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A Milestone to End Genital Cutting

The British government’s surprise commitment of $50 million gives those working to end the harmful practice at the grassroots level new momentum.

This has been quite a week for all of us working for the rights of women and girls. Today, on International Women’s Day, I’m excited about a significant milestone in the movement to end female genital cutting (FGC).

Egypt: FGM awareness discussion

Young girls watch a puppet show and attend a discussion on female genital mutilation near Minya, Egypt, 2010. (Shawn Baldwin/Corbis)

Supporting communities as they abandon FGC has been my focus over the last 15 years as founder and director of Tostan, a nonprofit organization working in eight African countries where the practice is prevalent. Up to three million girls in Africa alone are at risk of undergoing female genital cutting each year. It involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, has no health benefits, and is a violation of girls’ and women’s human rights.

In the last few weeks, we had heard that the British government planned to announce a contribution toward the end of this practice, but no one expected that it would be the single biggest international investment ever made on this issue.

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The Pill’s Secret Power

It's an economy booster! One third of the wage gains women have made since the 1960s are the result of birth control, says Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood.

International Women’s Day is a perfect time to reflect on the status of women around the world and their health care in particular, since health and economic opportunity are inextricably linked.

Birth Control Pill

Woman holding birth control pills. (PhotoAlto/Ale Ventura)

In many parts of the world, a woman’s access to health care is so limited that getting pregnant means risking her life. Often these women live long distances from health-care providers and lack adequate transportation to professional facilities. We know that expanding access to family planning services saves lives because it allows women to make decisions about when and how often they will give birth. In fact, we could reduce the number of pregnancy-related deaths by 79,000 worldwide if we provided services to everyone who needs them.


The Obama administration has wisely focused on women in the context of foreign policy. Hillary Clinton put women and girls at the center of State Department priorities, a focus we hope and expect Secretary of State Kerry to continue to expand.
 Current U.S. funding for international family-planning programs provides birth control to more than 30 million people around the world. These services and supplies help to avert 9.4 million unintended pregnancies and 4 million abortions—the majority of which are unsafe—and prevent the deaths of 22,000 women each year.

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10 Overlooked Women

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Through Her Lens

In one of the more bizarre arguments against abortion, a group of pro-life doctors at the United Nations says the procedure is an act of violence against women.

The annual session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women kicked off this week in New York City, with delegates discussing ways to end violence against women. Among the thousands of presenters were groups working to stop female genital mutilation, feed starving girls in Somalia, prevent HIV infection in rape survivors—and end abortion.

The pro-life crusaders included self-described “international women medical experts” from the U.S., Chile, and Ireland who believe abortion is an act of violence that constitutes a human-rights abuse, is never medically necessary, and is linked to maternal mortality rates.

“I think it’s time for the entire world community to step back from the abortion rhetoric and take a look at what really lowers maternal mortality rates,” Dr. Donna J. Harrison of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists (AAPLOG) said at a press conference Wednesday following her U.N. testimony. What really impacts maternal mortality, Harrison said, is “a clean facility, drugs like oxytocin, women’s education, and infrastructure that allows them to transport back and forth to a hospital.”

That’s true, just as it’s true that abortions are linked to maternal deaths. But what Harrison leaves out is that unsafe abortions kill women—68,000 women die this way annually, by some estimates—not safe abortions, which are those practiced by skilled providers in countries where it’s legal. “Countries where abortion has recently been legalized have seen a dramatic dip in abortion-related deaths,” said Gilda Sedgh, the primary abortion researcher at the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights group.

War Zone

Women Fleeing Syrian Rape Hell

Sexual violence is used as a weapon of war, forcing tens of thousands of women to flee the war-torn country. By Megan Bradley.

In a bleak irony, today—International Women’s Day—is also a public holiday in Syria, commemorating the 1963 coup that brought the Baathist party to power and saw Hafez al-Assad take over as commander of the Syrian air force. Assad eventually became president of Syria and, for all his sins, was a proponent of equal rights for women. Under the rule of his son, Bashar al-Assad, however, Syria has become a living hell for its women, particularly for the millions who have had to flee their homes since the country’s crisis began two years ago.

