2015 Summit

Day 2 of the Women in the World Summit: tears, triumphs, and a memorable quip about bosoms

And there’s more to come on the final day of the 2015 Summit

Atmosphere at the 2015 Women in the World Summit, Lincoln Center, New York City; 4/23/2015

The second day of the Women in the World summit was jam-packed with gripping panels and speakers from as far away as Nigeria, Uganda, India, Ireland, and the Pacific Islands. Each had a different cause that was near to his or her heart: climate change, heart disease prevention, sanitation in India. They were sometimes funny, sometimes heart-breaking, always inspiring. Here are a few highlights from a day of memorable moments:

The morning kicked off with an emotional panel about the Chibok Girls, abducted by Boko Haram last year. The discussion took place on the one-year anniversary of the Bring Back Our Girls movement, which protested the girls’ kidnapping and gained traction worldwide. Obiageli Ezekwesili, who founded the initiative, appeared onstage accompanied by John Prendergast, activist and founder of The Enough Project, and Alexis Okewo, a reporter with The New York Times Magazine.

“Our girls are not back,” Ezekwesili said. “The girls are a symbol of many things that have gone wrong in government. And we are not supposed to ever quiet when things go wrong.”

Though the discussion broached a tragic and frustratingly stagnant circumstance, the tone was ultimately one of hope. Ezekwesili spoke about her firm conviction that the Chibok girls can be rescued and returned to their parents. “I believe in miracles,” she told the audience. “I have said that, like the parents of our Chibok girls, we will not stop hoping until there is absolutely no reason to hope…We just need you to please not go away. Don’t move on.”

Another discussion explored one woman’s extraordinary efforts to repair the immeasurable damage caused by Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe spoke to Tina Brown about St. Monica’s Girls Training Center, which she founded as a refuge for women—and girls—who have been kidnapped, raped, and abused by Kony’s soldiers.

“I really have to make the place we’re running not look like a school,” Sister Rosemary said. “It looks more like a family… If you are a mother, come with your children. If you are pregnant, come as you are. If you are raped, come as you are.”

***

Also on the Women in the World stage were several advocates hoping to reverse the devastating effects of climate change. One, Mary Robinson, the seventh President of Ireland and President of the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice, urged the audience to rise to their feet and join her in a pledge.

“I’m a mother of three, and I’m a grandmother,” she said. “I have five grandchildren, and they are between the ages of 11 and one… I wonder what they will think about us, what they will say about us. About what we did or didn’t do in 2015. It’s as important as that … I want each of us to think: what is one thing we can do going out of this conference?”

***
The next two panels tackled women’s rights in India, a topic that has been gaining international attention. Slumdog Millionaire actress Frieda Pinto was the first up. She spoke about “Nirbhaya”—the pseudonym, meaning “Fearless One,” that was given to a New Delhi medical student whose brutal gang rape and murder sparked a national outcry in 2012.

“Now you should know her real name,” Pinto said. “Jyoti. Jyoti, which means light.”

Pinto’s words gave way to a feisty discussion between Barkha Dutt, an Indian television journalist, and Leslee Udwin, the documentarian behind the explosive documentary India’s Daughter. The film explores the fallout from the rape, and features a shocking interview with one of Jyoti’s rapists, who was entirely unrepentant. India’s Daughter was ultimately banned in India.

Moderator Norah O’Donnell, co-host of CBS This Morning, asked Udwin what shocked her most about her conversation with Jyoti’s rapist.

“The media had prepared me for monsters,” Udwin said. “Society’s way of coping with the embarrassment, the shame of what it’s done to its women is to marginalize [the rapists]… It is society that is responsible. We are all responsible. We teach these men how to think, from the first day of their entry into the world. This rapist doesn’t show a second’s remorse because he doesn’t really think he’s done anything wrong.”

But Dutt expressed her “fierce disagreement” with the narrative presented in Udwin’s film.

“While hearing about the controversy around Leslee’s film might make you think there is an environment of hostility around women in India, it’s actually the opposite,” Dutt told the audience. “The reason you’re hearing this much noise is because women like me, and men I know… are taking to the streets and making noise. This is a moment of hope.”

As Udwin and Dutt left the stage, photos of smiling men flashed onto the screen. “Take a minute to look at the pictures of these men and then ask yourself: Why are they smiling?” O’Donnell instructed the audience.

Soon it was revealed that all of the images were screen-grabs taken from videos of gang rapes, which were filmed by the assailants and then shared on WhatsApp. The men’s identities were exposed by anti-trafficking activist Sunitha Krishnan, whose campaign “Shame the Rapist” seeks to bring flagrant assailants to justice. Krishnan collects videos of gang rapes and uploads images of the perpetrators online—with the victims’ faces blurred—in the hope that identifying rapists will force authorities to take action.

