04.06.137:17 PM ET

Lean On: Women Are Challenged to Change the World

In a star-studded, moving two days at the fourth Women in the World Summit in New York, women were challenged to demand their rights. Millions more around the globe got the message through social media and the Web.

Sheryl Sandberg gave us Lean In, her neo-feminist mantra that if women are to get ahead in American society, they need to remain committed to the workplace and not let career take a back seat to family and marriage. Now the fourth annual Women in the World Summit has added to and amended that vocabulary by highlighting how women must, in the words of summit founder and co-host, Newsweek and The Daily Beast editor-in-chief Tina Brown, “lean on”: on corporations, on courts, on governments and clerics, and, above all, on fathers, brothers, boyfriends, and male acquaintances to stop persecuting women and to “safeguard the rights and well-being, and to free up the economic potential, of a full half of all [the world’s] citizens.”

The summit’s “lean on” message reverberated throughout two days of electrifying panels April 4 and 5 in front of a sold-out crowd at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. Now in its fourth year, the event—which draws world leaders, top CEOs, firebrand activists, and grassroots organizers to New York to discuss the most pressing global challenges to, and to spotlight the energetic momentum of, the women’s-rights movement today—was sponsored by Toyota, AT&T, Bank of America, the Coca-Cola Co., Liberty Mutual Insurance, Merck for Mothers, Mary Kay, and Thomson Reuters and co-hosted by Brown, Dr. Hawa Abdi, Nizan Guanaes, Julie Hamp, Jane Harman, Maya L. Harris, Lauren Bush Lauren, Ai-jen Poo, Meryl Streep, Melanne Verveer, and Diane von Furstenberg. The event’s social-media hashtag—#wiw13—inundated Twitter and reached more than 18 million people on the first night alone as audiences celebrated the courageous stories shared on stage and broadcast calls-to-arms to their own followers.

In introducing the summit Thursday, Brown alluded to Sandberg’s nascent movement and told the crowd, “‘Leaning in’ can only be a partial strategy. Leaning in works only in places where women are close enough to reach for their rightful goals. But there are vast numbers of places where women are at the wrong end of a chasm. Where you lean in and you’re scorned, or worse, flogged, stoned, vilified, or denied entry. Our mission at the fourth Women in the World Summit is not just to lean in, but to lean ON:

Lean on corporations to change the pitiful representation of women in boardrooms. Lean on the prosecutors of India to end rampant sexual violence. Lean on the courts in Latin America to put an end to impunity for violence against women. Lean on the pimps who sell girls for sex and the johns who buy them. Lean on clerics from all religions who condone or turn a blind eye to the abuse of women and deny their fundamental rights. Lean on brothers who would murder their sisters in so-called honor killings.

In a star-studded, moving two days at the fourth Women in the World Summit in New York, women were challenged to demand their rights. Millions more around the globe got the message through social media and the Web.

The summit’s breakout stars have devoted their lives to doing just that. Nobel nominee Susana Trimarco—whose daughter, Marita, was kidnapped more than a decade ago by a suspected prostitution ring—is demanding that Latin American governments and law enforcement stop colluding with and protecting traffickers and that they pass tough laws to end modern slavery. India’s Mallika Dutt and Ravi Kant are bringing men on board to call for an end to the country’s epidemic of sexual violence, which reached a tipping point last December with the gang rape and murder of one young student now known as Nirbhaya, or “the fearless one.” Uganda’s teen chess champ Phiona Mutesi, who grew up in the slums of Kampala and now is well on her way to becoming a grandmaster, is beating the boys in international tournaments once closed to female players. (She played a game against her idol, Garry Kasparov, on Thursday morning and later appeared on a panel with the chess master, her coach Robert Katende, and South African MiniChess founder Marisa van der Merwe to talk about the importance of the game in helping young girls to flourish.) And young Pakistani activists Humaira Bachal and Khalida Brohi—whose courage moved the audience to applause and tears—are standing up to men in their homeland and insisting that girls be granted the right to go to school and that “honor killings” become abhorrent to the men and women of their country.

Indeed, while all the summit’s speakers fired up imaginations to envision a more equal world and prompted indignation at some of the most appalling injustices still committed toward women, it was the girls of the summit who stole hearts this year: Humaira and Khalida; Phiona; this year’s Toyota Mothers of Invention Fenugreen mastermind Kavita Shukla, Recovers cofounders Caitria and Morgan O’Neill, and girltanks’ Sejal Hathi and Tara Roberts; Burma’s pathbreaking all-female band the Me N Ma Girls; Malala Yousafzai—who sent a video message from Britain, where she is recovering from an assassination attempt—and 18-year-old ballerina Michaela DePrince, the youngest member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, who kicked off the summit Thursday with a breathtaking dance performance.