In the past week, the Syrian refugee crisis has grabbed headlines around the world as the number of Syrians who have had to seek asylum abroad reached 1 million. But there is another, less-discussed displacement crisis unfolding inside Syria. Syria’s internally displaced population passed the 2 million mark months ago—by some estimates, there are more than 3 million Syrians uprooted within their country, most out of reach of international aid and media attention. The consequences of this crisis have been catastrophic for all displaced persons, but particularly for women and girls. International Women’s Day is a chance to give these consequences the attention they deserve, but have lacked so far.

Among the litany of abuses that characterize the Syrian conflict, rape has emerged as a defining element of the displacement crisis. The International Rescue Committee, a leading aid agency, reports that among Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, rape was a primary motive for their flight. Inside Syria, increasing incidents of sexual violence suggest that rape is being used as a weapon of war. As the assistant U.N. high commissioner for refugees reported recently to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the displacement crisis is “accompanied by gender-based crimes, deliberate victimization of women and children, and a frightening array of assaults on human dignity.” Attacks are often carried out in public, compounding the humiliation and stigma endured by those who survive.

In part as a result of such violence, many families have been displaced multiple times. Few have been able to find secure shelter or adequate assistance. For example, since January, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, has been able to make only two deliveries of assistance to the internally displaced across conflict lines. While these convoys are a logistical and diplomatic feat, the distribution of 15,000 blankets and 1,000 tents by the February 13 mission is radically disproportionate to the millions in need. According to recent reports, UNHCR’s cash-assistance programs have so far reached an estimated 25,000 internally displaced Syrians, a tiny proportion of the internally displaced population.

Women’s Advocate

Climate Change’s Gender Gap

On International Women’s Day, Ireland’s first female president looks at the challenges ahead, including why women will bear the brunt of global warming.

When she was still a small and bookish girl, holed up in the library of a Sacred Heart nuns’ school in Dublin, Mary Robinson read about towering human-rights figures—Eleanor Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi—and dreamed of doing something worthwhile with her life. Before long, and famously, she did: first, as one of Ireland’s youngest senators and a barrister taking up cases with the European Court of Human Rights; then, as Ireland’s first female president, promoting peace in Northern Ireland and reaching out to the country’s marginalized communities; and, from 1997 to 2002, as the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, bearing witness to, and calling for international action on, vicious conflicts and widespread suffering in places such as Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor, and Chechnya.

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Former president of Ireland Mary Robinson speaks during a press conference in April 2011. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty, file)

Now a member of Nelson Mandela’s Elders and the president of the Mary Robinson Foundation–Climate Justice—and a 2009 recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom—Robinson has detailed her career in a new memoir, Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice. From her early years in western Ireland, where she grew up in a large, loving, and faith-filled family, through her advocacy for the world’s most vulnerable citizens, Robinson’s story is one of determination, moral courage, and profound integrity of spirit.

In honor of International Women’s Day, I recently sat down with Robinson in Washington, D.C., to talk about her book, her long history of fighting on behalf of women’s rights, and her latest efforts to bring climate justice into the international spotlight. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Service, Not Subservience

Sexual Violence in the Ranks

With women now serving in combat roles, it’s high time the military does more to ensure they don’t live in fear of sexual abuse, writes Eryn Sepp.

I have a confession to make. I used to belong to a group that has killed and maimed thousands of women since I joined in 2004. Within this same organization, numerous sexual assaults on its own women occur year after year, often unchecked and unreported. I turned a blind eye. I tried to convince myself I wasn’t involved. I even blamed the victims—anything to keep from becoming one of them.

I wasn’t in a gang. I wasn’t brainwashed in some fundamentalist cult. Nor was I one of the hundreds of thousands of women forced into prostitution every year by human traffickers. I was a sergeant in the United States military.

What can we do when a trusted national institution responsible for restoring peace and upholding democratic values allows any violence—especially sexual violence—to proliferate within its ranks? This is the question our military’s leaders should be grappling with this week. Recent reports and profiles of rampant sexual assault of recruits by their instructors in initial entry training.

Today marks International Women’s Day, and the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women is asking us all to be aware of and consider the 2013 theme of “elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.”

Women in the World

How to End Violence Against Women

When it comes to violence against women, there is no “typical” victim. To solve the problem, we’ll need solutions that are far outside the box.

