A Report From “Women in the World: Stories and Solutions” Summit – Part 1

At this weekend’s “Women in the World conference presented by The Daily Beast, there was a subtext of contrast between the high-wattage interviewers –Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Campbell Brown, and Lesley Stahl – and the women who came from around the world to share their narratives. It was through their stories that the imperative to create a movement for change was underscored.

The first panel “On the Brink: Women in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” assembled Ching Eikenberry, a strategic communication coordinator for USAID in Kabul; Andeisha Farid, one of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women recipients; Suraya Pakzad, Executive Director of Voice of Women; Journalist Gayle Lemmon; Fatima Bhutto, Pakistan Correspondent for The Daily Beast.  The evening got off to a shaky start as repeated Tweets questioned the choice of moderator, Frances Townsend, former Assistant to President Bush for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.  A reporter from Pakistan sitting in front of me commented on the “lack of contextualization” of the panel.  When questions from the audience were taken, author Erica Jong asked those on stage, “How can we help?”  Fatima Bhutto, niece of Benazir Bhutto, suggested that the “U.S. government stop propping up corrupt governments like Karzai.”

After a short film outlining the work that Goldman Sachs has been doing through the 10,000 Women program, there was a break for dinner.  Soon after, a phalanx of security officers started to line the lobby of the Millenium Hotel in anticipation of the arrival of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, scheduled to introduce a presentation of Seven.

The reading, directed by Julie Taymor, featured performing actresses including Archie Panjabi, Meryl Streep, and Marcia Gay Harden. Brown introduced Clinton with the line, “With her around, no glass ceiling is safe.”  Clinton referenced the Fourth World Conference on Women that was held in Bejing in 1995, noting both “how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go” and that “progress was undeniable but insufficient.”  A theme that would be repeated over the following days was that “women’s rights may exist on the books and in the law, but not on the street.”

Nowhere was that more apparent than during the “Rape as a Weapon of War” panel, crisply and efficiently led by Christiane Amanpour.  Present at the Hague in 2001 when rape was declared a war crime, Amanpour asked Dr. Denis Mukwege, Founder of the Panzi Hospital of Bukavu, Annie Rashidi-Mulumba, Consultant on Human Rights for the U.N. in Cameroon, and Leymah Gbowee, Executive Director of Women Peace and Security Network Africa, for their insights. Mukwege explained via an interpreter, “It is no longer rape.  It is sexual massacre.”

Rape is conducted in public, as women are violated by groups of men.  Their vaginas are often penetrated by foreign objects.  When women first started coming into Mukwege’s hospital, they didn’t want to speak about what had happened.  He was seeing more and more patients with severe sexual trauma.  In response to Amanpour’s question of what has changed since the problem became exposed, he gave a one-word answer. “Rien.” (“Nothing.”)

Gbowee discussed Liberia and why the community of women “stepped out to speak.”  Women realized the “price we were paying for being silent was too high.” She related, “Guns and knives were being inserted into women’s vaginas.  We were tired of being raped and our sons being used as part of the war machine.”  Rashid-Mulumba asked, “Do I have to see a five-year-old girl without a vagina or an anus?”  Without education, women don’t understand how to deal with their rapes or advocate for action.  Mukwege spoke about the psychological damage, which is as debilitating as the physical realities.  He related that as women are marginalized and stigmatized, they must be able to understand that they can go on and have a reason to live.  That, he believes, is the road to solving the problem.

The relationship between the natural riches of the continent’s mines and rape actions was addressed.  Motivation behind the rape attacks include the goal of intimidating people into abandoning their homes and villages, so that it can be mined without restriction.  Gbowee put forth the need to educate the boys.  She said, “In Liberia, we are starting to work with the next generation of males and it is gradually taking root.”

“Today,” Mukwege said, “the silence is broken.”  However, he emphasized, “We have to treat sexual violence as terrorism.”  Gbowee suggested that Michelle Obama use her influence and call the first ladies of Africa to the White House for a summit.”

Next up, Barbara Walters interviewed former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.  As the audience was trying to process the devastating information from the rape panel, Walters asked, “What can the United States do?”  Albright pointed out that women need to be on the law tribunals.  She felt that NGOs, businesses, and government needed to act in tandem.  She advocated for the United Nations to play a supporting role, and concurred that there was a proactive role that the first ladies of Africa and Michelle Obama could play.  When Walters asked, “Should women’s rights be put before strategic alliances?” (i.e. the case of Saudi Arabia), Albright replied, “We need to understand what the women in Saudi Arabia want.”  She made a distinction between “engagement” and being the policeman of the world.  Her most arresting comment was the analogy, “Women in a country are like the canary in the coal mine.”

The “Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery” dialogue, led by Tina Brown, was tackled by Luis CdeBaca, Ambassador-At-Large in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking Persons; Dao Tuyet Lien, former trafficking victim; Sunitha Krishnan, Co-founder of Prajwala; Shoma Chaudhury, Managing Editor of Tehelka.  Trafficking in people represents the third-largest source of profits for organized crime after drugs and guns, and is a worldwide epidemic that is traced to globalization. A person can be kidnapped, sold, or falsely recruited –and be on a plane the next day to a new location.

Krishnan discussed the protocol of rescuing those entrapped in brothels. Often children are hidden behind the structures of false closets and bathrooms.  She set the record straight, clarifying that “very few people are in India’s brothels because of free choice.”  As a victim of a rape attack committed by eight men, she learned from her own experience that when raped, “the victim is then revictimized for being a victim.” Chaudhury elucidated that trafficking in India “covers the spectrum from sexual to bonded labor.”

Tools of intimidation include films being taken of the girls being raped, which leaves those enslaved believing they have no other options.  Unrescued young girls, seeing no way out, grow into the role of brothel matriarch – who then recruits a fresh wave of girls.  On trying to get media attention without sensationalization, Chaudhury stated flatly, “What is not acceptable for urban, western women is not acceptable for those in rural settings.”  Survivors must be supported, hired in jobs to give them economic independence, and reintegrated into society.

It was ironic that the next interview, conducted by Marie Brenner, was with the dynamic Kiran Bedi – India’s first and highest ranking female police officer.  When given an appointment to oversee a jail as a “punishment,” she quickly turned a potentially volatile situation around through her empathy and insights.  She recognized women who were imprisoned for prostitution as “victims being victimized.”  She visited brothels and learned what women had experienced. When it was time for them to be released, she made sure they had a secure setting to go to.  She told the prisoners, “I’m here for you.”  Bedi prayed and sang with them, directing them to a path of meditation, mindfulness, and education.

To implement change, she has called for more women in governance, police work, and combat/peace keeping. “If there is good policing,” Bedi said, “these brothels can not continue to grow.”

The three day conference was convened by Tina Brown; Diane von Furstenberg; Kathy Bushkin Calvin, CEO of the United Nations Foundation; Susan Davis, the Chair of the Board of Vital Voices, with financial partnership from ExxonMobil, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, and HP, who was the “technology and innovation” partner.

In Part 2 – Technology Impacting Women’s Lives; Novelist Anchee Min; Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan; Dambisa Moyo; Valerie Jarrett; Nora Ephron…and more

This article originally appeared on the website Women Make News.

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