Women's Networks Transform Lives

When Hillary Clinton and the head of U.N. Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka show up for a report launch, it's a big deal. That's just what happened when the World Bank released its report Voice and Agency: Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity.

Pulling from enormous amounts of data and research, the report addresses inequalities women and girls face around the globe -- from gender-based violence, education, lack of economic opportunity and unequal protection under the law.

But what also struck me was the focus on women's collectives and the power of collective action. It's something I've seen first hand with women who work in farming and agriculture. Yet, few reports or programs give women's collectives the credit or attention they deserve.

We all know that when women are able to meet, they network and share their experience, their wisdom and their resources. The results are telling too. According to the World Bank report, "when women participate in self-help groups and other participatory development programs, increased agency accompanies economic outcomes." Further research shows that empowered women use their income to feed, educate and care for their children -- and in turn they have the ability to lift their families and communities out of poverty.

Just a few months ago my friend, Lydia Sasu, announced incredible news. Lydia leads a women's farming and fishing collective called Development Action Association (DAA) in Ghana. The collective operates in nearly 50 communities and addresses the needs of women living in poverty. DAA has successfully built schools, childcare centers and women's organizations. But their most recent success will reach far beyond what usually falls under "women's work."

When Lydia called recently, DAA had just convinced the Ghanaian government to translate its fishing laws into local languages. This might seem like a small feat but it represents an incredible victory.

Because of this simple translation, thousands of fishermen and women will now have direct access to the laws that govern and regulate their industry. Everyone dependent on this trade can now understand -- in their own language -- the rules and regulations that control the fishing industry and their livelihood.

The change is a direct response to dynamite and illegal commercial fishing, which has decimated the ability of locals to survive on the fishing industry. For generations local Ghanaians have relied on the daily catch to support their families. But in recent years, it became impossible to compete with the power of commercial fishing boats trolling the waters just out of their reach. The government responded to concerned communities by taking steps to prevent such detrimental fishing, but laws can only do so much when locals don't understand them and are unable to assist in enforcement.

The women of DAA spent years pushing the government to translate these laws. Of course, it will take time to realize the true effects from this action. And in this circumstance, men and women who work in the fishing industry will also need enforcement help from the government.

Those who have been fighting for their share of the fishing industry now have the full force of the law behind them -- in their own dialect. A first step, yes, but a transformational one.

In this instance, it was the advocacy of a women's cooperative that made the difference for both men and women. Women working together collectively creates the ability to ignite cultural and community change -- and to even shift government policy.

Collectives often act as the voice of those who aren't being heard. These are women and men at the very bottom of the pyramid -- most of whom live on less than US $2 a day.

This is economic empowerment.