Hi, I’m Lisa – the new Global Environment intern here at Americans for Informed Democracy.

Yesterday morning I had the opportunity to attend a breakfast briefing celebrating International Women’s Day. The breakfast was organized by Women Thrive Worldwide and UNIFEM to educate policymakers and private sector leaders about successes and challenges facing women in Afghanistan and Haiti. Speakers included The Honorable Maria Otero – Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Ines Alberdi – Executive Director of UNIFEM, Kathy Mongones – UNIFEM Haiti Program Coordinator, Suraya Pakzad – Founder of Voice of Women in Afghanistan, and Ritu Sharma – President and Co-founder of Women Thrive Worldwide.

The take away message was clear: it’s time to make women’s empowerment a central focus of U.S. foreign policy. But how do we do this? According to Ritu Sharma, you listen.

Women Thrive Worldwide recently conducted a study, “Time to Listen: Global Women’s Views on U.S. Foreign Assistance”. Overall, women’s organizations surveyed had a positive view of U.S. assistance. But U.S. assistance strategy, design and implementation –they said—are often top-down, without enough local input or ownership. They also said, that while they appreciated international support for their efforts in country, they want to see their entire communities, including men, benefit from foreign assistance programs. In other words, they want a “gendered community approach to development.

In our push to help and give aid to as many nations and people as possible, we often forget to listen to what the recipients of our aid want or need. For example, Suraya Pakzad told a story about a village in Afghanistan where a school was built as a part of the reconstruction efforts, but the children in the village could not attend the school because they had to spend such a large part of their day getting water. For the people in that village, education was important, but the need for an easily accessible source of clean drinking water was more important. International reconstruction efforts had not asked community members what was most important for their needs.

In feminism, we talk about “bringing women to the table”. This morning’s speakers spoke about mainstreaming gender analysis throughout U.S. foreign assistance policy and programs. But, it’s more than just bringing women to the table or mainstreaming a strong gender analysis. It’s about bringing women to the table, and listening carefully to what they have to say. Then equipping them with the tools to lead change in their own communities. As Suraya Pakzad eloquently put it when speaking about the new gender quota in the Afghani parliament, “We don’t need 68 women with no voices. We need 10 women with strong voices” to lead the way.

If you’re feeling in need of a little listening practice, I recommend checking out Oxfam’s film “Sisters of the Planet” (available in the AIDemocracy Film Library!) in which four powerful women—Helen, Ursula, Sahena, Muriel—share the impacts of climate change on their lives and what their doing to fight it.