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$1 Billion Pledged for Women's Issues

Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK - A new coalition of U.S.-based rights groups says it plans to spend over $1 billion on projects to help women fight poverty in many parts of the world.

"This is something that has not happened before," said Ritu Sharma Fox, president of Women Thrive Worldwide, an independent rights organization based in Washington, DC.0416 11

With the help of Religions for Peace, a faith-based umbrella organization, Sharma Fox's group intends to reach out to millions of poor women across the world who have no access to basic health care or education.

"There's something for everybody in this coalition," said Dr. William Vendley, secretary general of Religions for Peace, who thinks the unusual cooperation between secular and faith-based groups is a must to end poverty.

At a meeting held over the weekend, leaders of the new coalition, called the Women, Faith, and Development Alliance (WFDA), said they expected that at least 1 billion women in dozens of countries will benefit from their campaign.

The coalition's announcement coincided with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) annual meeting, which officially acknowledged the fact that millions of the world's poor are being hit hard by soaring food prices.

On Sunday, World Bank head Robert Zoellick warned that at least 100 million people could be pushed deeper into poverty by the price hikes.

WFDA said its plan would focus on women because under the given situation they are the ones who suffer the most from economic hardship.

About 70 percent of the world's poor are women, according to InterAction, a network of humanitarian groups whose research shows women own only 1 percent of the world's titled land.

Researchers say two thirds of the world's people who do not know how to read or write also happen to be women. Illiteracy becomes a major cause of deprivation of their due human rights.

The coalition leaders said they would try to address all the issues that are linked to undermining women's human rights, which include their economic, social, civil, political, and reproductive rights.

"We have not seen such initiatives in the past," said Women Thrive's Sharma Fox. "In the past, there were attempts, but those were scattered attempts."

The new initiative has been in the works for more than two years, Religions for Peace's Vendley told OneWorld. Vendley hopes the alliance will prove a catalyst for change in many parts of the world where religious ideas are part and parcel of poor women's daily life.

The coalition, comprising more than 70 organizations, took the responsibility for raising funds for antipoverty programs because they were left with little hope that U.S. policies would be amended to commit the necessary funding to key aspects of the problems.

UN research points out that nearly 40 million people in the world are living with HIV, most of whom happen to be women in their 20s and 30s.

At a summit held in New York in 2001, world leaders pledged to adopt an ambitious agenda known as the Millennium Development Goals, which includes drastic cuts in poverty and reversing the spread of HIV by 2015.

However, current U.S. policy requires that 33 percent of all HIV prevention funding be earmarked for abstinence and fidelity programs. Condoms may be recommended for high-risk groups, but not for sexually active people in general.

Both researchers and activists hold that the U.S. policy is partially responsible for the overall increase in the rate of HIV infection because in many areas prevention programs are not adequately reaching out to those at risk.

UNAIDS says prevention efforts are reaching fewer than 20 percent of people in dire need. WFDA hopes to change that.

The coalition has drawn a great deal of support from some of the world's most prominent figures, such as South African spiritual leader Desmond Tutu, former U.S. Secretary State of Madeleine Albright, as well as some of the top UN development officials.

"New energy and solutions are needed to empower women and end poverty," said Archbishop Tutu in a statement, urging the faith leaders to join others "to press for more resources and address the deep injustice of extreme poverty borne so heavily from women."

The new alliance said the sum of $1.4 billion in donations has been committed by a wide range of sources, including the UN Population Fund and the International Rescue Committee.

© 2008 One World

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