Women in the World Foundation Launch with Meryl Streep, Leymah Gbowee

Do something! That’s what the brave women activists and leaders urged at the launch of the Women in the World Foundation.

Amber De Vos / PatrickMcMullan.com

At The Newsweek/Daily Beast Co.’s Women in the World Foundation kickoff gala Tuesday night in Manhattan, courageous leaders and activists electrified the stage with powerful stories of women breaking the rules to create change.

Actress Meryl Streep stunned the audience with a dramatic reading of one Afghan woman’s inspiring journey from child bride to entrepreneur. Liberian revolutionary Leymah Gbowee issued a stirring call to action, shouting, “You die sitting down!” Designer Diane von Furstenberg shared the inspiring story of Sunitha Krishnan, an Indian activist who rescues sex slaves from brothels.

These stories about the impossible challenges facing women around the world—and individual women’s courage in overcoming them—have characterized the past two Women in the World summits, in March 2010 and 2011. But this time, the focus is on the solutions.

“So many of you said, ‘How can we help?’ ‘How can we stay engaged?’” Daily Beast and Newsweek editor in chief Tina Brown told the crowd of activists and leaders Tuesday night. The Women in the World Foundation was created to provide an answer. The foundation’s website helps people find the best way to make an impact on a wide range of issues affecting women and promotes the most innovative work being undertaken by women’s organizations around the globe.

The foundation will have vital support from founding partners Africa Global, the Ford Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, which will provide expertise and support to help the best organizations grow.

Contributors ANN INC. (whose CEO, Kay Krill, is also part of the Women in the World leadership circle), Marvell Technology, and McGuireWoods are sponsoring issue areas such as leadership, technology, and law and justice.

Streep opened up the night with a reading of an Afghan woman’s first-person account of her forced marriage at the age of 6 to her 9-year-old cousin during a family feud. She later became a successful businesswoman, a transformation made possible in part by a loan from Women for Women, a Women in the World solutions partner.

Next, activists turned to the distressing prevalence of forced marriage and the violence that often follows it in the Western world. Jasvinder Sanghera, who was born and raised in the United Kingdom, was only 14 years old when her mother showed her a photo of a stranger and said she would have to leave school and marry him. She ran away a year later and was told by her family that they would never speak to her again. “Twenty nine years, and I’ve never received a birthday card from anyone in my family. That might sound small, but it’s big,” she said. Now Sanghera works with her charity, Karma Nirvana, to help young girls in Britain escape her fate.

People are often reluctant, she said, to stand up for the hundreds of girls who are forced into marriages in the U.K. each year for fear of appearing culturally insensitive.

“Cultural acceptance doesn’t mean accepting the unacceptable,” Sanghera said. Dozens of schools refused to put up posters advertising a hotline where girls could call if they were forced into marriage, she said, fearing the posters would anger some communities. “People turn a blind eye to the issue.”

Diana Nammi, who founded the International Campaign against Honor Killings after she fled Iran for the U.K. in 2002, said she was shocked when she found out her interpreter was murdered by a jealous husband who was never punished for the crime. “There is no safe place around the world for women,” she said. Nammi helped fight for the first-ever extradition for an honor killing in Britain, after two men killed their cousin for falling in love with a man her family didn’t approve of and then fled to Iraq. (They were convicted last year.)

Layli Miller-Muro, founder of the Tahirih Justice Center, which offers pro bono legal advice to victims of gender-based violence, said that the problem is pervasive and almost entirely unacknowledged in America, as well. What’s worse, she’s found that no legal protection exists for the thousands of children forced into marriage—the practice is not even illegal. She says the United Kingdom is “light-years ahead” of the United States on legally protecting children from being married off against their will.

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Morgan Stanley’s Wei Sun Christianson, model and activist Liya Kebede, and the Rockefeller Center’s Dr. Judith Rodin shared stories about women who had inspired them. Rodin talked about the remarkable journey of Dr. Sania Nishtar, whose NGO, Heartfile, has revolutionized Pakistani medical care with mobile technology.

Designer Diane von Furstenberg revealed how her mother, who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, taught her how strong women are. And Donna Karan spoke of the inspiration of meeting powerful female politicians like Hillary Clinton and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

The Hon. Jane Harman, a former nine-term congresswoman and now president of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, spoke about her own trailblazing career and honored Dalia Ziada, a courageous political activist from Egypt.

Closing the night was Liberian revolutionary Leymah Gbowee’s recollections of confronting then-dictator Charles Taylor with a fiery message demanding he stop the rape and chaos tearing apart the country in 2003. Gbowee talked about what inspired her to stand up to a cruel despot. “We really just got angry,” she says. “[We learned that] you die anyway. You die sitting down. So let’s die trying. And when we stepped out, fortunately we didn’t die—we changed the course of history.”

Gbowee famously stormed the country’s stalled peace talks and barricaded the door. She threatened to strip naked if soldiers forced her to leave, which earned Gbowee and her group of women the moniker “peaceful terrorists.”

“I’ve been socialized to believe that men protect women. I realized that if you don’t fight for yourself, no one will,” she said.

Gbowee urged everyone to find their drive and strength to make a difference in their community.

“Women—as we say in Liberia—don’t sit there, do something positive, more than the men,” she said.

Leymah “represents why we’re all here and inspired us to go out and make change happen,” said Ford Foundation vice president Maya Harris. Harris leads the Democracy, Rights and Justice program. Harris spoke eloquently of the importance of partnership. Her foundation, she said, has done important work, but never without a partner.

U.N. Women executive director and former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet also stressed the strength of women around the world. “I don’t want to look at women as victims,” she said. “They not only stand up for themselves, they stand up to support other women.”

At least one man in attendance wasn’t intimidated by all the girl power. “It’s impossible to face the world’s challenges without embracing the cause of women,” Nizan Guanaes, chairman of the Brazilian marketing firm Grupo ABC and founder of Africa Global, said after the event. Guanaes said Brazil has benefited from having its first woman president, Dilma Rousseff. “The world suffers from too much testosterone,” he added.


Women in the World Foundation Launch Contributing Organizations

Women for Women InternationalWomen for Women International, a nonprofit in eight war-torn regions, works to provide female survivors of war, civil strife, and other conflicts with the tools and resources to move from crisis to self-sufficiency—which helps promote civil societies.

Karma NirvanaKarma Nirvana, a Britain-based charity, helps women who are victims of honor-based abuse and forced marriages.

Vital VoicesVital Voices identifies, trains, and empowers emerging women leaders and social entrepreneurs around the globe.

IKWRO (Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organization)The Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organization is a registered charity that raises public awareness about issues such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and “honor”-based violence, and aims at better laws and policies for women’s rights.

Tahirih Justice CenterThe Tahirih Justice Center is a nonprofit organization that works to protect immigrant girls who are fleeing gender-based violence through legal services, advocacy, and public-education programs.

U.N. WomenThe United Nations approved the creation of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in 2010—nicknamed U.N. Women—with the goal of providing a “stronger voice for women and gender equality” worldwide.

Urban Zen FoundationThe Urban Zen Foundation works to raise awareness and inspire change in the areas of well-being, preserving cultures around the world, and empowering children.

The Liya Kebede FoundationThe Liya Kebede Foundation works to stop women and children worldwide from dying from lack of prenatal care or in childbirth.

HeartfileHeartfile is a health-sector nonprofit and think tank focused on working with the government to improve health and social outcomes and has become a powerful and respected voice in Pakistan in health policy.

Prajwala IndiaPrajwala is an antitrafficking organization based in Hyderabad, India, providing survivors of prostitution with refuge and rehabilitation.