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.
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.