By Mavis Heasley
Last week, I traveled from Oxford, Mississippi to New York City to attend the 10th annual Women in the World summit. Women in the World is an annual three-day summit that provides a platform for women leaders, activists, and other empowered changemakers to share their stories with the goal of improving the lives of women around the world. The leading ladies who speak at the summit range from up-and-coming journalists to ultra-famous celebrities; some notable guests from this year’s summit were Oprah Winfrey, Brie Larson, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Anna Wintour, Cindy McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Winfrey delivered the keynote address, and posed a question that set the summit’s theme: “Can women save the world?” The following panelists and interviewees, I believe, gave some of the best responses and solutions to this inquiry.
Can Women Save the Planet?
Moderated By: Juju Chang
Panelists: Cristina Mittermeier, Christiana Figueres, Dr. Mae Jemison, Nina Lakhani
Moderator Juju Chang of ABC News Nightline led a discussion between Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres, founding partner of Global Optimism Cristina Mittermeier, former NASA astronaut (and first woman of color in space) Dr. Mae Jemison, and founder of SeaLegacy, National Geographic photographer and journalist Nina Lakhani searching for how women can get involved and take charge in the fight against climate change. The impassioned conversation touched on topics and issues often addressed in climate change arguments, such as the impact of a half-degree Celsius temperature increase. An instinctual thought of someone ill-informed on the issue may view that small difference to be just that, small. In reality, it is the opposite; this half-degree temperature increase would lead to “3 times the destruction of the world’s natural ecosystem and built infrastructure, and at least a doubling of the number of people exposed to life-threatening heat or hunger.” While the women did acknowledge the growing public awareness for climate change (especially among young people), they emphasized the importance for politicians and, as Figueres referred to them, “the adults” to take charge on the issue. Lakhani highlighted the current events that have been grabbing the public’s attention, such as unpredictable weather patterns and migration that have been fostering fear in the United States. The conversation then took a turn to looking at other planets for possible habitation, to which Jemison stated, “We have to save ourselves. Space is not a Plan B.” All four panelists urged the importance for women to get involved in the fight against climate change, while giving the audience hope that there are already some impactful women making moves to save the planet.
Saudi’s War on Women
Moderated By: Alex Gibney
Panelists: Safa Al-Ahmad, Manal Al-Sharif
Saudi women Safa Al-Ahmad and Manal Al-Sharif joined moderator Alex Gibney of Jigsaw Productions to have a conversation about the oppressive regime ruling over their homeland, Saudi Arabia. Last year, Saudi women were given the right to drive; Al-Sharif led summit attendees to jingle their keys to honor the women who won this long-fought battle. Though women have gained the right to drive, they are still nowhere near independent. Women must have the permission of a male “guardian” to get a job, go to college, travel abroad or get married. Al-Sharif shocked the audience when she stated, “When my son turns 18, he will become my legal guardian.” Al-Sharif, who now lives in Australia, is in “self-imposed exile because all [her] friends who fought with [her] are in jail today”; her fellow activists have been imprisoned and tortured for the protests against the oppressive Saudi regime. Al-Ahmad told Gibney that “there are no rights for anyone… [the Saudi regime does] not believe in the rights of their citizens… the structure right now is oppressing everyone, top to bottom.” Al-Ahmad continues to discuss the regime under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, claiming his dissenters who get arrested have “disappeared,” meaning the authorities do not tell the families of the arrested and they, well, disappear. Al-Sharif stated Saudi’s two biggest exports are “oil and terrorism… [and] men leave [her] country to die, while women leave [her] country to live.” These women not only provide insight to those who may not have the grasp of the regime that runs Saudi Arabia, but also inspire women to always get back up when their oppressors relentlessly knock them down.
Journalists on the Front Lines
Moderated By: John Avlon
Panelists: Lynsey Addario, Nima Elbagir, Alexandra Ulmer
Pulitzer Prize-winning philanthropist and author Lynsey Addario, senior international correspondent for CNN Nima Elbagir, and special correspondent for Reuters Alexandra Ulmer joined senior political analyst and CNN anchor John Avlon to talk about their experiences as foreign correspondents in war zones. Elbagir reported from the frontlines of the Sudanese pro-democracy uprising that may have toppled Sudan’s former dictator Omar al-Bashir, who had recently been forced from power in a military coup. While in Edo State, Nigeria, Elbagir allowed a sex trafficker to smuggle her from Africa to Europe on the route many desperate women often take to escape danger. Elbagir claimed “sexual slavery is the price of admission” for the smuggling, and that the trafficker told her, “If you are raped, don’t struggle.” Addario, who also covered a story from Sudan, gave a touching retelling of a South Sudanese boy , 9-year-old Chuol, who had been displaced by war. Addario had found Chuol alone, saying “he had no idea if his mother was alive or dead, what happened to his siblings.” After publishing this story, she was assigned to return to Chuol’s home village of Leer, where she found his mother. When Chuol’s mother was informed by Addario that her son was alive, she asked Addario to tell him “don’t come home, stay in school, and get educated.” Ulmer had been investigating the “chaos and corruption” in Venezuela for four years, including the state oil company, PDVSA. According to Ulmer, Venezuela is “essentially a black hole” due to the lack of information and statistics available to the public. Ulmer continues, saying, though there weren’t reports about it, she knew hyperinflation existed in Venezuela, as her grocery bill would be twice as much as the week prior. When asked about the necessity of international news awareness, all three panelists had an agreement that it helps us to understand what is happening in our own countries.
