureau in each sector office or agency?

Lerner pointed out that the necessity of improving the status of women in developing countries is a bipartisan issue and understood by Congress, NGOs, the World Bank, and U.S. State Department. The main obstacle is getting the specific countries to implement change. She stressed that women are not exclusively victims; it is imperative to "acknowledge that women are drivers of change and development" as well. Given that, Lerner identified some of the main linkages between women's issues and other international matters. For example, in Africa in particular, over 70 percent of farmers and small business owners are women; it is therefore vital to integrate women into the whole value chain. Moreover, the status of women is intricately linked to agriculture, conservation, national resources, education and security. Ultimately, violence against women prevents the attainment of other goals, such as national security or effective infrastructure.

The two experts also highlighted several U.S. policy opportunities, including the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act, the International Violence Against Women Act, and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) among others. In terms of policy, the message must be written in such a way that it can be articulated well from the international to the national to the community level. Furthermore, the international community must be cognizant that customary and societal practices are stronger than an unknown international law; gender equitability is a long process. Oftentimes, the best assistance that the U.S. can give is through empowering and funding NGOs, training local police forces, and championing legal reform.

In closing, both panelists stressed the importance of the U.S. Congress in changing the condition of women in developing countries. Degnan Kambou pointed out that American laws can direct focus and attention and put money behind women's issues, which, as Lerner asserted are not just women's issues; they are the world's issues.

Drafted By Monica Schager.


  • Robin Lerner

    Senior Policy Advisor and Counselor to the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, U.S. Department of State
  • Sarah Degnan Kambou

    President, International Center for Research on Women