03/06/2014 05:18 EST | Updated 05/06/2014 05:59 EDT

What Corporations Can Do For International Women's Day

As the world continues to inch toward the goal of gender equality -- ensuring girls and women enjoy the same rights as men -- something is getting lost in the messaging.

We no longer have to defend the belief in gender equality, at least in what international development experts call the Global North.

I feel good about the society my 10-year-old daughter is inheriting. Sure, we still have lots of work to do at home, but we have come such a long way.

The situation women face in the developing world is another matter.

In the past few years, the role women play in an economy is getting a great deal of attention. Discriminating against women is not only bad but, as it turns out, marginalizing half the population is costing countries billions of dollars a year in lost output.

Such conclusions are hardly new, but influencers are now paying attention. Even the world economic summit in Davos, Switzerland, started acknowledging that women hold the key to long-term development.

Non-government organizations have also seized upon the phenomenal marketing power of showcasing women as economic players. It's a positive message that promises immediate and measurable results.

Corporations, especially consumer product companies that cater to female buyers, also understood the value of supporting overseas programs that promote girls and women. This is all good. Economic empowerment is a vital part of gender equality and a key driver in alleviating poverty.

As the world will soon celebrate International Women`s Day, we have plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

But I worry that, as we focus the conversation on the economic benefits of empowering women, we are losing sight of what is most important.

Gender equality is the absolute end game. Human rights are not negotiable.

When we invest in medical R&D to save lives of children with awful illnesses, we don't justify the investment in terms of the future earning potential of the kids. Saving their lives is most certainly our objective.

I will confess that I didn't spent a lot of time thinking about such issues until I recently joined the board of MATCH International Women's Fund, which supports grassroots organizations in the Global South.

The model -- funding small-scale community-based projects that work on the ground to fight for women's rights -- intrigued me. The potential to grow the organization and the potential impact got me hooked.

In a recent call for submissions for project funding, MATCH received 1,200 applications from more than 100 countries, asking for an average of only $11,000. These are the groups that fall through the cracks. They are too small to get the attention of world governments and other big donors. Specifically, they lack the certified accountants that donors demand to ensure monitoring and accountability -- but let me be clear, they are accountable.

Before we get too complacent about the progress women are making in the world, allow me to share a disturbing statistic. More than 75 per cent of the applications were for projects that address sexual abuse and violence against girls and women. Let me repeat, these submissions came from more than 100 countries.

This tells me two things. First, sexual violence against women is a global crisis. Second, women at the community level are leading the charge to create long-term solutions -- I think this has always been the case.

I've seen statistics that show Canadians are extremely generous in donating to humanitarian disasters. Thanks to the news media -- and now social media -- we see the need. Horrifying images inspire us to act.

The money we donate supports immediate and tangible results -- providing water, food, medicine, blankets, shelter.

Not all tragedies are so visible, nor are the solutions so straightforward.

Changing a society so it respects women's rights -- including living without fear of violence and abuse -- is a slow process, one measured in generations. Accomplishments are difficult to quantify, and not the stuff of snappy marketing campaigns.

But nobody said that changing the world would be easy.

Corporate Canada can take a leading role in amplifying the conversation on women's rights around the world. There are a number of companies that have stepped up for a cause that their constituents or customers care about. There's no shortage of examples of how a company's commitment to an issue can inspire an entire country to act. The right for a woman to walk down the street in a developing nation without the fear or reality of being raped has not yet been one of those examples. I think it has incredible potential and power with Canada's own women and men, a unique opportunity to create a legacy of fostering systemic change globally.

Canada is a country of immigrants. Our communities extend across the globe. It's time for innovative marketing executives to realize the potential of supporting the thousands of grassroots organizations fighting for girls and women.

This International Women's Day, I'm making it my mission to find a brave and innovative corporation committed to leading the way.


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