Later, in a Friday panel, DePrince and her mother, Elaine—who adopted DePrince and another young girl from a Sierre Leone orphanage in the midst of the country’s brutal civil war—talked about how DePrince had once seen a picture of a ballerina in a magazine and tore it out, hiding it in her underwear and showing her treasure to only one friend, the girl who turned out to be her future sister. On her first night in the United States, DePrince walked on her tiptoes and ransacked Elaine’s luggage looking for ballet shoes—she thought all American women walked en pointe. Elaine realized her daughter’s passion early on, summing up her parenting strategy as “love, realism, and encouragement.” Later, orphan activist Dr. Jane Aronson noted that more than 150 million gifted children around the world are languishing in squalid institutions and may never have the opportunity to reach for their dreams. “Think about the life of an orphan, and think what it is you can do,” she said to moderator Juju Chang. “And there’s a lot you can do.”

Women in the World: The Best of Day Two (PHOTOS)

Guests at the Women in the World Conference 2013; 4/5/2013
Roxxe Ireland/Marc Bryan-Brown

Individuals acting to make a difference: the theme reverberated through Thursday evening’s panels, whether that action involved casting a vote, pressuring a government for peace or standing up to extremists. South Africa’s anti-apartheid legend Mamphela Ramphele talked with Charlie Rose about her new political party, Agang, which she launched to provide an alternative to the corrupt and stagnant African National Congress and “restore the promise of freedom and the values and principles that so many of us fought for and so many of my own friends and colleagues died for.” Among them: the activist and martyr Stephen Biko, father to Ramphele’s children, who was murdered in a vicious beating while in police custody in 1977. His legacy, Ramphele believes, is now “at risk: his focus was on making sure that people freed themselves from the notion of being inferior, the notion of being victims ... I want to see South Africa led in a way that restores our freedom. And if that means I need to lead, I will.”

Moving from the ballot box to the corridors of government, “Syria: Women in War” brought together Women for Women International’s Zainab Salbi and Syrian activist Mouna Ghanem to speak with Barbara Walters about America’s responsibility to bring Russia on board in ending the bloody Middle Eastern conflict and to shine a spotlight on how, as Salbi said, “in the Middle East, women are the battlefields.” In post–Arab Spring countries, women are increasingly becoming targets for trafficking, sexual harassment, and even rape as a tool of intimidation. “It’s not only a women’s issue,” said Ghanem. “It’s very much related to the increased violence in Syria, which is not being faced by the world. The whole world is seeing the violence and doing nothing.”

War and extremism prey on the vulnerable, which too often means women—a tragedy that Afghanistan knows well. But since the Taliban fled the country over a decade ago in advance of U.S. troops, Afghan women have found the cultural space to flourish. In a dinner panel sponsored by Bank of America—and introduced by the company’s global strategy and marketing officer, Anne Finucane—Afghan mogul Saad Mohseni, parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi, and U.N. expert Rina Amiri discussed how “women’s gains are fragile, yet there have been gains.” Girls in college today started school when America entered Afghanistan, the group said, and the majority of Afghans are loath to return to the dark days of the Taliban. Koofi, who plans to run for president in 2014—a feat once impossible for a woman—noted that while many fear what will happen to women’s rights once American troops withdraw, “Afghan women are the conscience of our country.” She praised the generational change that now sees her daughters connected to the world via Facebook and Twitter, so removed from the era of her own father, who tried to leave Koofi out in the sun to die as a girl child and later forbade her from attending school. Today, the Afghan women’s soccer team got a standing ovation from a stadium full of men for its recent triumph over the Pakistani squad, and “we are using ballots,” Koofi said, “instead of bullets to remove people from power.”

Unfortunately, even as Afghanistan’s women are making slow but steady progress, just across the border in Pakistan, the situation has rapidly deteriorated. In the country’s tribal regions, which now play home to the Taliban, communities are instituting harsh interpretations of Islamic law that prevent women from moving about in public without a male relative and that deny girls access to education. But people are starting to speak up and fight back—including the girls themselves. As practically the whole world now knows, 15-year-old student and education activist Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head last October by extremists looking to silence her voice and intimidate her supporters. Miraculously Malala survived and is now recovering in Britain, where she will soon get to return to school. On Thursday night, actress and U.N. envoy Angelina Jolie honored the brave child she called “powerful, but ... also a sweet, creative, loving little girl who wants to help others, work for others.” The extremists “shot her at point-blank range in the head—and made her stronger,” Jolie said, before announcing the Malala Fund, established by Vital Voices with a donation from the Women in the World Foundation. The fund will be administered by Malala to achieve her dream of educating girls in her homeland. Via a video address, Malala told the crowd with conviction (and a shy smile), “This is the happiest moment of my life ... If we can educate 40 girls, we can educate 40 million girls.” (Tina Brown later announced that Jolie recently made a personal donation of $200,000 to the fund.)

