Image courtesy of Liliane Calfee, Soleil Media.

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A lot of people ask me, Why women?

I didn’t always travel with women in mind. I just went places. And the more places I went, the more problems I saw. I realized that lack of access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunities is crippling communities all around the world.

But it didn’t take me long to learn that you can’t move forward when half of the world remains held back.

A year ago I was in rural Lunga Lunga, Kenya working with a women’s health organization called Health by Motorbike. Recently recognized by the United Nations and awarded the United Nations Public Service Award, Health by Motorbike uses leadership, health promotion, and literacy projects to creatively empower women to work together to better their communities. It’s an incredible program that was started by Dr. Araceli Alonso, a professor of women and gender studies at the University of Wisconsin.

In Kenya I met Leah, a young Masai woman only one year younger than myself. Because of our similar ages, drive, and curiosity, we quickly became friends. Both of us spoke only limited Swahili, but our friendship grew in spite of the significant language barrier.

Image courtesy of Bri Backes.

Working with Health by Motorbike showed me firsthand how women and girls disproportionately face the burden of poverty.

I met with women who lacked the freedom to earn a living, go to school, or even visit the doctor. When their families struggled to find food or earn money, it was the girls who were expected to eat last and give up an education. Women were valued for the number of children they had, but they weren’t allowed to visit the health center during childbirth. Even if they could travel that far on their own, it would still be too expensive.

Routinely, women were valued less than men. And this is not a problem unique to Kenya. Oxfam points out that, “Women [around the world] work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, produce half of the world’s food, but earn only 10% of the world’s income and own less than one percent of the world’s property.” According to UN Women, 70% of the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged people are women and girls. This is clearly a global epidemic.

Image courtesy of Liliane Calfee, Soleil Media.

Even as I struggled to understand the inequality I saw around me, my new-found friendship helped me gain perspective. Leah showed me that women from even the most different of circumstances can influence and learn from one another.

On my last day in Lunga Lunga, I visited Leah’s Masai community one last time. Leah, realizing that we would not see one another again, promptly burst into sobs. Laughing through our tears, I realized what Leah really meant to me. Leah taught me that women aren’t just the faces of poverty; women are the key to creating change. When women are empowered, they empower their families, their villages, and their nations.

That’s why women matter so much to me when I travel. Because even though women are most affected by the world’s problems, they are also the changemakers.

Have you witnessed a changemaker in your community or abroad? Share in the comments!