April 16, 2019

BLOG: Women’s Economic Empowerment and the Peace Corps

Feature Series: HoyasForShe Reflections

On March 7, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) held a conversation with Jody Olsen, director of the Peace Corps, as a part of their Smart Women, Smart Power initiative.

Currency from across the globe.
Currency from across the globe.

This event was also in celebration of International Women’s Day, as it highlighted not only the work of female Peace Corps volunteers, who make up more than 60 percent of their volunteers, but also the organization’s mission of furthering women’s economic empowerment. 

The event began with introductions by Kimberly Flowers, director of CSIS's Humanitarian Agenda and Global Food Security Project, and Kristin Solheim, director of Citi Global Government Affairs. As a two-time Peace Corps volunteer, Flowers spoke about how she was able to witness firsthand the deep impact the organization has on its volunteers and the countries in which they serve. One cultural difference she observed between the United States and countries where the Peace Corps serves is that International Women’s Day is celebrated more fiercely in other countries; Flowers called for a greater integration of the holiday into our own culture. Both Flowers and Solheim praised the efforts of the Smart Women, Smart Power initiative in amplifying the voices of women in the fields of foreign policy, national security, international business, and international development.

Following the introductions was a conversation moderated by Nina East, a senior associate at CSIS, that explored the work of the Peace Corps from the volunteers’ perspectives, as well as the perspectives of those from affected countries. One distinctive feature of the organization is that while it is not an official part of American foreign policy, its independence from the federal government allows it to be bipartisan and nonpartisan, and thus, more effective. As a result, volunteers are more focused on working to be a part of the community they serve and engaging in a cultural exchange where both sides are able to learn from each other. 

Olsen also spoke of the role of the Peace Corps in the Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative; for the organization, women’s economic empowerment is essential and achievable through partnerships between the U.S. government and other countries’ local and national governments. To demonstrate that this goal was more than just mere rhetoric, she spoke of concrete examples of what women’s prosperity has looked like in places such as rural Malawi and Togo. For women all across the world, being able to operate their own businesses is more than just a source of steady income and an opportunity to develop technical skills; it is also a means for them to discover the power of their own voices and empower themselves to make transformative differences within their families and communities. The lessons learned from efforts overseas are important because they can be applied in our own country to better assist and empower women in underserved communities. 

 One of the most striking parts of this conversation was Olsen’s discussion of the role young men and boys play in the empowerment process. To her, their involvement is essential because it allows us to create opportunities for equal partnership as they grow up and move forward. She further emphasized that we, as a society, have the responsibility to ensure that we support both young men and women and give them their own identities and strengths. 

Undoubtedly, Olsen is an incredibly accomplished individual who has dedicated her life to public service and the betterment of communities, not just within the United States but also across the globe. Given her extensive experiences and the plethora of wisdom she has to offer, it was incredibly inspiring to be able to hear from her and learn about the positive impact women’s economic empowerment is capable of achieving. 

Across the globe, there is a tremendous amount of work that still needs to be done to uplift the voices and work of women in every community, and to achieve gender equality. However, with individuals like Olsen and other Peace Corps volunteers empowering future leaders, this vision is not a pipe dream—it is a truly attainable future.

This post was prepared by Cynthia Sun (SFS'20) as part of the HoyasForShe Student Fellowship.