In a star-studded, moving two days at the fourth Women in the World Summit in New York, women were challenged to demand their rights. Millions more around the globe got the message through social media and the Web.

The attempt on Malala’s life loomed large over one of the summit’s most moving panels, titled, aptly, “The Next Generation of Malalas.” Moderated by Christiane Amanpour, and featuring Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy—whose Saving Face brought Pakistan’s horrific acid-attack violence to light—the panel introduced the world to two courageous, fiery, and passionate young women risking their lives every day in Pakistan to help lift up their countrywomen: Humaira Bachal, founder of the Dream Foundation Trust, and Khalida Brohi, founder of the Sughar Women Program. Bachal’s Karachi-based foundation has been able to build schools and educate more than 2,000 young women, even as her family has been ostracized by her work. “Men just want to treat women like animals in our society,” Bachal said. But the girl refuses to be intimidated: “Her school is filled by young girls who are defying culture, defying tradition,” Obaid Chinoy said, adding that Bachal doesn’t take any nonsense, and the men in her community know that.

For her part, Brohi—whose Sughar project also helps to educate girls—recently made a documentary revealing men’s attitudes toward female schooling in her tribal region. The response was chilling: one man told her, through laughter, that if a woman tried to get educated in his community, “the answer is always a bullet.” Brohi—whose own friends have died in so-called honor killings—said it was hard to confront such attitudes, but “I had to be patient—because I knew, one day, this man would be working for me.” (Cue wild audience applause.) Brohi added that she had to convince her own father to allow her to attend the summit. He finally relented when she told him, “Not doing this work will kill me. Doing this work will keep me alive. Let me go.”

Humaira and Brohi’s work is right in line with what former secretary of State Hillary Clinton—in a rousing address opening the second day of the summit—called “the great unfinished business of the 21st century: advancing rights and opportunities for women and girls.” Speaking to a crowd that gave multiple standing ovations to Clinton, her message and her legacy—and that went wild over Tina Brown’s introductory ruminations on what might be next for Clinton, possibly in the year 2016—the politician called for a bottom-up, tech-savvy, “21st-century approach to advancing the rights and opportunities of women and girls at home and across the globe” and asserted that “women are not victims. We are agents of change, we are drivers of progress, we are makers of peace—all we need is a fighting chance.”

In a star-studded, moving two days at the fourth Women in the World Summit in New York, women were challenged to demand their rights. Millions more around the globe got the message through social media and the Web.

Clinton highlighted technology as a radical new tool in the fight for global equality: “In countries and communities ... where for generations violence against women has gone unchecked, opportunity and dignity virtually unknown, there is a powerful new current of grassroots activism stirring, galvanized by events too outrageous to ignore and enabled by new technologies that give women and girls voices like never before,” she said. “From satellite television to cellphones from Twitter to Tumblr, is helping bring abuses out of the shadows and into the center of global consciousness, Think of that woman in a blue bra beaten in Tahrir Square; think about that 6-year-old girl in Afghanistan about to be sold into marriage to settle a family debt. Just as importantly, technological changes are helping inspire, organize, and empower grassroots action. I have seen this, and that is where progress is coming from, and that’s where our support is needed. We have a tremendous stake in the outcome of these metrics.”

The message echoed in the morning’s next two panels. In the first, “Grooming Titans of Tech,” Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, talked with TaskRabbit CEO Leah Busque, AT&T’s Esther Lee, Andrea Zurek of XG Ventures, and Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani about the importance of motivating American girls to enter the tech industry and of reducing the technology gap that leaves lower-income communities at a drastic disadvantage. The following panel, on India’s now-infamous gang rape that left a young student disemboweled and dead and an entire nation raging over the crime, also highlighted how the outrage was instantly transmitted across India and around the world via new mobile technologies—and how the resulting outcry prompted a paradigm shift in India.

The panel kicked off with heartbreaking testimony from a woman calling herself Divya, a rape survivor whose attacker lured her to his home under false pretenses and then threatened to broadcast the rape on the Internet. Speaking with her back to the audience, Divya told a nightmare tale of police incompetence and judicial stonewalling, but vowed to remain strong. “I felt that I had been violated and it’s time to stand up against it ... I think we’re survivors,” she said, “not victims.”

