Anasuyamma stood her ground. Even when her husband and in-laws poured kerosene on her. Even when they lit the match and held it near. Anasuyamma refused to go back to the days when a daughter couldn't wed unless a bride price or "dowry" was paid to the groom's family.
"A dowry degrades women," Anasuyamma told me last year from inside her village home in India. Sitting on floor mats around her were the women who helped save her life that day four years ago. She broke free, and with the support of those friends, she prevailed. Her daughter married without payment.
Every day throughout the world, women fight for equality, asserting their rights. But they rarely succeed alone. As in Anasuyamma's case, progress most often depends on collective action.
"A single woman can't change all social issues we face, but a dozen women can make a difference. You can easily break a single matchstick, but not 12 together. Unity is our strength," Anasuyamma said, referring to her village savings and loan group of women who support each other in this poor, dusty village called Dharmajipet. "Together, we are building businesses, educating our children, and improving healthcare here."
Anasuyamma's group pulled their money together and, over time, saved enough to start their own soapmaking business. These women – who recently taught themselves to write their names – make 3,200 bars every day. Then they sell them in markets. Using the profit, they send their children to school. One daughter is now the first from this village to attend college.
"We used to depend on our husbands for everything," said Anasuyamma. "Now we support our households. Before we didn't speak out, but now we have no fear."
There's power in numbers. As we approach International Women's Day on March 8, we can apply Anasuyam-ma's lesson of strength as we renew our commitment to women's rights around the globe.
Worldwide, millions of women and girls face horrific realities. In Congo, more than 400 women a month are raped. Girls in Afghanistan have acid thrown in their faces because they go to school. One pregnant woman dies each minute, on average, from mostly preventable causes. At least 1 out of every 3 women and girls will be severely beaten in her lifetime. This is unacceptable.
Throughout my career in public service, traveling to villages not even on the map, I've seen how poverty has a woman's face. I've seen it in the faces of her children, like a torn hand-me-down passed from generation to generation when the cycle isn't stopped.
Like Anasuyamma, we can start by helping women organize in village groups where they not only learn to save and invest in businesses but also collectively empower one another. It means we must get off the sidelines, get in the game and help our sisters abroad conquer social inequities. Our mothers and grandmothers, the ones who laid the foundation for our success today, would expect nothing less.
It means not only helping girls and women receive formal education, but also helping them gain legal rights, quality healthcare, and economic opportunity. Studies show, for example, that every extra year of secondary school raises a girl's lifetime wages by 15 to 25 percent. And those educated girls will go on to have healthier, better-educated families.
However, women and girls can't break the cycle of poverty alone.
Men and boys must be part of the solution, supporting this change of a status quo that has treated women and girls as second-class citizens for far too long. Working together, everyone benefits.
Let's make this International Women's Day a day for action. Take time to join events in your community. Add your strength and generosity to the movement. Like Anasuyamma, let us not back down until women and girls everywhere enjoy full human rights.
• Dr. Helene Gayle is president and CEO of the global poverty-fighting organization CARE. To honor International Women's Day, she'll join a live town hall discussion after a showing of the movie "A Powerful Noise," simulcast on March 5 to 450 movie theaters across America. See apowerfulnoise.org for more details.