WASHINGTON (AFP) - A stellar alliance of women from government, advocacy groups, faith-based organizations and Hollywood launched a major anti-poverty campaign Sunday to help poor women and girls around the world.
The alliance, which has the backing of Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Queen Noor of Jordan and former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright among other luminaries, announced it had amassed fundraising commitments of 1.481 billion dollars at its first summit held at Washington's National Cathedral.
The Women, Faith and Development Alliance (WFDA) said the large war chest which has been raised so far will cumulatively benefit one billion women and girls living in crushing poverty worldwide.
"Every development expert knows that if you want a country to make progress, then empower women, educate girls, that's the way you do it and that's how we will tackle poverty," Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, said at the summit opening.
Hundreds of supporters packed into the towering cathedral as the WFDA formally launched a campaign aimed in part at changing the policies of governments and multilateral institutions to help eradicate female poverty.
The alliance is also supported by Laura Bush, wife of US President George W. Bush, the former prime minister of Canada, Kim Campbell, and Hollywood actress Ashley Judd
Ritu Sharma Fox, a co-founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide, said ahead of the summit's opening that the funds promised so far will benefit over one billion poor women and girls around the world.
WFDA is lobbying governments and international agencies to provide several billion more dollars to support the female anti-poverty drive.
The United Nations Population Fund is one of the biggest backers so far and has made a commitment of 500 million dollars over several years to address maternal mortality and to stop violence against women.
Islamic Relief has pledged 43 million dollars to improve education, basic health care and water access for over one million women and girls.
Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, the Muslim Women's Conference and Religions for Peace have also signed up to the broad inter-faith grouping which is being supported by the US healthcare products giant Johnson & Johnson as well as other groups and corporations.
Activists and supporters from around the world attended the summit following two years of planning. Attendees, including Robinson, Albright, Campbell and Judd, were entertained by colorful dance troupes and youth music groups.
The women- and girl-focused campaign, like other global anti-poverty drives, faces immense challenges.
UN figures show that women represent 70 percent of the world's poor, own just one percent of titled land, and make up two-thirds of the world's illiterate people.
Poverty experts estimate there are between 1.0 and 1.2 billion people around the world who exist on less than one dollar a day, many of whom live in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
"Women and girls around the world face grave challenges. In Africa, my home continent, and in many other places our sisters make up seventy percent of the nearly 2.5 billion poorest and most vulnerable people on earth," South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in a video message relayed to the summit.
Activists say impoverished women face particular hardships, especially in conflict zones where they are raped and abused, but they say women are often more careful than men with money and better at fostering support networks.
"We are global. We are united. We do not accept that 500,000 women should die each year because of avoidable complications in pregnancy," Albright told the summit.
The UN estimates that half a million women die every year due to preventable complications from pregnancy.