This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “choose to challenge,” which encourages every one of us to call out gender bias and inequality, and to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements.

According to UN Women, investing in women’s economic empowerment is key to achieving women’s rights and gender equality. Economies grow when more women have access to better opportunities. For example, increasing the female employment rates in OECD countries to match Sweden’s rate, which is 71 percent, could boost GDP by over USD 6 trillion, according to The Women in Work Index 2021.

Increasing access to education can also contribute to women’s economic empowerment, especially in our digital economy. An increase in educational attainment accounts for about 50 percent of economic growth over the past 50 years in OECD countries.

Yet, women still have access to fewer opportunities than men. They are consistently paid less than men worldwide, earning 77 percent of what men earn, and the figure is lower in developing countries where there is more informal self-employment. Women are also less likely to have access to financial institutions, and only 58 percent of women worldwide have a bank account.

Below, we will share stories about four women in different parts of the world and how an investment in their work helped make positive changes that strengthen communities.

Providing life-saving care in Uganda

A mother and her infant with a community health worker
L to R: A mother and her infant with Annette, a community health worker. Photo credit: David Givens for Global Citizen

Annet Kirabo is a community health worker (CHW) in Kampala, Uganda, with Living Goods, a Cisco nonprofit partner that empowers CHWs to save lives and earn income. CHWs deliver quality, on-call healthcare advice, and treatments to their neighbors’ doorsteps. Health workers are in short supply in Uganda; there is only one doctor for every 25,000 people. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends one doctor per 1,000 people. Annett’s services include testing for diseases, offering vaccine counseling, referral advice, and delivering medication.

Cisco funded the development of Living Goods’ Smart Health app and underlying technology platform that CHWs use to track patients’ immunization records, monitor pregnant women and newborns’ health, and better detect and diagnose health conditions. Living Goods also provides CHWs with ongoing training and earning opportunities.

CHWs like Annett have all the information they need on their mobile devices and no longer have to carry heavy books. This investment makes it easier for Living Goods’ more than 10,000 CHWs to provide access to life-saving care for more than 8 million people.

During the COVID-19 crisis, CHWs’ work became that much more essential. The world’s most vulnerable communities face a higher risk for COVID-19 infection and continue to be impacted by pre-existing critical health threats. With investment in the work that CHWs perform, communities can continue to get the care they need. “Community health workers are very important. We are the No. 1 hospital within the communities,” Annett says.

Championing for young girls in Ghana

A women with a female student
L to R: Ms. Hazel with a student. Photo Credit: David Givens for Global Citizen

Victoria Hazel, also known as Ms. Hazel, is the founder of Solid Rock Foundation Schools in Accra, Ghana. Over 35,000 children of primary school age are out of school in Ghana, and over 40 percent of children are not enrolled in secondary school. Girls in Ghana are significantly affected by a lack of access to education, with a school life expectancy of 11 years. According to Opportunity International, many girls face particular challenges attending school due to poverty, early marriage, or pregnancy.

Research shows that a girl’s future wages increase with each additional year of primary school she can attend.

Ms. Hazel is a client of Opportunity International, a nonprofit partner of Cisco’s that provides financial solutions, training, and support to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses and schools, send their children to school, and work their way out of poverty. They have provided loans, savings accounts, training, and other resources to help Ms. Hazel build and maintain her school and support her students’ education.

Cisco has supported Opportunity International’s work to design and deliver digital financial products and solutions, including support for school proprietors and teachers, reaching nearly four million children in more than 13,000 schools. Ms. Hazel knows how essential education is for empowering communities and how it can unlock a child’s potential, especially girls. “Never say that, because you are a girl, you can’t do science, or you can’t do mathematics, or you can’t be who you want to be,” Ms. Hazel says. “When girls are educated, it makes the world a better place,” she adds.

Fighting to end Africa’s water crisis

Founder of Water Access Rwanda is choosing to challenge
Christelle Kwizera, founder of Water Access Rwanda. Photo credit: Jacques Nkinzingabo for Global Citizen

Christelle Kwizera is an engineer and entrepreneur who founded a social enterprise called Water Access Rwanda, to eliminate water scarcity in Africa and provide communities with safe and easily accessible water. Today her company successfully supplies over 70,000 people with water daily.

Water scarcity is a dire issue in Africa, and an estimated 400 million sub-Saharan Africans currently don’t have access to this fundamental human right. After realizing the dangerous lengths that some people would go to collect water, such as exposure to disease-ridden water and even crocodile attacks. Christelle has made it her mission to ensure that Africa’s communities do not continue to face this struggle.

The water that Christelle’s company supplies is affordable, at just $1 for 1,000 liters of water. Water Access Rwanda has made its payment process simple by working with prepaid smart meters that link to mobile payment platforms; they’ve also trained young people to use this technology to sell the water at public access points.

In 2020, Christelle was the 2020 Global Citizen Prize: Cisco Youth Leadership Award winner, and she received $250,000 toward her social enterprise. Christelle shared how this prize is an investment in job creation: “In ten years — this prize being a huge catalyst for this — in ten years we’re going to be servicing 30 million and more; we’re going to create over 13,000 jobs because when we give water, we also create jobs.”

Using technology to solve global problems

CEO of OmniVis talking to other people in a lab
Katherine Clayton, center, co-founder and CEO of OmniVis.

With a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, Katherine Clayton is passionate about developing technology to detect infectious diseases to prevent wide-scale outbreaks. Katherine is the co-founder and CEO of OmniVis, a biotechnology company that was a second runner-up in the 2017 Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge. The challenge recognizes entrepreneurs who are using technology to address a social or environmental problem.

Every year, anywhere from 21,000 to 143,000 people die from cholera, which impacts more than two million lives around the world. Cholera is endemic in nearly 70 countries, most common in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. It’s a bacteria that exists in water, and can lead to severe illness or even death if consumed and left untreated. Most people affected by cholera don’t have access to safely managed water supplies or sanitation facilities, making it difficult for them to test their water and identify cholera.

OmniVis is developing a handheld device that works with smartphones to detect cholera in water samples. With the help of Internet of Things (IoT) technology, it can analyze and identify the bacteria within 30 minutes of collection. That’s a tremendous breakthrough, as current testing methods take more than five days in affected communities. The reduction in identification timing can be the difference between life and death.

Recently, OmniVis was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to conduct research and development on COVID-19 rapid detection technology. Investing in Katherine and her company is leading to scientific advancements that will help communities around the world. She recently shared: “Our new COVID-19 solution makes testing for the virus easier and more accessible than ever before. All the testing is conducted on our portable, handheld device, which is a miniature laboratory that allows medical professionals to rapidly detect dangerous pathogens in any setting.”

How will you choose to challenge?

International Women’s Day is an important day of recognition, but we encourage you to incorporate what you learn about this day year-round. Here are some ways you can #ChooseToChallenge and make a difference every day:

  1. Celebrate women’s achievements. Whether it is someone you know personally or a public figure you admire, celebrate a woman’s accomplishments with encouraging words or supportive social media posts.
  2. Educate yourself. Read a book or watch a documentary about gender bias and inequality, and maybe even meet with friends virtually to discuss what you learned.
  3. Donate money to a female-focused nonprofit. There are opportunities to invest in nonprofits that focus on gender equality in education, training, and economic empowerment.

To learn more about the progress we’re making to power a more inclusive future through CSR, visit the Cisco CSR homepage.


Stacey Faucett

Manager, Sustainability Communications Governance and Compliance

Chief Sustainability Office