Commentary Human Rights

From Texas to Turkey: Messages From Women in the World

Vicky Markham

At a campus forum on women and sustainable development issues in the Texas Bible Belt and the Women in the World summit in New York, I saw that "women’s rights are the biggest unfinished agenda of 21st century."

Cross-posted with permission from Impatient Optimists.

My recent travels have taken me from Texas to Turkey, from Ghana to India and Manhattan, in-person and virtually, 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 spoken out loud and clear. As Clinton said at the recent Women in the World gathering, “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 women from developing and developed nations at the Women in the World summit in New York.

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At both venues, women from Turkey, Ghana, Uganda, India, Libya, Haiti, Mexico, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries 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 in many other places. There, the gracious University of North Texas lecturer Ӧzlem Altıok, from Turkey, provided us with some of the most moving, strong, balanced rhetoric on women’s empowerment and reproductive health “rights and wrongs,” while Dr. Patricia Glazebrook offered a powerful Ghanaian voice on the importance of, and categorical difference between, 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. The students cared about these issues without preconceived judgment or entrenched partisan views; it was refreshing to see given my usual world, where the prescribed “politics calls it” mentality reigns on these topics.

A week later, I witnessed the Women in the World event at Lincoln Center in New York.

We were treated to several days of well-orchestrated visuals and in-person conversations of stories and solutions from Tina Brown, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and other notables. I loved seeing those icons in person (even if they appeared inches tall from my fourth-tier non-governmental organization seats).

The real thrill and fresh inspiration were the stories of developing nation women, who spoke about their everyday realities—seemingly insurmountable barriers that many of us in the United States 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 to 2013, 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 the 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 Mutesi. She wants to become a medical doctor, a dream now made possible with chess playing a tool and ticket to success. The message was that talent exists everywhere, you just need to provide opportunities and tools (like chess) to people, especially girls, as they have less access than boys.

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, 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. We need to stop treating violence against women as a women’s issue; they are human rights issues, and all our responsibility.

The power of technology as advocacy was a consistent theme of the speakers. Speakers mentioned that 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 Trent 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, Secretary Clinton summed it all up well by 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, gave a standing ovation for that.

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