This week in New York, the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women is convening global delegates for its annual meeting. The priority this year? The prevention and elimination of all forms of violence against women. Executive director of U.N. Women Michelle Bachelet has flatly declared: “Enough is enough.”

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The world is watching. How are we going to address violence effectively, sustainably, and in a way that preserves freedom and returns stolen dignity to the women and girls of the world?

We need to look outside the box. Far outside. The real solutions lie on the periphery, in creative minds and unusual alliances.

Secret Weapon

The Woman Behind ‘Girls’

She’s Lena Dunham’s biggest fan. She’s Lena Dunham’s best friend. She’s Lena Dunham’s professional partner. Meet Jenni Konner, the other girl behind ‘Girls.’

When Girls premiered last spring and devoured the zeitgeist, critics—heck, all of us—coronated creator-star-writer-director Lena Dunham as the voice of a generation. If that’s true, then Jenni Konner, the woman who brought Dunham’s talents to the attention of executive producer Judd Apatow and now acts as Girls’ showrunner, is that voice’s silent partner.

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Allison Williams (left), Jenni Konner (center), and Lena Dunham in September 2012. (Stefanie Keenan/WireImage)

She’s also, as Dunham said in January in her acceptance speech for the Golden Globe for best actress in a TV comedy, “my best friend and the person who I aspire to be.”

When Girls also won the Globe for best TV comedy later in the evening, Konner, in a gorgeous white gown, stood tearfully beaming behind Dunham and clutching actress Allison Williams, who plays Marnie on the show, while Dunham thanked her again. Her face may not be as recognizable as those of Dunham, Williams, and the rest of the stars of Girls. But it’s Konner whom, to a very large degree, we can thank for Girls’ existence in our lives.

FINANCIAL INCLUSION

Turning Poor Kids Into Savers

Want to ensure poor children mature into poor adults? Make sure they spend all their leftover cash. Social entrepreneur Jeroo Billimoria tells Daniel Gross how she’s trying to end the cycle by enlisting banks and governments to help kids open savings accounts.

“You’re never too young to talk about saving money.” It’s the sort of line one might hear a consultant tell wealthy American parents concerned about how their children will handle the riches they’ll inherit. But Jeroo Billimoria is addressing the people at the bottom of the world’s economic pyramid: children in the developing world. “If you want to break poverty, don’t start with the adults. Start with the young people,” she says.

Billimoria, 47, is a Mumbai-born serial social entrepreneur whose latest project is an ambitious effort to bring hundreds of millions of children into the world’s financial system. Billimoria started working with street kids in India 20 years ago, which led her to found Childline, a network of help lines in 74 of the country’s biggest cities. She took the concept global with Child Helpline International, which now operates in 153 countries.

At Child Helpline, Billimoria got a firsthand view of a conundrum that keeps kids in poverty and helps ensure that many poor kids mature into poor adults. “These street kids—12 to 14 years old—would earn 100 rupees a day ($1.50). And then at the end of the day, after eating their meal, they’d spend the leftover cash,” she says. They had nowhere to put the money and feared it would be stolen if they didn’t spend it. “People who live on $2 a day have the capability of amassing savings, but they don’t know where to put it.”

That led to her next effort, Aflatoun, which encourages financial literacy and savings among children. With her latest launch, Child & Youth Finance International, founded in 2011, Billimoria is aiming to scale up such efforts by enlisting banks and governments.

2013 Women in the World Speakers

2013 Women in the World Speakers

Inspiring women from around the globe will convene in April for the 2013 Women in the World Summit. See who’s coming!

Mika Cheers Sandberg’s Message

Mika Cheers Sandberg’s Message

Mika Brzezinski says that Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ is what women need to hear, and Sandberg is the perfect messenger.

The Game That Changes Lives

The Game That Changes Lives

Half the Sky: The Game gets real-world donations when you play on Facebook, writes Caroline Linton.

Women Who Paved the Way

Women Who Paved the Way

The new documentary, MAKERS: Women Who Make America, traces the history of the women’s movement, one pioneer at a time. Executive producer Betsy West has her own story of working in a man's world.

Twitter's Box-Office Smash

Twitter's Box-Office Smash

The producers of a new film about girls and education made Facebook and Twitter their publicists.

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