"We just want our husbands to care for us; when we visit the doctor, we just want respect."
The women in Epworth, an informal township outside Harare, Zimbabwe, had gathered at a church hall to tell their stories. They simply pleaded to be appreciated. The women have few choices because they are poor, but they want their daughters to have a different experience – to marry later, to decide when to have children and to know their views will be valued. Their dreams are not radical!
Women are half the world's population, but they do not have half the share of wealth, well-being and decision-making. In fact, women own around 1% of the world's wealth. Women work hard but are more likely to be unpaid especially in the developing world – they do domestic tasks, they do weeding and gardening, they collect water and look after children. Women do not have an equal voice in expression – only a quarter of the voices you will hear and read in the news today are women's.
Poor women and girls like those in Epworth, also know the risks of pregnancy and childbirth: it was a major part of our conversation. It is a scandal that the Millennium Development Goal most in danger of failing to meet its targets is Goal 5, the one that aims to cut maternal deaths by 75% by 2015. In a few nations like Zimbabwe and Afghanistan, maternal deaths have actually increased this century, but even in many other parts of Africa and South Asia facing less trauma, improvements have been slow.
Why should this be? Most risks are easily preventable – educating girls about reproduction, making sure surroundings are clean, ensuring the mother and child keep hydrated and having early access to help if there are complications.
Most experts agree that it is more than training and resources – it is a lack of will on the part of male leadership to change traditional cultural assumptions. If girls marry in their teens and have babies before their bodies are fully developed, pregnancy and childbirth are dangerous. The cruel practice of genital mutilation means women face severe bleeding and pain in childbirth. Girls and women may not have the power to plan their pregnancies nor the independence to seek medical help when needed.
In too many places, women are not valued and cherished as they should be. The World Development Report highlighted that women and girls are more likely to die relative to men and boys in low and middle-income countries, with 3.9 million "missing" women and girls each year under the age of 60. Girl babies are aborted or left to die or not given the same access to health care as their brothers.
Yet despite the gloomy outlook for many girls, there are millions who want to help bring change.
Women and girls suffer disproportionately from poverty but ironically, it is an oft-repeated truth that women are key to bringing change. If women and girls have a basic education, know self-respect and have access to small amounts of credit, they can change the circumstances of their family and community within two generations.
Women around the world empathize with their sisters in poverty and are more likely to give to charities than men. They tend to prioritize family issues and still choose jobs in "caring" professions more than men. They reach out in practical ways to bless others.
But women can also be advocates, speaking out on injustice issues affecting women and girls. Next week sees the launch of Woman to Woman, an initiative of Micah Challenge, a global campaign to encourage action and advocacy to meet the Millennium Goals.
Woman to Woman, a global network to empower girls and women to be change-makers so we can end extreme poverty. Women have an abundance of talent, plus determination to improve life for their families and communities.
Woman to Woman wants to tell those stories to encourage others to act, it wants to inform women about the issues behind the faces of poverty and it wants to encourage lots of small voices to make a big noise about injustice.
Whether it's economic inequality, family security, education, jobs or violence, women can stand with women to see change happen.
The launch of Woman to Woman takes place on Tuesday, November 20th in the Houses of Parliament, London, a place of public debate and the voice of the people. There will be talk but more importantly, there will also commitment to action and quite a bit of girl power.