Empowering women

We need a Jewish sisterhood for global change

Over the past year I’ve often thought about an encounter I had two decades ago when I was pregnant with my first daughter. I was in the Old City in Jerusalem and needed to find a restroom. When I got to the entrance, I encountered a Roma woman, not more than 20 years old, lovingly bathing her three toddlers outside. She and I could not be more different. She was dressed in rags, clearly in need, and beset by worries. I was ever the intellectual Jerusalemite with my designer glasses and lofty ideals.    

Yet as I was passing by her, she reached out to me. She touched my swollen belly and looked me in the eyes with a huge smile on her face. I smiled back, we shed a joyful tear, and an understanding solidified between us. We two, so far apart in so many ways, truly saw each other—as women, as mothers, and as people whose lives would forever be altered because one reached out to the other.    

The pandemic has us yearning for those fundamental connections that empower us. For many, they were always readily available, and remain so, even now from a distance. But for that Roma woman, and millions like her around the world, such support networks were absent before COVID-19 and are desperately needed now as it ravages societies and economies. Women and girls, who represent 70% of the 1.3 billion people in poverty globally, are particularly susceptible to economic decline and other crises causing deep insecurity.    

On this International Women’s Day, I’m calling on the Jewish community and Israel to recognize the critical role we can play in building these connections and impactful interventions empowering women and girls. Some may question why we, without limited resources and challenges of our own, should engage in this work outside our community. In truth, we could turn our backs and plod on alone. But if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that we are all connected to one another and the welfare of a single person can mean the difference between life and death to countless others.    

Engaging in this work – a special obligation for Jews given our passion for tikkun olam and unique expertise in humanitarian work developed by caring for our own people throughout history – requires us to double down on three ideas:   

1) Investing in women is investing in change-makers. We know that women occupy central roles in the lives of their families and communities, even if they are disenfranchised. When given tools for advancement in a variety of areas, they become powerful agents of social and economic change, working from the grassroots upwards. The reverberations of changes in the lives of women have outsized consequences. The UN has noted that women’s inclusion and participation in political and peace-making processes increases the chances of agreements having longer durations and being more meaningfully carried out with lasting change. Similarly, the IMF has made it clear gains in gender equality and womens’ participation in economic life increases financial growth and better health, education, and resilience in their communities. We therefore need to partner directly with women to ensure change happens and fast.    

2) Investing in womens livelihoods is key to lifting lives and communities. The World Bank estimates that if women had the same lifetime earnings as men, global wealth could increase by $172 trillion. When income is put into the hands of women, improvements follow in family nutrition, health, education and overall economic development. We see this in India where my organization, JDC, partnered with the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), to build a cooperative of women in agriculture to further their economic capacity and social standing. In the last year, we’ve helped them increase their incomes, encouraged them to develop new business areas, and today, this highly successful coop has grown to include 1,000 women.    

Our success in India has inspired us to launch a new pilot called Imagine More in rural Africa to create a similar cadre of female entrepreneurs, but with viable businesses based on renewable energy—such as selling cooking stoves fueled by bio-gas from discarded coffee husks or using the stoves to prepare and sell goods like bread. We’ll do this by deploying technology, micro-loans, mentoring, training, and building a growing network of women working in these areas. Together we’ll transform local economies, the prospects for women’s families, and upend challenges including endemic poverty, limited education for women and girls, and climate change.    

3) Jewish women are perfectly positioned for building a global sisterhood empowering other women and strengthening our collective future. We are blessed to have a long history of inspired Jewish women leaders who have distinguished themselves in business, philanthropy, politics, medicine, and culture. In Jewish communities and Israel, women are often forerunners for social change, at the heart of efforts advancing the needs of the most vulnerable, and leading our religious and community institutions.    

They are also the ultimate connection-makers who understand what can happen when a chance is given to another woman to break barriers and succeed. We need to harness that expertise to improve the lives of women and girls around the world by creating a global sisterhood of Jewish women from North America and Israel serving as mentors to women in the developing world. Through meaningful cross-cultural connections, we’ll match the know-how of Jewish women in business and social sectors with the ingenuity and passion of vulnerable women to ensure transformation on a global scale.    

Realizing these goals is the real opportunity for International Women’s Day in 2021. The world may look different than it did when we last celebrated, but we’ve sharpened our understanding that physical distance is not a barrier to connection and our “neighbors” extend even to a small village thousands of miles away. As Jews, we understand this kind of global interconnectedness and know that when we reach out beyond the bounds of our own backyards – to women all around the world – the possibilities are endless. 

Avital Sandler-Loeff is the director for disaster relief and international development at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).