“What is common among all these videos is … the impunity of the act, in terms of how they feel comfortable,” Krishnan said. “They have to be shamed, they have to be named.”

***

On a lighter though equally compelling note, Dame Helen Mirren described her emotional connection to her Oscar-winning role as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen.

“My whole memory of my life, the Queen has been there,” Mirren said. “Doing the film, I had to start investigating who this iconic, symbolic person was.”

But perhaps the highlight of the panel was footage from a 1975 interview with Mirren, which was screened onstage. The host asked Mirren, once known primarily as a Shakespearean actress, if she was ever held back by her “equipment.”

“I’d like you to explain what you mean by equipment in great detail,” Mirren replied with a withering look. “Serious actresses can’t have big bosoms, is that what you mean?”

“It was the first talk show, chat show, I had ever done,” the actress explained after the clip had rolled. “I looked at it [now] and thought, ‘Wow, I wasn’t too bad.’”

***

The next discussion packed a gut-wrenching punch. The panel opened with footage of an impassioned speech by Vian Dakheel Saeed, a Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament, pleading with her fellow politicians to save the Yazidi population from ISIS persecution.

Dakheel Saeed appeared onstage along with her sister, Dr. Delan Dakheel Saeed. They were joined by Alissa J. Rubin, Paris Bureau Chief of the New York Times, who also covered the Iraq war, and Ambassador Melanne Verveer, Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.

As a result of her outspoken advocacy for Yazidis, Vian Dakheel Saeed has become a target for ISIS. But she will not be deterred by the threat. “I am thinking about … how I can help the minority in Iraq, how I can help the Yazidi in Iraq,” Dakheel Saeed said. “I don’t think about my life. It’s not important.”

***

Shortly thereafter, the focus of the summit turned to a health issue that quietly ends the lives of more women than breast cancer: heart disease. Cardiologist Dr. Holly Andersen was joined by legendary performer Barbra Streisand and shoe designer Vanessa Noel to talk about the devastating reach of a sickness that is wrongly believed to impact men more than women.

Noel has survived a severe heart attack. Several doctors did not recognize her symptoms, which manifest differently in women than they do in men. Instead of experiencing the classic markers of a heart attack—specifically chest pain and arm pain—women having a heart attack usually complain of pain in the jaw, pain in the back, fatigue,
and light headedness.

It is this imbalanced medical understanding of heart disease that inspired Streisand to co-found the Women’s Heart Alliance. “I think women are still viewed as second-class citizens,” she said during the panel. “It’s still a kind of old boy’s club. Whether it’s politics or the workplace, it’s also there in medical research. For the past 50 years, most the research has been done on men…The mice that they do research on are male mice. How can you do research on male mice about women?!”

***

Streisand was not the only celebrity to champion a cause at the summit: Ashley Judd became emotional during a panel that explored the problem of online harassment, and the steps that can be taken to mitigate the abuse. The actress appeared alongside feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, journalist Emily Bazelon, and Attorney General of California Kamala D. Harris.

After posting a mildly disparaging tweet about an opposing college basketball team during March Madness, Judd was hit by what she described as a “tsunami of gender and sexualized violence.” But in the heat of the harassment, one woman tweeted three simple words at Judd: “Poignant. Courageous. Valuable.”

“I wrote it on my mirror,” Judd said, her voice breaking.

***

The afternoon’s discussions eventually migrated back to India: a lively discussion featured innovators from two generations, both of whom have devised sustainable, locally-grown solutions in rural Indian villages.

Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy, social activist and founder of Barefoot College, is training an army of grandmothers to harness solar technology. “ Men are restless, ambitious, compulsory mobile and all want a certificate!” he said. “So why not invest in grandmother? They come back as tigers!”

Sanchaita Gajapati Raju is the young winner of the Google Impact Challenge. She seeks to bring clean drinking water and sanitation to urban slums and rural villages. “Access to clean water and sanitation is at the heart of most problems women face,” Raju said. “Nothing is more ravaging for human dignity than defecating outside and drinking unclean water.”

***
Bringing the day to a rousing close, the Honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton, spoke about the importance of furthering gender parity in the United States and throughout the world.

Despite “the enormous obstacles that remain,” Clinton said, “there has never been a better time in history to be born female.” But she added a prompt to further action: “We’re not there yet.”

The presidential hopeful noted that women around the world are still denied access to reproductive healthcare, that they still make less money than men while doing the same work, that they are still subject to sexual violence.

“We know that when women are strong, families are strong, and when families are strong, countries are strong,” Clinton said. “I’m grateful that there is now a new burst of energy around the rights of women and girls… I am confident and optimistic that if we get to work, we will get it done together.”

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