03/08/2016 01:35 EST | Updated 03/09/2017 05:12 EST

Gender Equality Spices Up The Global Economy

In this photo taken Monday, Sept. 23, 2013, a woman strings peppers preparing themt for drying in the village of Donja Lokosnica, 200 kilometers (125 Miles) south of Serbian capital, Belgrade. The village, Donja Lokosnica is well known for its bell and chilli peppers, which local residents make into paprika spice. Out in the fields, peppers - which only grow close to the banks of the Juzna Morava river - are first picked before being transported to the village to be strung from countless buildings and houses. With every house - including roofs, garages and walls - covered in peppers, each establishment produces around 2-3 tonnes of paprika each year. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

By Joanne Gassman

It's International Women's Day and what better way to celebrate than to take a bite of a sweet, red chili pepper.

You may not know it, but these can be a critical ingredient of women's empowerment. Well, they're actually a critical ingredient for picante de pollo, a popular chicken dish in Bolivia. But stay with me and I promise this will become clear shortly.

A couple years ago, I travelled to this Latin American country to see first-hand CARE Canada's Tukuy Yanapana development project. Funded by the Canadian government as well as a group of dedicated women volunteers in Vancouver called I Am Powerful Vancouver, this initiative has worked for the past three years to help improve the lives of more than 54,000 people.

How is this done? Through an emphasis on gender equality.

In Bolivia and across the world, structural barriers often prevent women from reaching their full potential and helping lift their countries out of poverty.

It has been estimated that women earn 24 per cent less than men globally and 60 per cent of the world's working poor are female.

Cultural norms, legal hurdles and limited rights prevent too many women from opportunities to become more self-sufficient and have a stronger voice in key decision-making.

In Bolivia, where CARE works, women traditionally were not considered key actors in local economic development. They were left out of decision-making. Those who had small businesses had trouble accessing public funds and said they felt isolated and on their own to support their income generating activities.

Imagine trying to start your own business in your city if you were unable to access any support, influence decisions or raise your voice if you wanted to make a difference.

Changing how women access economic opportunities at the local level in Bolivia is a complex mixture of addressing gender roles both in the household and community, tearing down barriers that prevent women from accessing markets and finding ways to support municipal governments to cultivate business development. In many cases, these local governments do want to help, but lack the resources to open the doors for new entrepreneurs.

As part of the Tukuy Yanapana project (which means "we all collaborate"), CARE has worked with families, local associations and municipalities to foster a climate that allows women to participate fully in local economic development. And play a real leadership role.

This project began in 2012 and focused on four municipalities. Through this work, CARE has seen tangible improvements in local economic development for both women and men. Producers have earned more profit thanks to better business planning and local governments have been able to find new ways to encourage growth and cut the red tape holding women back.

Such results have a rippling effect as many people I spoke to in my travels noted that with increased income they would ensure their children received a better education. And we know that each year at school increases a girl's future earnings by up to 20 per cent.

These achievements coupled with CARE's previous learnings were shared with the Government of Bolivia, which has taken CARE's approach to gender equality and now extended it across the country in their new official guide to local economic development. This important document will provide a framework for more women to earn money, become self-sufficient and lift themselves from poverty.

Of course, this is just a starting point to improving gender equality. But as women in Canada know, change comes through important increments, inspired by strong female role models able to guide the way forward for a new generation.

This includes women like Paulina León Morales. She is 50 years old and is the proud president of her local agricultural association, named APA, which produces and packages many of the traditional foods that Bolivians love so much.

Her association has worked to bring local farmers together to pool their efforts to sell their produce. Through Paulina's leadership and APA's better business planning, they expect to see production increase in the coming years by 40 per cent, which translates into a significant profit for the farmers in her community.

This boost in production will include red chilies, which can be ground into spice and are a pivotal ingredient to Bolivia's national dish. Such little peppers are proof that with a focus on gender equality you can add more flavour to any country.

Joanne Gassman is the chair of I Am Powerful Vancouver, a local group of volunteer women committed to raising funds for CARE Canada. In celebration of International Women's Day, I Am Powerful Vancouver is participating in the CARE Walk In Her Shoes challenge to support this project in Bolivia. For details visit:

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members.