After Divya’s testimony, an impassioned panel featuring journalists Shoma Chaudhury and Barkha Dutt, as well as Breakthrough CEO and president Mallika Dutt and Shakti Vahini president and activist Ravi Kant, pressed the importance of bringing men on board to change cultural norms and stop sexual violence. In India, Chaudhury said, “either you’re a slut or a goddess,” and so women are either devalued or cloistered away. Mallika Dutt—whose “ring the doorbell” campaign asking men to intervene in domestic disputes became an unexpected hit in India—said, “What we have is a global crisis of masculinity ... It’s time for us to really look at men and, as Tina Brown said yesterday, lean on them and say, ‘Enough is enough.’” That would include getting laws changed to make marital rape a crime in India, Barkha Dutt said, and changing the attitudes of judges who often tell women that “all marriages have to absorb some level of beating.” Kant, who runs an anti-trafficking organization with his two brothers, also urged “every man [to] stand up with the women and say that this culture of violence needs to end.”

The India panelists were just a few of the feisty, impactful speakers who lit up the summit’s stage. Actress and activist Eva Longoria wowed with her clever asides and easy good humor in a discussion on Latina power with Maribel Lieberman, Campbell Brown, and top political strategist Lorena Chambers, who fired the audience up with her prediction that “Latino communities absolutely love, love, love Hillary Clinton. If she runs in 2016, we have a fabulous chance of turning Texas blue!” Libya’s 23-year-old Alaa Murabit—who has become a political force for women after the downfall of dictator Muammar Ghaddafi—admitted proudly, “I have a very big mouth” and, when asked whether she feared violence from men because of her activism, stated calmly, “I am not afraid ... Libyan girls can fight fire with fire—we can say, ‘My religion is not the reason you’re [trying to suppress women].’” Queen of talk Oprah Winfrey introduced her “favorite guest ever,” Zimbabwe’s Dr. Tererai Trent, who broke the cycle of custom in her community by refusing to marry her daughters off at an early age and whose mother encouraged her to write down her dreams—at first, to go to America and get a college education; later, to finish a master’s, and then a Ph.D.—and bury them in a field. Trent achieved all of her goals—and now, with Oprah’s help, she’s built a school in her old village, where she works to “give opportunities to other women and transform the lives of the poor.”

Other panels were lighter but no less moving. Diane von Furstenberg charmed the crowd while introducing her DVF award winners and touchingly talked about her own mother, a survivor of World War II death camps who used to say that “no matter what, she never wanted to be a victim.” Spanx mastermind and the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire Sara Blakely promised to invent a painless stiletto before admitting that being in the billionaire’s club was “awesome.” Tom Hanks choked up during his witty, warm tribute to the late director and writer Nora Ephron, whose last finished work, the play Lucky Guy, now stars the actor on Broadway. And Meryl Streep celebrated the legendary Irish firebrand Inez McCormack, who stood up for, and loved, ordinary people and “whose great heart beats on in us.”

Throughout, the summit presented audiences with women and men of remarkable gravitas and power—moral, economic and political leaders who are in a position to do some heavy “leaning on” to effect change: anti-trafficking advocate Susana Trimarco, who was honored this year with one of the Women in the World Foundation’s Women of Impact awards and whose advocacy has pressured governments and changed laws; United Nations special rapporteur for trafficking Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, who is working to combat the lucrative networks of modern slavery; Nigeria’s finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former World Bank superstar; Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent, whose 5x20 Initiative is nurturing female entrepreneurs; Guler Sabanci of Sabanci Holding; Sam’s Club president and CEO Rosalind Brewer; America’s ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice; global health activists Christy Turlington Burns, Molly Melching (another Women of Impact award winner), Malawi’s senior chief Kwataine Masina, and Merck Vaccines’ Julie Gerberding, who are working to combat the scourge of maternal mortality; and Bank of America’s Justine Metz, who connected with Haiti Ambassador-at-Large Danielle Saint-Lôt through a mentoring program for global leaders set up by Alyse Nelson’s Vital Voices Global Partnership so that powerful women can help “pay it forward.”

From global-security experts to trailblazing entrepreneurs, from grassroots agitators to the highest officers of government, from fearless artists and activists to scientific and technological innovators, the panelists at the Women in the World Summit showed what can happen when women are freed up to fully participate in society, to educate themselves, and to achieve their dreams—whether that’s to be a prima ballerina, a self-made billionaire, or a nation’s first female president. Over two days, their stories inspired millions to lean in—and to keep leaning on.