The New Activism
Today's women's rights activism rejects the paternalism and feel-good sloganeering of the '60s and '70s; it’s about measurable economic empowerment for women—and an end to the political corruption that holds girls and women back.
A few days after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton jawboned the Pakistanis with a little plain talk on terrorist safe havens, women leaders representing the coalition she helped to ignite gathered in a Florentine villa to review the successes—and failures—of the last 15 years in women's rights and economic-empowerment work worldwide. Over the course of three days in Florence, a group of about 40 NGO executives, political leaders, social entrepreneurs, corporate philanthropists, educators, and media gurus convened by Vital Voices Global Partnership worked to develop a framework for economic, cultural, and political change powered by women.
Kakenya Ntaiya was the first girl to leave her Kenyan village and acquire a college education. Today, her boarding school serves vulnerable girls.
That Secretary Clinton now exercises a degree of power unrivaled by almost anyone of her gender—despite losing out on the American presidency last year—was lost on no one at Villa La Pietra, the 57-acre spread owned by New York University, which hosted the meeting. Just as September's Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York wove a tightly crafted narrative around economic empowerment for women and human rights for women and girls, the Vital Voices gathering, titled Breakthrough: Overcoming the Obstacles to Equality, Development and Peace, worked within the framework of Clinton's 1995 Beijing speech on “women’s rights as human rights.” That agenda is now deeply supported by the State Department and the Obama administration.
The conference attracted its share of star power and governmental heft: Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women's issues Melanne Verveer, veteran Democratic political strategist Bob Shrum, and Italian Senate Vice President Emma Bonino.
Yet it's the struggle, not the star power and elegant setting, that remains my most vivid takeaway from Florence; the stunning bravery and personal risk of several young women working in their own countries, and their visceral determination to change the lives of other women and girls that outshines even the massive frescoes of the Palazzo Vecchio, where Florence Mayor (and rising political star) Matteo Renzi hosted a public panel discussion on women's rights. Sadiqa Basiri Saleem, founder of the Oruj Learning Center in Afghanistan, described her work in the Wardak province combating violence against women and her efforts to increase educational opportunities for girls in a cultural landscape where it is dangerous to teach women.
Linda Swana, executive director of the Fundación Proyecto de Vida in Guatemala, vividly described the use of mobile technology by young women working with their political elders to uncover and publicize corruption.
Kakenya Ntaiya, founder of the Kakenya Center for Excellence in Kenya, was the first girl to leave her village and acquire a college education. Today, her boarding school serves vulnerable girls, focusing on academic excellence, female empowerment, and community development.
Ntaiya spoke passionately about her personal experiences with female genital mutilation and child marriage; moreover, she looked around the room and politely demanded action. In societies all over the world, girls face violence and repression, she said. "Their dreams are being shattered...This is not right and we shouldn't be talking about this 10 years from now."
Yet not all the talk was on the developing world; indeed, the organizers made an effort to change some of the language, including the use of "women's issues" itself. Empowering the bottom of the wealth and power pyramid and creating a worldwide movement among young women quickly emerged as goals of the gathering. In the U.S., the philanthropic and public/social service sectors are increasingly dominated by women. Why not work through a media and organizing strategy, using social-media tools and face-to-face recruitment, to make the empowerment and development goals of 1995 relevant and personal to emerging nonprofit leaders—to "widen the base of stakeholders," as Vital Voices Vice President Kathleen Hendrix put it? "We need to systematize what we do for young women," said Carol Lancaster, dean of Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. "We need to connect to activist women and engage, and teach, and sometimes deploy them."
Publicizing the issues is key. Part of the answer is effective storytelling and media training, asserted author and human-rights activist Marylouise Oates. And part of the answer is vocabulary. "We need to change the language," asserted Baroness Mary Goudie, a Labour member of Britain's House of Lords. "The '60s and '70s are over." Yet creating a real networked movement is also vital. "How do you make it a global language, so that it resonates with every single woman?" asked Zainab Salbi, founder and CEO of Women for Women International.
There were no easy answers in Florence, despite the brainpower, commitment, and connections so clearly on display. But the sessions did yield a consensus framework of three distinct "roadblocks" to success that future women’s rights efforts should address: lack of political will and accountability, lack of alternative economic structures, and women's inferior status in society.
As Senator Bonino regaled the gathering with stories of sexism in the meeting's host country—both humorous and horrifying—no one missed the irony that we were meeting in a developed country with the world's seventh-largest GDP, in which President Silvio Berlusconi nevertheless feels free to remark, "The left has no taste, even when it comes to women," and praises the beauty of Italian secretaries. The message was clear: There is work to do everywhere.
Real change doesn’t happen overnight, as any American enthused about last year's presidential election but waiting for policy results knows. In the capital of the Italian Renaissance, in communion with the ghosts of Michelangelo and the Medicis, that lesson was neatly synthesized by Ellyn Toscano, NYU's director of La Pietra. Just as Florence and the Renaissance loosened the grip of the feudal lords and "focused on the worth of a human being," she said. "We need to focus on the worth of a girl."
Get Involved: Vital Voices Global Parternship supports women leaders across the developing world.
Tom Watson is the author of CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World (Wiley, 2008) and managing partner of CauseWired Communications LLC, a consulting firm that works with nonprofits and causes.