(WOMENSENEWS)–Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours and produce half of the world’s food. Yet, women earn only 10 percent of the world’s income and own less than 1 percent of the world’s property.

While American women still earn about 77 cents for every dollar men earn and continue to work hard to close the salary gap, women in other parts of the world earn a mere 30 to 40 percent of what men do.

These are the women who never made it to a classroom, who often forgo already scarce food for themselves to feed other family members, who are unable to start their own businesses and who are likely to die in childbirth or from a preventable disease due to lack of basic health care.

The ability of families worldwide to pull themselves out of poverty — through education, health and food security — disproportionately rests on the shoulders of women.

Just ask Barbara Ayisa of Ghana. In her village of Affumkrom, she spends her day growing onions and maize, while taking care of her children. Her husband provides some economic support, but is engaged in other activities, leaving Barbara to manage the household. She benefitted from assistance that teaches her how to store her maize until she can sell it at the best price, earning the most she can for her family.

When asked what additional assistance would help, Barbara responded, "A daycare center would be very helpful as I could take care of my farm and then go home in the afternoon to take care of my children. I am currently doing both things, which is very hard."

A solution this simple empowers women to contribute effectively to the sustainable development and stability of their countries. It helps close the gender gap and allows both men and women access to the resources necessary to prosper.

If their families and communities are to thrive, women need access to land, property, water, and technology for economic productivity. They need access to microcredit. They need access to education, training, nutritional and health care. They deserve laws and institutions that will legally secure and protect their access.

Social Perceptions

The social perceptions that dictate how women should spend their time and energy must also change. The ability of a country to overcome poverty is stunted, for example, when girls and women are expected to fetch water rather than spend their days in school or in income-producing activities.

Investing in girls–and the women they become–directly impacts a country’s economy.

Every extra year a girl spends in school increases her income by 15 percent to 25 percent, according to http://www.girleffect.org.

In Kenya, some 1.6 million girls drop out of high school annually, costing the economy $500 million. If they finished school, these girls would make 30 percent more money and contribute $3.2 billion more to Kenya’s economy each year.

When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia became the first woman president of an African country, she used her inauguration speech in 2006 to publicly define the role of women in economic growth: "We shall encourage families to educate all children, particularly the girl child. We will also try to provide economic programs that enable Liberian women – particularly our market women – to assume their proper place in our economic process."

Change, of course, does not happen overnight. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an innovative and independent U.S. Government foreign assistance agency, is on board, however, to do what it can. Created by the U.S. Congress in 2004 with strong bipartisan support, MCC provides poor, but well-performing, countries with grants to fund country-led solutions for reducing poverty through sustainable economic growth.

These solutions are working to redefine the role of American development assistance in promoting gender equality worldwide.

The corporation integrates gender equality into all stages of its assistance programs which total nearly $9 billion in large-scale grants worldwide from selecting partner countries, to developing and implementing proposals for funding, to monitoring and evaluating results.

And as a groundbreaking leader in development, MCC looks at how a country performs on a "Gender in the Economy" policy indicator that assesses a government’s commitment to promoting gender equality to determine if it would make a suitable partner for an investment of development dollars. Linking development dollars to how committed a government is to gender equality motivates change.

This way of allocating development dollars can help build a country’s capacity to redress gender inequalities that would otherwise stymie sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction.

Investing in policies that enable women to be more economically productive benefits them, their families, their societies and their nations. The time has come to match rhetoric with results and implement gender-inclusive strategies that maximize the full strength of women and girls in achieving global prosperity.

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Cassandra Butts is the senior advisor at the Millennium Challenge Corporation (http://www.mcc.gov).