URGENT CHALLENGES

03.12.12

Women in the World Summit: Fearless Women Taking On the World

The Daily Beast’s third annual Women in the World summit showcased the stories of the globe’s most fearless females—Hillary Clinton, Leymah Gbowee, Madeleine Albright, Christine Lagarde, Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, Nancy Pelosi, Gloria Steinem, Sheryl Sandberg, and a host of other activists, politicians, CEOs, and philanthropists—and sparked a rousing discussion on the urgent challenges and tremendous opportunities facing women today.

Newsweek/The Daily Beast’s third annual Women in the World Summit unrolled over three exhilarating days this weekend to a sold-out crowd at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. The grandeur of the setting—home to the New York City Ballet and one-time stage for the New York City Opera—was an appropriate fit for the ambitious scope of the summit’s panels and for the star power of its attendees, among them current and former secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, Oscar-winning actresses Meryl Streep and Angelina Jolie, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, legendary feminist Gloria Steinem, and IMF Chief Christine Lagarde.

Other speakers included politicians, CEOs, philanthropists, educators, lawmakers, and activists from around the globe—including a provincial council member from Afghanistan, a Burmese democracy activist, a groundbreaking investigative journalist from Guatemala, and Egyptian veterans of Tahrir Square. The summit was sponsored by major American companies, including HP, Bank of America, Toyota, Coca-Cola, Intel, Ann Taylor, Liberty Mutual, and Thomson Reuters. Hosted by Newsweek/The Daily Beast’s editor-in-chief Tina Brown—along with co-hosts Diane von Furstenberg, Facebook’s Sandberg, Judith Rodin, Nizan Guanaes, Mellody Hobson, Lauren Bush Lauren, Jane Harman and Maya L. Harris—the Women in the World Summit produced its fair share of viral quotes, including a quip by Steinem that immediately set the Internet on fire: “Female authority is still associated with childhood: the last time a lot of powerful guys saw a powerful woman, they were 8, and they feel regressed to childhood by a powerful woman in a way that they don’t feel with a man.” The popularity of the summit’s hashtag, #wiw12, even managed to send Twitter briefly over capacity. Above all, the summit produced a weekend of unforgettable discussions and deep connections between women of different generations and backgrounds, all bound by the conviction that “women’s rights are human rights” and that women have a moral obligation to work on each other’s behalf.

Some of the stories told on stage fired up imaginations and inspirations. Speaking with Brown, Gbowee recounted her life in Liberia during Charles Taylor’s brutal reign and the events that led her to assemble the country’s mothers to demand an end to civil war—culminating in a chain of women, arm in arm, taking a group of unmotivated negotiators hostage until they hammered out a peace accord. “My definition of victimhood is the person who sits and waits for a knight in shining armor,” Gbowee said. “It was always that way for me. But gradually, as I engaged in peace building, I realized that no one would come. If we want the rape to end, the violence to end, we have to stand up.”

“We have to be our own Gandhis. We have to be our own Kings. We have to be our own Mandelas,” she said.

Gbowee also expressed shock that American women were not more outraged over the way certain politicians and pundits were trying to shut them out of the reproductive-rights debate. “I watched this and said to myself, ‘Where are the angry American women?!’” she declared.

Fighting political apathy was also a priority for Kah Walla, former presidential candidate of Cameroon’s People’s Party. “We cannot accept that having 19 percent of women in [the U.S.] Congress is OK,” she told moderator Andrea Mitchell. “It’s politics that defines the economy; it’s politics that defines social norms. And until we get political power, we are not going to be able to make giant strides.”

Walla admonished the audience that “every woman in here needs to be involved in getting a woman elected”—a comment that later led Tina Brown to suggest that the women of West Africa, with the charismatic Gbowee and Walla in the lead, should launch their own bus tour of America to raise the country’s political consciousness.

Shortly after Walla appeared on Saturday morning, the audience heard from a woman whose political commitment is fast becoming legendary: California’s attorney general Kamala Harris, who spoke with her sister Maya, of the Ford Foundation, on their lifelong commitment to justice—whether for homeowners struggling with underwater mortgages or for children forced into prostitution. The sisters hammered home the importance of passing the idea of social sacrifice down through the generations. “Our mother raised us with the idea that we have to serve,” said Kamala. It’s an ethic that Maya is transmitting to her own daughter, soon to be a law school graduate. “What’s important for my daughter to know is that…if you are fortunate to have opportunity, it is your duty to make sure other people have those opportunities as well,” she said.

