Around the world, the Global Women’s Leadership Network is a force for good.
There has never been a more critical time for all of us to stand together than during this time of major disruption, a perfect storm consisting of health, economic and social justice crises. Credit unions workers are considered essential, and many of these front-line workers are women struggling to balance the needs of their children, parents, jobs, communities and themselves. It is a time of great sacrifice that was expected to be for a moment in time and now may have permanent consequences. Yet, the Global Women’s Leadership Network has become a powerful and prestigious program, positioning leaders to rise up together worldwide to face these issues as one. Envision a line of women with their arms locked together, determined to protect their world from all the evils in the land. Kind of feels like they have superpowers, these GWLN Wonder Women.
I present to you one of the original diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that was started in 2010 by the World Council of Credit Unions: The Global Women’s Leadership Network is a band of women and HE for SHEs who are heroes amongst us. From six continents, 82 countries and 120 Sister Societies, thousands of women are fighting for human rights, keeping their families safe, showing up for work and volunteering within their communities. Their voices are rising up amongst cooperatives worldwide, and now through virtual capability, hundreds of women and men are joining educational, mission-based GWLN programs to demonstrate the unification of our efforts with one purpose: advancing women by advancing society, bridging all time zones!
But GWLN and its female colleagues carry a heavy burden, as 2020 statistics show that women are disproportionately being impacted by COVID-19 and new evils are rising. The issues affecting women and girls during this pandemic are outlined in a recent article by FSG, a mission-driven consulting firm founded in 2000 by Harvard Business School Professor Michael E. Porter and Michael Kramer. Let’s examine a few of these critical concerns.
The economic impact on women is significant, as they bear the burden of domestic and care workers, higher rates of job losses and reduced financial independence and future prospects. Also, 21% of U.S. low-income women cannot afford female hygiene products and 1.5 billion children worldwide are out of school due to COVID-19, increasing the number of earlier marriages and teenage pregnancy.
Health and well-being are of critical concern in today’s environment, as domestic violence surges from isolation at home and the stress of making ends meet. Sex trafficking has increased as well, as vulnerable women are being asked for sex by landlords, bosses and shelters to keep their families safe. Reproductive health services have been deemed unessential, risking the lives of women and freedom of choice.
Gender imbalances in the healthcare workforce create a disproportionate health risk to women. Today 70% of global health and social care workers are female while 70% of global health leadership is male.
“Put women and girls at the centre of efforts to recover from COVID-19,” implored UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “The pandemic is having devastating social and economic consequences for women and girls. Nearly 60% of women around the world work in the informal economy, earning less, saving less and at greater risk of falling into poverty. Progress lost takes years to regain.”
What is Global Women’s Leadership Network doing in response to this crisis in the U.S. and around the world?
- GWLN is a founding member of the DEI Collective and is partnering with AACUC to ensure women of color are engaged and supported through a strong network of representation.
- GWLN Sister Society leaders in the United States are conducting virtual meetings with speakers representing Supreme Court justices, CEOs, police chiefs, mental health professionals, domestic violence shelters, sex trade recovery foundations and much more. U.S. Sister Society leaders are working with local communities, banding together to ensure credit union essential workers are taken care of and represented in the executive decision-making process. The U.S. is well on its way to having 50 Sister Societies, one in every state.
- International Sister Society leaders are also actively engaged. In Brazil, Sister Society leader Gisele Gomes and other GWLN leaders are tackling women’s issues head-on, engaging thousands of people throughout the Sicredi cooperative system to participate in DEI education, young professional forums, gender equality, unconscious bias, conscious capitalism and building a movement that will change lives of their members. There are now 26 Sister Societies or women’s groups affiliated with GWLN representing every region within Brazil.
- In Asia, women are starting Sister Societies at a record pace, with more than 36 locations in eight countries actively involved in building local groups, adding Japan in August. Leni San Roque, CEO of the Association of the Asian Confederation of Credit Unions, knows that poverty, equality, business opportunity and other key women’s initiatives must be a part of the cooperative movement to positively impact millions of members throughout the continent. In 2017, with the support of Shana Richardson, CEO of Ser Tech and GWLN Sister Society leader, the first business development center was opened in the Philippines to give women a safe place to work. It has raised their income by 26%. This model will serve as a template for future GWLN business development centers globally that will help to empower women and give them a way to support their families.
- In Europe, local groups in the United Kingdom, Ukraine, North Macedonia and soon Poland are making their voices heard by helping women start businesses, research childcare services, and increase professional opportunities. Eleonora Zgonjanin, CEO of FULM Savings House, which celebrated its 20th year in business, took an international group to Congress to demonstrate how their initiatives are empowering women in North Macedonia. Beth Welsh, business development manager at Pioneer Mutual Credit Union, Glasgow, Scotland, has pioneered youth financial education and worked with Brandi Stankovic, GWLN leader in the United States, to bring GWLN to the main stage in Great Britain. Zoryana Rozlutzkaya, Sister Society leader in Ukraine, is helping to rebuild the war-torn country and helping women band together to increase their impact and access to financial services. They are supporting local farmers with business loans. Each of these women stood up and engaged within their credit union community to determine their local mission and bring strategic influencers into GWLN for their support and advocacy.
- In Africa, there are many challenges facing women—from being a part of the conversation to balancing the duties of home, work and children. Several HE for SHEs, including George Ombado, I-CUDE, executive director/CEO of the African Confederation of Cooperative Savings and Credit Association, have stepped up to establish Sister Societies in five countries throughout the continent. Mbiba Joyce Mpopii, Scholastica Odhiambo, Bettyrose Okiri, Triza Magreta and Habiba Kent are the Sister Society group leaders, and their achievements in just a couple of years are outstanding. Feeding people in the fields, educational programming and women’s issues were at the forefront of ACCOSCA efforts and will be highlighted annually during its conference.
- In Kenya, more than a million children have lost one or both parents to the AIDS epidemic. Many are orphaned and struggle with no one to care for them. Stella Aching Egesa witnessed the number of children roaming the streets and, using her own property, decided to start a local orphanage. For well over the last decade, the Busia Compassionate Centre in rural western Kenya, has been supported by WOCCU and GWLN with Crissy Cheney being one of its most active supporters. The results are undeniable—when credit union people stand together, it has a tangible result on future generations.
GWLN is elevating the role of cooperatives around the world and making a difference on a local, national and global level, but it is the women and men with their feet on the ground who are tackling the issues confronting society in this turbulent time. We consider them to be superheroes, as they have proven that by working together, a diverse, strong collection of ordinary people can rise up and impact the world.
Susan Mitchell is the GWLN chair, worldwide foundation director, and CEO of Mitchell, Stankovic and Associates.
Eleni Giakoumopoulos is GWLN Program Director at WOCCU.