Women Working for the World: Catalina Escobar and the Ripple Effect of One Woman's Commitment to Change

As I recently shared, I’ve been fortunate enough to mentor some truly extraordinary women in my life. One such woman is Catalina Escobar, a CNN hero who is doing pioneering work to change the pattern of teen pregnancy in Colombia — work that’s having a ripple effect throughout Latin America and beyond.

Catalina Escobar (photo courtesy of  Juanfe Foundation )

Catalina Escobar (photo courtesy of Juanfe Foundation)

Catalina founded and leads the Juanfe Foundation, which empowers teen mothers to break the cycle of poverty and change their lives.  As a volunteer at a Cartagena hospital, she saw girls as young as ten or eleven years old giving birth and premature babies dying at the hands of medical teams that lacked both training and medicine.

When Catalina’s own two-year-old son tragically fell to his death in an accident, she quit her executive job at a global American company, founded the Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar (Juanfe) Foundation in honor of her son, and began a full-time commitment to finding solutions. 

Now, more than a decade later, the Juanfe Foundation has achieved phenomenal results. As the Ashoka Foundation reported back in 2011,

Catalina Escobar has forged a unique three-way partnership among her citizen organization, key public hospitals, and the private sector to attack serious health problems in infants, children, and young mothers living in the most poverty stricken areas of Cartagena. Catalina’s program has already achieved astounding results in the reduction of infant mortality and is ripe for replication throughout Colombia.

…In less than ten years, Catalina has lowered infant mortality rates in Cartagena from among the worst in the world, at 48 deaths per 1,000 births—twice the Colombian average—to a mere 8 per 1,000, a 79 percent reduction. To achieve these incredible results, she only spends US$300 per child, compared to US$1,500 per child spent by Colombian public hospitals.

But Catalina’s impact on girls and women doesn’t stop there.

During my first visit to Cartagena, back when I first started mentoring Catalina through the Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Project, we talked about her dream of bringing together women from all over the world who were committed to improving the prospects of girls and women worldwide. These women would share what they’d learned from their work on the ground in many different places and define best practices. Together, they would raise awareness of the ways in which limited opportunities for girls and women in turn limit the health and prosperity of a nation, and of the world.

Catalina Escobar, me and Laura Turner Seydel at Women Working for the World 2016 last week in Bogota

Catalina Escobar, me and Laura Turner Seydel at Women Working for the World 2016 last week in Bogota

The very next year, Catalina and her small team at Juanfe convened the first Women Working for the World forum. Participants — mostly women, as well as a number of committed men came from a dozen different countries to share knowledge and exchange ideas. I was honored to participate then, and every year since; this year, I was privileged to interview Laura Turner Seydel, a lifelong environmental activist (who also happens to be my daughter-in-law), about the links between the work to end poverty and protect and empower girls and protecting Mother Earth.

As women who are committed to using our power to help make the world a better place, I believe it’s essential that we gain awareness beyond the causes we work on each and every day, and learn how others are creating positive change. This is critical not only because we might find ways that others’ ideas and solutions apply to our own work, but also because we need to support each other as women change makers. With that in mind, I hope you might be inspired to share information about the Juanfe Foundation’s extraordinary work on social media or elsewhere. Who knows what connections, or solutions, such a simple action might lead to.

Let’s find out.

With gratitude, as always, for all you do -