Toyota honored a group of particularly inspiring and innovative women with three $50,000 grants at the summit: Asenath Andrews, founder and principal of the Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit, which works to help pregnant teens finish school and succeed in life (and which recent graduates described lovingly as “a second home”); teen Talia Leman, CEO of RandomKid.org, who matches up curious kids with social causes; and business partners Jessica O. Matthews and Julie Silverman, who invented the “Soccket”—a soccer ball-cum-energy source that converts play into electricity. (The pair’s reaction upon hearing the size of the grant—which moved from shock, to jumping up and down, to squeals of excitement—particularly charmed the audience.) Earlier in the summit, Matthews and Silverman had discussed the importance of not listening to naysayers—in their case, skeptical professional engineers. “It’s really easy to think outside the box if you have no idea that there is a box,” Matthews said. “It [also] helped that we’re two really strong-willed, stubborn girls.”

Some of the stories told on stage—like those of Andrews’s hardworking students, beating the odds on teen pregnancy—stirred compassion. Also among the most touching, and troubling, were those of Jasvinder Sanghera and Sabatina James, two women who escaped their families’ plans for forced marriages. The women spoke on a panel with the intrepid heroes of Britain’s Forced Marriage Unit and Britain’s Head of Consular Assistance in Islamabad, who track down U.K. girls being forced to marry, often in faraway lands.

The audience heard a particularly chilling phone call in which a young girl reported to a hotline operator that her parents intended to take her to Pakistan. The operator counseled the girl to slip a spoon into her underwear, which would set off the alarms at airport security. That young woman was rescued; many others have simply disappeared. Both Sanghera, the founder of U.K. charity Karma Nirvana, and James, who runs a foundation in Germany to help Muslim women, spoke movingly of their own stories, their banishment from their families, and the shocking role their own mothers played in coercing the girls to wed. “We have to make no excuses for abuse,” Sanghera said.

Women in the World delegates met another survivor of horrific abuse at the Diane von Furstenberg awards Friday night at the United Nations: Jaycee Dugard, who spent 18 years locked in a pedophile’s backyard and who was honored with the annual event’s People’s Voice award. (Dugard accepted the award from fellow honoree Oprah Winfrey.) “My name is Jaycee Dugard,” she said to a captivated room. “I want to say that. For a long time, I wasn’t able to say my name, and it feels good.” She told the audience that she is determined to move beyond victimhood: “My hope is to be remembered for what I do,” said Dugard, whose JAYC foundation helps families of abducted people, “and not for what happened to me.”

It was a sentiment that could have applied to so many of the summit’s panelists—and particularly Zin Mar Aung, a 36-year-old Burmese activist who was jailed by her country’s oppressive junta for 11 years, simply for posting pro-democracy letters as a student. The conditions of her imprisonment were severe—the junta locked political prisoners in solitary confinement—but she kept her spirit strong by reciting “a poem that kept me going: someone can imprison your body, but not your mind.” Upon Zin Mar Aung’s release in 2009, she jumped right back into her political work, a gutsy move that helped win her one of the State Department’s International Women of Courage awards last week. Now, with Burma’s regime slowly starting to open to the West—“it really seems like a turning point,” observed fellow panelist Melanne Verveer, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues—and with Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi set to win a parliamentary seat in the April 1 elections, Zin Mar Aung’s work may soon bear fruit. “We try to deliver the message: democracy is not only for the West, but for all human beings,” she said. “Why can’t we practice it in our society?”

In a country not far from Burma’s borders, thousands of Nepali girls are also imprisoned, as domestic slaves—a practice that Richard Robbins, director of the documentary 10x10, hoped to shine a light on. His film told the story of one former domestic slave, 16-year-old Suma Tharu, whose life was transformed by the opportunity to go to school. Suma opened the Women in the World summit with a poignant song about being sold into slavery by her parents—who were disappointed to have a daughter—on the very stage where opera legend Anna Netrebko sang at the panel’s Friday night close. Suma’s repeat performance on Saturday brought the crowd to its feet with a standing ovation. “I’m singing for me and thousands of other girls,” she told ABC’s Juju Chang through a translator. Now, Suma—whose education had been cut short at the first grade—has caught up with her peers in school in four short years; when she grows up, she said, she wants to work for an organization that helps other women. (The importance of education was a recurring theme throughout the conference, and the special focus of a panel with Sarah Brown, the wife of former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and first lady of Kenya Ida Betty Odinga.)

Some of the stories aroused righteous anger. On the “Gender and Machismo” panel on crimes against women in Latin America, a young anonymous former prostitute spoke—with her back to the audience—about being tricked into the trade and trafficked to Mexico’s drug cartels. The police, she said, “think when someone’s a prostitute, it’s because they wanted to be a prostitute.”

