Last January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Christine Lagarde, Director of the International Monetary Fund, made a statement that has stayed with me. “Gender inequality is expensive for nations,” she said. “Failure to address this will lead to collective chaos and irreversible unsustainability.” Her words are a stark reminder that we continue to live in a world where girls and women do not have equal opportunities to succeed and that this matter deserves special attention. Moments like the one at Davos, combined with the stories women have told me about their struggles, keep me motivated to challenge the status quo and push for improved opportunities for women and girls in Colombia and throughout Latin America.
"Gender inequality is expensive for nations,"
Christine Lagarde, Director of the International Monetary Fund
Correcting the injustice of gender inequality is a responsibility we all share, and I believe that securing access to education for girls is a major first step in leveling the playing field. Beyond the individual benefits of an education, we know that an educated girl improves the financial security of her family, her community, and by extension her entire country. Research shows that each additional year of secondary education boosts girls’ future earnings by 15-25%, and women reinvest 90% of their income back into their families and communities.
Juanfe Foundation (Juanfe) has worked with partners like Johnson & Johnson (J&J) since 2005 to take steps to address inequity in education by providing high-quality education to teen mothers living in extreme poverty in Cartagena, Colombia. It has been incredibly rewarding to witness the expansion of our work over time and to see young women rise above incredible challenges, take ownership of their futures, and thrive.
Twelve years ago, Juanfe and J&J collaborated to provide college scholarships to seven teen mothers. In 2010, we extended the same opportunity to two more girls, Cindy Velilla and Jennifer Ferrer. Like the women before them, Cindy and Jennifer prospered with support from the scholarships. Cindy went on to graduate with honors in Psychology. Jennifer graduated with a degree in pedagogy, the art of educational capacity building, and today applies her skills at Juanfe’s Infant Development Center.
By 2015, Juanfe had become known for its high-quality vocational and technical training institution and we shifted our attention from college degrees to sponsoring technical degrees. To date, thanks to our partnership with J&J, a total of 94 teenage mothers from the most vulnerable communities in Cartagena have received scholarships for professional and technical degrees, the benefits of which are felt far beyond their individual families.
Building from the success of our scholarships program and the desire to expand our support to even more women in Colombia and beyond, Juanfe founded the Women Working for the World Conference four years ago. The Conference provides a platform to share and discuss women’s experiences in the world, their unique struggles, their incredible contributions, and the immense potential that remains untapped due to gender inequality. I am proud to say that Women Working for the World is the only conference in Colombia where executives, social entrepreneurs, government officials, and directors of NGOs come together to discuss issues that are vital to women and girls’ lives.
At this year’s conference, timed to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8, the discussion will focus on women’s roles in shaping a healthier and safer future. As you prepare to join us at the Women Working for the World conference or for your own celebration of women, take the time to voice your concern about gender inequality and the range of problems this imbalance perpetuates on an individual and on a global scale. Remind your fellow citizens that gender equality is a responsibility of each and every one of us. We rise and fall together.
Catalina is a social entrepreneur and founder of Juanfe Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to reduce child mortality and empower teenage mothers in Cartagena. Her work at Juanfe Foundation made her Top 10 CNN Heroes 2012 and Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2015 by the World Economic Forum and the Schwab Foundation.
March 8 marks International Women’s Day. In collaboration with partners, Johnson & Johnson is sharing the stories of women on the front lines of care, and the ways in which inspiring women are improving health for their families and communities. Share your story during the Storytelling Hour on March 7 at 11am EST, by following #WomenInspire on Twitter.