Have you ever celebrated International Women’s Day?

If you’re from the United States, you may have never even heard of this celebration of women which, in many countries, comes accompanied with flowers, cards and “thank you”s to the powerful females in our lives.

Though the holiday doesn’t permeate American culture too deeply, it does occur during the American-recognized Women’s History Month, giving women-focused organizations an opportunity to raise awareness about women’s issues on a doubly effective occasion. It was knowing this that, on an uncommonly sunny Friday in Chicago, I joined global activists, advocates for gender equality and feminists of all ages at the Chicago Club to celebrate International Women’s Day in the best way possible — by discussing how we can make change in the world for women and girls.

With lectures and panels covering topics such as women in agriculture, family planning and reproductive health, and youth in global health, the event brought a wide variety of knowledge to Chicago. With it, some great takeaways for those of us working to make a difference in the world:

Attendees gather for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' International Women's Day Women in Global Health Symposium
Attendees gather for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ International Women’s Day Global Health Symposium

1. Empowerment takes a multifaceted approach.

Roger Thurow is a senior fellow of Global Agriculture and Food at The Chicago Council. He’s worked with women around the world in developing agriculture programs that help them feed their families and bring in income through cash crops. “The women are not only the farmers, but the land resource management, the care of the household, the education of the children, the care of the children…the more successful they are as farmers, the more able they are to do all of these things,” he said.

Yet in terms of family survival, agriculture plays multiple roles in nutrition, economics, even education. “It’s a neither/nor problem. Neither are they growing enough to feed their families, nor do they have enough additional crops to sell for education, for malaria pills, etc…the ultimate goal, then, is to move this “and into their lives. ‘I can feed my family, and sell some to provide an education for my children.'”

2. Collaboration is key.

“There are so many people doing incredible work for nothing — volunteer work,” said Angela Heimburger, executive director at the University of Chicago’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry & Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3). Leveraging your ability to collaborate with people who are passionate about the cause — volunteers, government workers, and especially people with different skill sets who can pool resources — is the best thing you can do to create sustainable change. Maya Cohen, executive director of GlobeMed, said that “your value as a changemaker is how well you partner with people.”

Danielle Nierenberg, Roger Thurow and Lisa Eakman in a panel on women in agriculture.
Danielle Nierenberg, Roger Thurow and Lisa Eakman in a panel on women in agriculture.

3. Bring men into the conversation.

Candace Lew is a senior technical advisor for contraception at Pathfinder International. She believes that it is equally important to bring men into the conversation about contraception and women’s health, and that the subject should be advocated for at the person-to-person level. Before implementing a project, colleagues at Pathfinder spend time learning about cultural practices in the local community and getting to know community members. They develop programs for adolescent boys and men to learn about and advocate for contraception — a program that has delayed marriage and a woman’s first pregnancy by years in many circumstances.

4. Let youth be your loudspeakers.

There is an unprecedented demand for engagement in global health as youth search for a source of meaning and purpose in their lives. Not only this, but youth are inspired by stories, hungry to make a difference, and the best recruiters for other youth around the world. Cohen stresses that organizations should “let youth be your loudspeakers” once they’ve had a positive experience, as their ability to network and gain a following is hugely valuable.

Stephen Lewis, co-founder of AIDS-Free World, was the Chicago Council's keynote speaker.
Stephen Lewis, co-founder of AIDS-Free World, was the Chicago Council’s keynote speaker.

5. Don’t lose your passion.

Stephen Lewis is codirector of AIDS-Free World; former Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations; and former United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. His passion for global health is palpable. “350 thousand to 500 thousand women die in childbirth every year and if you don’t think that’s a commentary on gender equality then you live in a remarkably illusory world,” he said during his keynote speech. “You can’t continue to marginalize almost 50% of the population and ever expect to achieve equity.”

Wherever you go, don’t lose your anger. Continue to fight for global health and women’s rights. Attend events, engage in discussions and educate others. One day we’ll look back and be glad we did.