“I feel heartened by the progress,” said Melanne Verveer, “but aware that many challenges remain.”
The former ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues was talking to The New York Times about the state of women’s rights around the world—a topic set to take center stage at the fourth annual Women in the World Summit, which Verveer is co-hosting this year. The sold-out event takes place Thursday and Friday at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater and is dedicated to bringing to light the stories of pioneers fighting for the rights of women and girls—from grassroots activists and courageous private citizens to top government officials and CEOs. The event will be live-streamed on The Daily Beast’s Women in the World Channel.
The summit kicks off this year on Thursday night with two remarkable performances. Ballerina Michaela DePrince, who was orphaned in Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war and is now the youngest member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, will open the event with a performance, followed shortly thereafter by Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep’s tribute to Irish firebrand Inez McCormack. The human-rights activist, who unfailingly believed in the dignity of ordinary people, was an influential and integral part of the Northern Ireland peace process that culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
In between, the summit’s co-hosts—Newsweek and The Daily Beast editor in chief Tina Brown, Somali doctor and peacemaker Hawa Abdi, Grupo ABC chairman Nizan Guanaes, Toyota CCO Julie Hamp, the Hon. Jane Harman, the Ford Foundation’s Maya L. Harris, Lauren Bush Lauren, Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Verveer, and designer Diane von Furstenberg—will each honor a woman they believe in and whose activism has inspired them.
Thursday also will feature a host of panels about women on the front lines—of conflict and politics. For “Syria: Women in War,” ABC’s Barbara Walters will speak to Syria expert Mouna Ghanem and Zainab Salbi of Women for Women International about the latest atrocities in the Middle Eastern nation, where President Bashar al-Assad still clings to power and women have been an instrumental force in coordinating the two-year rebellion. On a different battleground altogether, Dr. Mamphela Ramphele—the anti-apartheid legend and partner of murdered activist Steve Biko—is fighting to bring change to South Africa’s corrupt and stagnant political landscape. She’ll talk with Charlie Rose about her new political party and why time is running out for the ruling African National Congress.
In any war, there are martyrs who die too young—and Malala Yousafzai almost became one of them last year, when the Taliban attacked her school bus and shot her in the head. The extremists had been angered by Malala’s activism on behalf of girls’ right to an education in her native Pakistani tribal regions. By a stroke of luck, or fate, Malala survived the assassination attempt, and she recently returned to school in England, where she was flown to recover from her wounds. Actress and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Angelina Jolie will honor Malala’s bravery and her unbreakable spirit on the summit’s opening night, while filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy—whose documentary Saving Face, on Pakistan’s epidemic of acid attacks, won the country’s first Oscar last year—will talk with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour about two other young Pakistani women who are risking their lives for women’s rights in their homeland.
The evening culminates in the Women in the World Foundation fundraising dinner, which will feature a panel on women’s rights in the new Afghanistan. Parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi—who intends to run for the country’s presidency in 2014—and U.N. senior mediation expert Rina Amiri will discuss the surprising facts on the ground with one of Afghanistan’s most influential entrepreneurs, MOBY Group CEO Saad Mohseni.
On the summit’s second day, panels cover a wealth of issues dominating the headlines this year, from encouraging women in the tech industry to halting domestic and sexual violence and investing in the world’s girls. But first, the morning will open with a special appearance from former secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who worked tirelessly on behalf of women’s rights at the State Department and who galvanized a new generation of feminists with her 1995 Beijing speech proclaiming, “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”
Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, will moderate Friday’s opening panel, “Grooming Titans of Tech,” which will look at the next generation of female Internet entrepreneurs, from TaskRabbit founder Leah Busque to Girls Who Code’s Reshma Saujani. They’ll be followed by a morning of remarkable young women: 23-year-old Alaa Murabit, who is leading Libya’s women into politics after the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi; Uganda’s teen chess champ Phiona Mutesi, whose love of the sport took her from Kampala’s poorest slums to the national championship and who will talk with grandmaster Garry Kasparov and other chess experts about how girls can benefit from the game; and young inventress Kavita Shukla, who figured out an ingenious way to preserve food.
Other morning panels will tackle the outcry over a vicious gang rape in India that left a young woman dead and a nation enraged and remorseful and a talk with Latinas who have climbed the ladder of success, featuring actress and philanthropist Eva Longoria.
After a break for the delegate lunch, featuring a discussion between Andrea Mitchell and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice on how 21st-century threats are changing diplomacy today, the summit will resume with a blockbuster afternoon session. Vital Voices president and CEO Alyse Nelson will talk with Bank of America’s Justine Metz and Haitian Ambassador-at-Large Danielle Saint-Lôt about how to build female leaders with a global mindset. Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent will discuss how female entrepreneurship is vital to the health of an economy with Verveer, Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and Güler Sabanci of Sabanci Holding. Designer Diane von Furstenberg talks with ABC’s Lara Spencer about her own legendary fashion business and her philanthropic work. And Nobel Peace Prize nominee Susana Trimarco will talk about the scourge of human trafficking—and how it claimed her own daughter, Marita—with the U.N.’s special rapporteur on trafficking, Joy Ngozi Ezeilo. Also on the lineup: Sam’s Club president Rosalind Brewer, Spanx founder Sara Blakely, crowdsourcing whiz kids Sejal Hathi and Tara Roberts in an interview with actress and activist America Ferrera, ballerina DePrince and orphan activist Jane Aronson, Burma’s all-girl pop band Me N Ma Girls, and the O’Neill sisters, who will talk with actress Claire Danes about how their new technology can aid disaster-relief efforts.
Friday’s summit also will feature moments of megawatt star power. Oprah Winfrey will interview one of her favorite guests of all time, Zimbabwe’s Tererai Trent, whose Tinogona Foundation is working to provide the opportunity for an education to all Africa’s women and girls. Former supermodel and founder of Every Mother Counts, Christy Turlington Burns, will discuss revolutionary new ways to reduce maternal mortality on a panel featuring Tostan founder Molly Melching. And Oscar winner Tom Hanks will celebrate the life and the legend of the late, great Nora Ephron, whose final play, Lucky Guy, is now playing on Broadway with Hanks in the starring role.
If last year’s summit—which drew 2,500 women from around the globe and sparked discussion on everything from the U.S. election-cycle birth-control debate to Latin America’s alarming epidemic of femicides—is any indication, the stories coming out of Women in the World 2013 are sure to inspire us and outrage us, encourage us to reach out and move us to action, and introduce us to unforgettable women—on stage and in the audience alike—who know the future is bright, even if the path is long to get there.