Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

From Texas to Turkey: Messages From Women in the World

April 17, 2013
The tide is changing, and it’s in the hands of women.

My recent travels have taken me from Texas to Turkey, from Ghana to India and Manhattan, real and virtual, with one thing in common - women evoking the need for empowerment as a human right.

In the past few days, world opinion leaders from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and editor Tina Brown to Indian activist Barkha Dutt, Turkish lecturer Ӧzlem Altıok and Libyan activist Alaa Murabit have all spoken out loud and clear: “Women’s rights are the biggest unfinished agenda of 21st century...this is a core imperative for every human being in society, in every country.”

I saw these sentiments expressed recently on two seemingly disparate occasions: at an inspiring campus forum on women and sustainable development issues in the Texas “Bible-Belt” and, at what felt like the other end of the planet, a magnificent two-day gathering of developing and developed nation women at the Women in the World summit in New York.

At both venues, women from Turkey, Ghana, Uganda, India, Libya, Haiti, Mexico, US, UK, and other countries alike fell on the same side of the debate:

“This is the tipping point for all of us, we’ve had enough, the silence has been broken. Our bodies can no longer be the terrain on which equality is fought. Women are the foundation of change, we have strength and are unfettered. Basta, bastante, assez - enough is enough.”

At the Texas campus event, I heard youth’s voices of support for reproductive health and women’s empowerment with a fervor I haven’t heard even in many parts of mainstream America. There the gracious University of North Texas lecturer Turkish Ӧzlem Altıok provided us with some of the most moving, strong, balanced rhetoric on women’s empowerment and reproductive health “rights and wrongs”, along with a powerful Ghanaian voice in Dr. Patricia Glazebrook on the importance, and categorical difference, of having women at the heart of the conversation, and at the table, on a range of development issues including farming, water resources, and climate change.

The bright, eager student audience was engaged with such openness and genuine interest. They really cared about these issues without preconceived judgment or entrenched partisan views; it was refreshing to see amidst my usual world of the prescribed “politics calls it” mentality on these topics.

Turn 360 degrees and a week later I witnessed the “Women in the World” event at Lincoln Center in New York City.

 Women’s rights are the biggest unfinished agenda of 21st century...this is a core imperative for every human being in society, in every country.

We were treated to several days of well-orchestrated visuals and in-person conversations of “Stories and Solutions” from Tina Brown, Secretary Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and other notables. I loved seeing those icons in person (even if they appeared inches tall from my fourth-tier “NGO/Non-Governmental Organization” seats).

The real thrill and fresh inspiration were the presence and stories of the developing nation women, who spoke about their everyday realities, seemingly insurmountable barriers that we in the US can only imagine as we generally view it all from afar. It’s their stories that are at the core of our potential global successes on girls’ education, poverty, women’s empowerment, and economic opportunities. 

They are the ones we need to pay attention to, and the Women in the World Summit afforded us that unusual access:

  • At the Summit we met 17 year-old Phiona Mutesi from Uganda who told us her story of living on the streets and searching for food, when she happened upon a small village chess club. The coach took her in, fed her, then taught her how to play chess. She was the first girl he had ever taught. Fast forward, she is sitting on the stage at Lincoln Center with world class Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov, relaying how she became the Ugandan National Chess Champion, and only girl who represents her country in the sport. Her sister, in contrast, at 24, has three children with three fathers and is living in poverty. ”That’s not what I wanted for my future” said Phiona. She wants to become a medical doctor, a dream now made possible by chess strategy as a tool and ticket to success. “Talent exists everywhere, you just need to provide opportunities and tools (like chess) to people, especially girls, as they have less access than boys” was the message there. 
  • The Summit’s Indian guests also presented compelling, rational views of a complex world, reflected in their country: their nation now in major transition, a culture where girls and women are fair game for exploitation, “mangos to be sucked” on one hand (sexually and in other aspects of their daily lives like lack of education, cultural and economic rights) - yet conversely with increased awareness through technology, and many pockets of activism and forward thinking. “We need a feminine principle in all genders,” they said, “…stop treating violence against women as women’s issues; they are human rights issues, all our responsibility."
  • The power of technology as advocacy was a consistent theme of the speakers: “New generations and the middle classes have mobile phones and internet access, they are connected and aware like never before. The power of technology is to bring these issues and stories out of shadows and into global consciousness…grassroots activism using new technology to amplify women’s and girls’ voices. For these 21st century issues, we need to use a 21st century application...to bring abuses and inequality out of shadows to mass exposure. Technological changes must be used for progress, that is the future.”

Switching to Africa, Oprah interviewed her (and now my) hero, Dr. Tererai Trent of Zimbabwe. She described her journey of being married off at age 11 yet still achieving, against the odds, primary education, secondary education, and a PhD.

Her mother knew the importance of bringing it back to the girls of her village. As her 18 year old daughter was leaving to pursue a graduate degree in the United States, she urged Tererai to write her dream on paper and bury it under a rock in their yard:

 “…Because that will bring it back home.”

It worked, and Dr. Trent returned to open a Zimbabwean school for girls.

“When you educate girls, you educate an entire community; education is the great equalizer,” she said.

When Oprah mused, “This is the closest to being in church,” I have to say, I certainly felt religion in the presence of these collective women and the force with which their stories are told.

With the powerful, personal testimonies of women at the Summit, and strikingly similar messages I heard from Texas, Secretary Clinton summed it all well saying, “Improving women’s lives is not a panacea, but it’s hard to imagine progress without giving all women and men the chance to achieve their dreams. Now we must focus on the unfinished business of girls and women’s empowerment.”

And I for one, amidst many, had a standing ovation for that.

 
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