The International Day of the Girl is a date set aside to bolster enthusiasm and the conversation around empowering and providing for the needs of girls around the world, ensuring they are able to reach their full potential. To reflect on the importance of the day and what it stands for, Peggy Shriver, Rise Against Hunger Chief Development Officer, shared her vision for creating a brighter future for girls and women worldwide.
Q: What brought you to your role as Chief Development Officer at Rise Against Hunger?
A: I am a late recruit to the hunger fight. As a child, I was aware of the world’s poverty and hunger crisis. I remember my own mother telling me to eat all my dinner because there were starving children in Africa. And like so many of us, I had seen the commercials with emaciated tiny children living in rural villages half a world away. But it was not until I met a young girl in Hluhluwe, South Africa, that my eyes were truly opened.
Her name was Nomsa and she was in second grade. Nomsa wore a school uniform that had belonged to both of her older sisters. She seldom had shoes that fit and was reliant on the meal she was served at school for her nutrition. Despite her family’s circumstances, Nomsa opened her heart and her home and welcomed me to a family meal. Nomsa did not know she was poor, nor did she know what kind of difficult life lay ahead, and she had dreams just like every other little girl. She dreamed of becoming a singer and wearing high heels…and she was happy.
After 25 years of fundraising for very worthy causes such as cancer research, empowering people with disabilities and programs for athletes with mental retardation, I made a dramatic career change for no other reason than following a newfound passion. Now, my dream is to be out of a job! I want to raise enough money to fund enough programs that by 2030, we will have eradicated world hunger and my job will no longer exist.
Q: Why is it important for women to have a seat at the table when discussing food insecurity and hunger relief?
A: Food insecurity exists when all people, at all times, do not have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food. Women will play a vital role in solving this problem.
Given the increasing role of women in food production, our role in society as childbearers and caregivers, and the disproportionately poor economic status of women in developing countries, it is not only important for women to have a seat at the table, it will be critical in order to achieve a goal of a world without hunger.
Q: How can empowering women and positioning them in leadership roles bring sustainable change to at-risk communities?
A: Women bear much of the responsibility for meeting basic family needs in our own country and abroad. But, because of gender bias in many developing countries, women are often denied the resources, information and freedom of action they need to fulfill this responsibility. A vast majority of the world’s poor are female, and sadly, 60 percent of the world’s hungry is comprised of women and young girls. Around the world, millions of people eat two or three times a day, but a significant percentage of women eat only once. Many women deny themselves even that one meal to ensure their hungry children are fed.
As a woman in a leadership position at Rise Against Hunger, I believe empowering women to be change agents in this goal is essential to achieving the end of hunger and poverty. Studies show that when women are supported and empowered, all of society benefits. Families are healthier, more children go to school, agricultural productivity improves and incomes increase.
Looking deeper than work toward equal rights and equal pay, this argument has to do with solving a global crisis and empowering a group that research shows have and will continue to make an impact.
Take for example, studies surrounding agricultural production: Yields for women farmers are 20-30 percent lower than for men. This is because in many regions of the world, women have less access to improved seeds, fertilizers and labor reducing equipment. By simply giving women farmers more resources, we could decrease the number of people in-need in the world by 100 million.
Now, combine proven statistics and the concept of cause and effect, and one can further see the cycle of hunger and poverty starts with women. Malnourished mothers are more likely to give birth to underweight babies, and underweight babies are 20 percent more likely to die before the age of five. We know that education is key to breaking this cycle. One study indicated that increased women’s education contributed 43 percent of the reduction in child malnutrition over time, while food availability accounted for only 26 percent.
Q: How does Rise Against Hunger support women and girls around the world?
A: While education may be key, we know that many women in low-income countries face unique barriers to life-changing education and essential nutrition. Parents often keep young girls at home to care for relatives, and they are sometimes the last to eat when there is limited food and many times, young girls are married off in exchange for food or resources. For those who become mothers, a lack in education will indeed impact the new family’s ability to earn a living, which in turn will affect those children and their access to good nutrition.
Rise Against Hunger is tackling this issue on multiple fronts. We provide grants to women’s empowerment and micro-enterprise programs. We promote healthy nutrition and support for pregnant women and their babies in the first 1,000 days and we encourage sustainable agriculture for women and men alike. On the education front, we have evidence-based reports illustrating the correlation between meals provided at school and improved nutrition resulting in higher academic performance. Rise Against Hunger is not just providing meals, we are changing the future and empowering men, women and children to help themselves.
Q: How can we enable young girls to grow into empowered women?
A: Every child should be empowered to be all they can imagine. I did not dream to be a woman in a leadership role. I dreamed of doing what I wanted, what I enjoyed. My parents taught me to aspire to become what I dreamed of; not aspire to anyone’s preset limitations. As a woman and a mother, I dream of instilling that same belief in my child. When my son was in kindergarten, his teacher asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. He replied, “A scuba diver on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, a paleontologist on Tuesdays and Thursdays and a zookeeper on Saturdays.” She told him the poster board wasn’t big enough for all of that. He answered, “Can’t we get a bigger paper?”
I hope what I am doing helps children and adults to realize that dream of ending hunger and poverty by 2030. I hope young girls and boys see what all of us do in leadership roles and feel empowered to do and become what they aspire to and dream of. And if those dreams don’t all fit on one page… then I want to be there with a bigger sheet of paper!
To learn more about Rise Against Hunger’s efforts to empower girls around the world, please visit our Empowering Communities section.