Sylvia Gereda, an investigative journalist with the TV show Informe Especial, also bore witness to the alarming epidemic of “feminicide” in Guatemala, where more than 7,000 women have been murdered over the past decade (around 49 every month), often in deaths linked to the drug trade. “I have seen many times women thrown away in pieces right next to roads or rivers. They rape her, then they torture her,” Gereda said. “They cut off her arms and fingers and legs...every time I go to the morgues, I see the most terrifying things you can imagine.” “My challenge is to put a face to the mother, the girl, the teenager who has been murdered,” Gereda said.

The disturbing subject of rape came up again on a panel on women in the military. Claire Russo, a Marine veteran, described her fight to bring her rapist to justice and the military’s stonewalling on the case. (She finally was able to prosecute it in civilian court, since the incident occurred off base.) Both military culture and “American culture [need] to change in the way we approach victims,” she said. Rep. Jackie Speier, who has advocated for changes to the military’s rape protocol, pointed out that “more women are coming in to the military. We have to make it safe for them to serve.”

The U.S. reproductive rights debate also aroused indignation among audience members and panelists alike. Rep. Nancy Pelosi chastised “certain radio hosts who shall remain nameless—and hopefully, advertiser-less”—a reference to Rush Limbaugh’s comment that a Georgetown student who advocated that birth control pills should be covered by health insurance was a “slut” and “prostitute.” “They have just gone too far—and we can more easily do something about it because they have,” Pelosi said. “We need to take the opportunity to make the changes necessary so that nobody has to fight this fight again.” Pelosi, a mother of five, also joked about her opponents’ shallow criticisms: “Nancy Pelosi—she thinks she knows more about having babies than the pope!”

Indignation was the mot du jour during the panel hosted by Newsweek/The Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan on whether the Arab Spring has left women behind. Four veterans of the revolution in Egypt’s Tahrir Square noted that both liberal and conservative political parties alike were reluctant to put women on the ballot, despite the fact that, as Muslim Brotherhood member Sondos Asem said, “women had a very important role in encouraging men [during the revolution] and encouraging them to persist until Mubarak stepped down.”

“We have a lot of work to do now of behalf of women in Egypt,” said Dalia Ziada, Egypt director of the American Islamic Congress, who later delivered one of the summit’s most powerful quotes when she told the audience and her fellow panelists: “There is no spring without flowers and there is no Arab Spring without women.”

No matter how frustrating the situation for women’s rights seemed in certain parts of the globe, though, many, many stories highlighted moments of hope, signs of progress great or small, for the future of the world’s women and girls. Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie, who gave a grave update on Somalia’s Dr. Hawa Abdi and her refugee camp and clinic—al Shabaab had begun targeting the camp’s children, and were trying to claim some of its land—also presented an uplifting statement from Abdi after the doctor learned that she had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last week. “The Nobel Peace Prize nomination comes at the right time. I was in a low level of hope. But the nomination lifted my morale and it gave me the continuous keeping of hope alive,” Abdi said. “One day my people’s lives will change in a better way.”

Many of the most hopeful stories, indeed, came out of the continent of Africa: Barbara Bush and Lauren Bush Lauren talked about the Global Health Corps and Project FEED, their respective groups that are scoring small but significant wins in the fight against HIV/AIDS and hunger in the region. Sandra Uwiringiyimana, a teen who survived a horrific massacre in the Congo and who is a budding photographer and activist, spoke with wisdom beyond her years when she told moderator Charlie Rose that “hatred doesn’t solve a thing. Justice needs to be fought for and demanded. It can come from anyone—even a teenager like myself.” And veteran activist Molly Melching and Imam Demba Diawara, of the group Tostan, announced that their agency has helped thousands of Senegalese villages successfully stamp out the practice of female genital mutilation by getting men on board with the idea. “The key to ending a social norm is reaching out to all the family members,” said the imam, who personally traveled on foot around the region to advocate for an end to the practice. Melching agreed: “One person, one community alone, cannot end the practice.”

In order to keep hope alive, many panelists said, women needed to jump on board with the idea of personal sacrifice in service of a greater good. Many of the panelists operate at great risk to themselves, such as Masha Gessen, the author of a recent biography on Vladimir Putin, who will face unknown dangers when she returns to Russia this week; and war photographer and new mother Lynsey Addario, who—despite a spate of recent violence against journalists, including the deaths of Addario’s colleagues Marie Colvin and Anthony Shadid—remains committed to visiting the world’s most destitute and dangerous places to document the abuses of power occurring there. “We have to be there to bear witness to what’s happening,” Addario said.

