G(irls)20 Day One: Empowerment, Respect, and a Lot of Tears

Zainab Salbi (in the red and white top) helps women in war-torn countries. Photo via G(irls)20.

Kambou, who because she works at a research center is surrounded by data, gave out a couple of stats for the audience. There are an estimated 50 million child brides in the world, which works out to about 25,000 underage marriages conducted a day. Half of the women in these marriages will give birth at least once before the age of 18. For women between the ages of 15 and 19, childbirth or complications from childbirth are the number one cause of death. Kambou drew a direct line between increasing a woman’s marriage age and earning more money, having better nutrition, and ensuring better lives for their children.

Like Kambou, Jill Sheffield of Women Deliver had witnessed the effects of maternal mortality. Though she started as a teacher, a stint working at a hospital in Kenya made her realize that global women’s issues were her calling. Sheffield described a day when she was 27 and attending to a young woman who had come to visit the hospital without the signed paper giving her permission of her husband. The woman turned out also to be 27, but she had already been pregnant eleven times and only had six surviving children. (Tears #2.) Sheffield then realized that “women deliver far more than babies,” which became the idea behind her organization. She believes strongly that one key to female empowerment is access to contraception and sex education, which in many countries is unavailable or only permitted for women once they are married. Girls’ issues, she pointed out, are unique because “[they] are not large children or small adults” – they’re in the middle, and they have their unique problems and challenges to face. Sheffield believes that educating women, allowing them to enter the workforce (she estimated that $15 billion in revenue is lost every year by not permitting women to have jobs), and treating child marriage as a human rights violation will help to empower women and girls around the world.

The last speaker was Salbi. Salbi opened on a personal note – she talked about growing up in a well-to-do family in Iraq during the Iraq/Iran war. When she was seven, a poor family came to her family and asked them to hire their 9-year-old daughter as a live in housemaid so that they could use her salary to send her brothers to school. The maid, Raniya, became Zainab’s friend, but Zainab later came to realize how inequal their relationship was, and she was ashamed that her family had played a role in a situation of underage labor. Later, Raniya left the Salbi family and entered into an arranged marriage. Years later, after Salbi left her own arranged marriage in the United States, went to college, and eventually founded Women for Women International, she found herself wondering what had happened to Raniya, the woman who inspired it all. After 20 years of working with women in war zones like Kosovo, Rwanda, and the Congo, Salbi got an email – Raniya was working with the WfWI group in Iraq. The two had finally found each other again, years later, because of an organization that Raniya’s plight had inspired Zalbi to found. (That would be tears #3 and #4). But in addition to her story, Salbi also had some hard numbers: 80 percent of the world’s farmers are women, and they produce 66 percent of the world’s food supply. However, they get 10 percent of the world’s income and own less than 2 percent of the land. “We must hold everyone accountable,” Salbi said, saying that it was just as important to empower women living in poverty as it was female CEOs. She urged audience members to ask tough questiosn of politicians and boycott companies that do not have any female executives or board members.

While this is just a fragment of what happened this morning, I know how overwhelming summits like this can be. Rather than feeling like I’d had an informational overload, though, today’s events left me feeling inspired, encouraged, and – most importantly – motivated. Good thing we’ve just begun.

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    • Courtney

      Thank you, Lilit. I need a prospective check on a regular basis and you, my darling, gave one to me today.