Today, I cried four times before 11 AM. Normally, that wouldn’t be the beginning of a wonderful day, but today, like Passover, is unlike all other days. Today marks the opening of the first-ever G(irls)2o summit, which you can learn more about here. On a rainy morning in Toronto, women from around the world – including the 21 young women selected as delegates from their respective nations – gathered to address the big issue of the summit: What is the biggest problem facing women and girls today, and what can we do about it?
“Feminism,” Cheris Kramarae once wrote, “is the radical notion that women are people,” and today’s five introductory speakers all addressed how the basic concept of acknowleding that women are people informs women’s issues throughout the world. Pamela Shifman of the NOVO Foundation spoke about “giving women assets other than their bodies.” While speaking about sex trafficking, forced labor, and other ways that women’s bodies are exploited, she emphasized the importance of women’s education and access to economic power. “Violence is one hundred percent preventable,” she said, outlining a plan that would include educating men and boys about women’s issues and teaching men about respect in order to bring about equality between the sexes. Using the metaphor of “a series of trapdoors,” she explained how there are many ways that women can fall into cycles of poverty and abuse, and that the biggest challenge is figuring out how to close the trapdoors. Lest she end on a negative note, Shifman praised the summit’s participants, particularly the young delegates. She noted how she and the other panelists had read some of the essays written by the delegates and loved them so much they “cheered into their cornflakes.”
Like many similar conventions, the G(irls)20 summit launched into applause every few moments. But these moments were largely spontaneous – happy “yes, I’m so glad someone agrees with me” claps from audience members, and “I respect you so much” claps as panelists were introduced. As one panelist, Women for Women International founder Zainab Salbi, pointed out, the personal is very much political – and by not only outlining economic theories but sharing personal anecdotes, the auditorium had a decidedly consciousness-raising feel to it.
The second panelist, Swan Paik of the Nike Foundation, spoke about “disinvestment” in women around the world. “Women and girls are the world’s greatest untapped opportunity,” she said, explaining that the “myopia” of focusing on short-term problems was ultimately doing a disservice to women whose communities required more involved, long-term change. The Nike Foundation is one of few that deals only with women and girls, a fact that was even more sobering when Paik noted that less than two cents of every dollar spent on international development is given to women and girls.
Sarah Kambou of the International Centre for Research on Women started by speaking about her own daughter, Elise, who is 16. Elise wants to go to college, study journalism, and “become rich and famous.” (I think I was the only person who laughed out loud at this.) She then used Elise’s story to show how rare it is compared to the reality of life for most other young women her age. Kambou stated that she felt the single biggest issue to address in the world was child marriage, and she told the story of one young woman from Burkina Faso who became the teenage wife of a poor polygamist in the Ivory Coast. It turned out that that woman gave birth to a son who is now Kambou’s husband, and the story of her unlikely triumph and steely determination led to my first cry of the morning.