It was a theme that echoed throughout three days of presentations. “It’s harder for women leaders,” said Hillary Clinton on the summit’s last day. Still, Clinton insisted, the sacrifice was always worth it. “What inspired me when I meet women around the world is not only who they are but what they do. They roll their sleeves up and get to work.” And actress Holland Taylor, who gave an uncannily accurate impersonation of Texas’s feisty former Gov. Ann Richards, had a message for “you women who shrink from public service: why should your life be just about you?”

In addition to personal sacrifice, a second leitmotif that wove its way through the panels was the growing purchasing power of women, and how it will surely shape the next century. Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent said that helping women up the economic ladder “makes good business sense: if we can empower more women, there would be a huge increase in productivity and there would be a huge jump in GDP in emerging markets,” said Kent, who called women “unbelievably good entrepreneurs.”

“This is not the century of the BRICs but the century of women.”

And Amanda Steinberg, CEO and Founder of DailyWorth, joked that “When I go out to dinner with my boyfriend, they always hand him the check—and he says, ‘wrong economy’ and hands it to me.”

On a panel about China’s new female entrepreneurs, Diane von Furstenberg attested first-hand to the growing power of women’s pocketbooks in China, where she has now opened six boutiques. Chinese women are “women whose strength is on steroids,” she said. “So focused, so determined.” (Mei Zhang, CEO of WildChina, agreed, saying that her father had always told her, “women hold up half the sky—you can go as far as you want.”)

IMF chief Christine Lagarde even suggested to interviewer Niall Ferguson that if more women had been in charge of financial institutions, the worldwide crisis might not have happened at all. “If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters…” she said with a wan smile. “I think there is something to be said about women being good crisis managers.”

Still, hurdles remain to full economic equality, as Valerie Jarrett pointed out. Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama, noted that “in a country as great as ours, it’s unacceptable that women still only earn 70 cents on the dollar. Equal pay is sound business…and a woman’s income is more important than ever before.”

Perhaps the most moving and all-encompassing theme of the summit was the notion that women need to assist and support each other in order to succeed—or, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it, “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” Former Rep. Jane Harman, now director of the Woodrow Wilson Center, said, “we have to mentor. It’s an obligation if you break through that glass ceiling—which is actually a thick layer of men—to mentor younger women.” Shelby Knox, of Change.org, agreed when speaking about her younger generation. “We were told that we were equal and there were no more barriers. So when we start doing our work and hit these barriers, we think it’s our fault as individuals. [But the] solutions for my generation are not going to be individual.”

Younger women in particular highlighted the Internet as a remarkable means for bringing women together in solidarity. “The Internet is our tool to organize, to tell our stories, to come together,” said Knox, on a panel on “The Digital Lives of Girls,” moderated by Chelsea Clinton. “Online, it has helped us connect to women around the world,” said fellow panelist Noorjahan Akbar, who is opening the first all-women’s cybercafé in Kabul. “We need to give Afghan women a chance to share their stories on the Internet, so that they don’t stay silent,” Akbar said. “Through Facebook and Twitter, we will be able to recruit many young women, many of whom can’t even leave their houses. But they contact me on Facebook and send me their views that way,” she said.

“Women post on my Facebook how much they need an Internet café…to get support from everywhere on Earth.”

Akbar’s countrywoman Bibi Hokmina—a provincial council member in Horst province who dresses like a man in order to carry out her public political role—also insisted that Afghan women had to stand together in order to beat back the specter of the Taliban, which is now in tentative negotiations with the Americans and the government in Kabul. “If the Taliban come into some sort of semblance of power, women’s situations will become much worse…it cannot go back to where it was,” she said. “It’s time for us to stand up on our own two feet, to better our lives by ourselves.”

Perhaps the most moving and all-encompassing theme of the summit was the notion that women need to assist and support each other in order to succeed.

And the summit ended with a show of particular solidarity between two luminous women, when actress Meryl Streep gave a tribute to Hillary Clinton. It’s “not a simple job to be a role model,” Streep said. “But while we are busy relating to her, judging her, assessing her hair, her jackets, supporting her, worrying if she’s getting enough sleep…she’s just been busy working. Doing it. Making those words—‘Women’s rights are human rights’—into something every leader in every country now knows are a lynchpin of American policy.”

“This is what you get when you play a world leader,” said Streep, brandishing her recent Best Actress Oscar. “And this is what you get when you are one,” she said, waving Clinton onto the stage.

Clinton, visibly moved by Streep’s monologue, called on women in the crowd to be as “fearless…committed...and audacious” as the summit’s many panelists, and to embrace the true definition of being a “woman in the world: It means never giving up—on yourself, your potential, your future. It means getting up, working hard, and putting a country or a community on your back.”

Judging from the comments of women leaving the auditorium that day, many in the audience are now planning to go home and do just that.