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Wal-Mart launches initiatives to support women

NEW YORK (AP) — Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, is launching measures Wednesday that it says will help out women around the world in the next five years.

The retailer said it will spend $20 billion over that period on goods and services from U.S. businesses owned by women. It also plans to double the amount it pays women-run suppliers overseas, though it didn’t give a total.

The discounter also aims to offer training to sharpen the skills of 60,000 women working in factories that supply products to Wal-Mart and other merchants. And it plans to teach life skills — from punctuality to financial literacy — to 200,000 women overseas and to 200,000 low-income women in the U.S.

Wal-Mart also said it plans to work with its suppliers that have more than $1 billion in sales to increase the representation of women and members of minority groups by the end of 2016.

“We know this is important for our customers, and it will make for a stronger business,” Leslie Dach, executive vice president of Wal-Mart, said during an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press. He noted that over the past year, the company developed the plan with help from a number of government and non-governmental organizations and philanthropic groups including Care USA, a humanitarian organization that fights poverty.

Dach couldn’t quantify how many people the initiatives could affect, but he said they could reach more than 1 million.

Wal-Mart, which is based in Bentonville, Ark., has placed an increasing focus on serving women. In 2009, it set up a women’s council made of 20 female company leaders worldwide who offer guidance everything from training and development to promotions.

In 2004, a sex-bias lawsuit against Wal-Mart was given class action status on behalf of 1.6 million women. In June, the retailer scored a major victory when the Supreme Court blocked the lawsuit, saying there was not convincing proof of companywide pay or promotion discrimination at Wal-Mart.

The moves to support women also come as Wal-Mart is aggressively expanding internationally. In June it completed a $2.4 billion acquisition of Massmart in South Africa.

It also is seeking to influence its core customers: Most of the 200 million people who shop every week at Wal-Mart globally are women, and they control $20 trillion in annual consumer spending.

With Wal-Mart generating $418 billion in revenue last year and operating in more than 80 countries, the company’s initiatives carry some clout.

“This is a game changer,” said Helen Gayle, president and CEO of Care USA. “This is a large initiative. If Wal-Mart begins to change the way it does its practices, it can have a huge impact on other corporations and other retailers.”

Care USA started working with Wal-Mart in 2009 in Bangladesh, India and other areas. In India, Care USA helped cashew farmers increase their yield and taught them how to sell to Wal-Mart.

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