Moderated By: Jennifer Ashton
Panelists: Edna Adan, Elizabeth Nyamayaro, Shalini Unnikrishnan, Guneet Monga
Founder and director of Edna Adan Hospital & University Edna Adan, United Nations senior advisor Elizabeth Nyamayaro, partner and managing director with Boston Consulting Group Shalini Unnikrishnan, and executive producer of award-winning documentary “Period. End of Sentence” Guneet Monga held a conversation moderated by Jennifer Ashton of ABC News and “Good Morning America” about their work in overcoming taboos in India and Africa. The different types of troubling taboos and traditions faced by women and girls addressed in the discussion were female genital mutilation, or female circumcision, vaccinations, and period shaming. Nyamayaro, who grew up in a Zimbabwean village, claimed she “saw women do all the hard work and men make all the important decisions. It was the men who decided whether the women should go seek medical help. It was the men who decided how many children the family ought to have.” Nyamayaro continues, stating that after she had left Africa, she realized these issues were universal, including in the United States; she says “reproductive health is a questionable thing that continues to be debated, without even taking account what the woman herself needs.” Adan, who founded a maternity hospital in Somaliland, claims some cultures believe female circumcision would protect women girls from rape. Adan continues, saying the topic itself, talking about a woman’s genitals, is taboo, so changing minds (let alone a discussion) is difficult. The method Adan says is most effective is to approach the conversation in a credible way; her position in this approach is as a midwife, so she is always working with women with mutilated genitals. Adan has found, though, a dip in women with female genital mutilation, citing a 25-percent drop in her patients. Adan also claims the key to change lies in education, while noting the progress her hospital and university have made. In a country where the education of women was considered taboo, Adan makes the following statement to assert how far her community has progressed: “To be able to today have medical schools where 70 percent of the students are female, a country where we have been able to train 1,000 midwives to send through the country in itself is remarkable. When I go into my operating theater and see a female surgeon assisted by another female surgeon, a female anesthetist, a female instrument nurse, a female supervisor, in a hospital built by a female, and everybody combining their skills to save a little boy’s life, that’s what education brings.” Unnikrishnan discussed the problem of mistrust when healthcare providers arrive in suffering communities, such as those infected by the Ebola virus. Unnikrishnan claims that it is “not just the communities’ mistrust in the institutions and experts, it’s our mistrust in them to help us design solutions, to help us find ways to tackle the problem… We often go in with the best intentions, saying we have the answer, let’s roll this out -- not stopping to listen and understand. So trust goes both ways.” Monga, who was an executive producer of the Oscar-winning documentary Period. End of Sentence., addressed the stigma surrounding menstruation in India. According to Monga, when women in India began a business manufacturing menstrual pads, they told their husbands they were making diapers due to this stigma. Monga claims, though, as the business became successful and the men finally understood their business, they shifted their beliefs and ended their period shaming. Moderator Jennifer Ashton concluded the panel with a fitting quote, saying the panelists are “perfect examples of the saying of ‘the messenger is as important as the message.’”
Moderated By: Brooke Baldwin
Panelists: Carolyn Tastad, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Melissa Bradley, Bozoma Saint John
“CNN Newsroom” anchor Brooke Baldwin moderated a conversation between managing partner of 1863 Ventures Melissa Bradley, group president of North America for P&G Carolyn Tastad, U.S. Olympic Medalist and founder of Louella Ibtihaj Muhammad, and CMO of Endeavor Bozoma Saint John about busting myths and stereotypes used to keep women out of leadership positions and out of the workforce. To begin the conversation, Saint John, Muhammad, and Bradley bonded over their shared experiences with microaggressions while traveling, i.e., TSA troubles and financial doubts. The women then move to the topic of bias, with Tastad stating “this notion of bias is very pervasive and we have to start labeling women’s behavior as less than or lacking because it shows up different from the male prototype.” Advice offered by the panelists include women owning their strengths, Muhammad providing the example of growing up and being told she had big legs, then using them “to win [herself] an Olympic medal”; Bradley’s urge for women to push themselves to the top by “[practicing] your bitch,” saying, “Come up with the most obnoxious, extravagant number that you think you’re worth and own it. Because there are guys who are coming out of Stanford and Harvard who can’t spell and can’t write and they’re valued at $50 billion.” The conversation closed with tips and encouragements offered by the panelists: Muhammad stated, “Don’t wait for anyone else to tell you what you are destined to be great at”; Saint John referred to her confidence, saying, “I practice and work hard at not just superficially, but innately, bringing my full self to every situation”; Tastad advises marketers to simply flip the pronouns, claiming, “If you can’t finish the sentence with ‘he’ instead of ‘she’, then please don’t say it for women”; and Bradley encourages women to find a supportive group of people, but “you need a mirror to remind you how badass you are and that you deserve to be where you are.”
The 10th annual Women in the World summit were the most impactful three days I have experienced in my life thus far. While these panels specifically resonated with me, all panels and interviews can be accessed here; I encourage you to form your own opinions and hopefully feel the same immense amount of empowerment as I did (and do). Oprah Winfrey asked this question on day 1 of the summit: Can women save the world? After hearing these women tell their stories, share their experiences, and celebrate their successes, I am certain we can.