June 25, 2019
WomenStrong International was founded on a core belief: that women know best what they and their families and communities need in order to thrive. If women can access the technical and financial resources to bring their plans to fruition, we know that great things will happen for them, and for us all.
This knowledge grew out of our origins in the Millennium Cities Initiative, a project I led at Columbia University’s Earth Institute for more than a decade that supported 11 sub-Saharan cities in their efforts to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
We learned in those cities that when resources were directed toward women’s priorities, remarkable progress ensued. In Kisumu, Kenya, and Kumasi, Ghana, for instance, we saw how increased savings enabled women to improve their families’ nutrition and pay their children’s school fees. Girls’ Clubs helped girls excel in school, become leaders, and qualify for national high schools. Women earned respect as they took the lead in improving their neighborhoods and markets. The hundreds of midwives and nurses we trained in Kumasi helped reduce the sky-high neonatal mortality rate across the Ashanti region by 70 percent.
When the project ended, we founded the non-profit WomenStrong International as a dedicated program to show that women-led urban initiatives can indeed transform whole communities and improve the quality of urban life, thereby accelerating the achievement of broader development goals worldwide.
Our focus on women is rooted in evidence. We know that women able to realize their full human rights are able to live healthy lives, free from violence, free to be educated, and free to make decisions regarding their own health and that of their families and communities. To focus on women is to focus on social justice — and, as our work and that of many others has compellingly demonstrated, women’s empowerment is a development imperative.
WomenStrong began by expanding the Ghana and Kenya programs, so that the girls and women there could continue their progress, as well as our geographic scope, to include organizations in India, Haiti and Washington, D.C. The tens of thousands of girls and women reached in the course of a three-year pilot acquired new job and life skills, increased their confidence in their own capabilities, and developed a strong solidarity with their peers, including in their collective ability to effect lasting change.
To understand each other’s challenges, strategies, and progress, we brought our member organizations together — for bi-monthly conference calls, peer-to-peer learning exchanges, and in-person retreats. In the course of these many conversations, we observed a compelling confluence of interests and solutions among our member organizations, in the areas of girls’ education and empowerment, women’s health and economic opportunity, and prevention of violence against women and girls.
In our fourth year, our members have doubled down on programming in these four areas and in sharing useful resources across our vastly different settings, both in person and via online discussion groups. To further disseminate this ground-truthed knowledge, WomenStrong published Strong Girls Make Strong Women, a free and downloadable comprehensive Girls’ Club curriculum compiled largely from our members’ work with girls and other best practices. Our forthcoming Mobile Women’s Health Clinics Manual is based on our members’ own last-mile systems of health care for hard-to-reach women and families.
To maximize and accelerate progress, we are now broadening our WomenStrong learning community to be truly global, enabling many more organizations and individuals to share and learn what works to help empower girls and women with sister organizations worldwide. We are eager to find, fund, nurture, and share effective, women-driven solutions to extreme urban poverty by opening our grantmaking to women-led organizations in cities across the globe that seek to pilot, replicate, or present a promising program or tool in any of our four areas of learning.
Our first cohort of Learning Lab members, working in the area of girls’ education and empowerment, will be announced imminently, to be followed in early 2020 by grants in the areas of women’s health and violence prevention, and grants furthering women’s economic opportunity by this time next year. Central to our Lab will be the new set of online tools we’ll be launching in the coming months, to support knowledge-sharing and learning among grantees and the wider WomenStrong community.
We look forward to a vibrant exchange of views, experiences, and lessons learned in implementing programs designed to free women and girls, and the boys, men, and communities that support them, to realize their rights and their fullest potential.
All of us at WomenStrong International are excited to learn and share along with our Learning Lab members. Please join us, as participants in our events, and by staying tuned to all we are doing and learning!