2015 Summit

#WITW Summit Day 3: Girl power in the US and abroad


Angelina Jolie Pitt wrapped up the Women in the World Summit in New York on Friday with a passionate take on war, displaced people, and crimes against women. “As in all wars, the impact falls disproportionately on women and children,” she said, calling on the audience to take action. The third and final day of the summit brought together a rollicking array of people from across the planet—a fiery schoolgirl from Africa, a trailblazing comedian in the Mideast—to tackle hot-button topics including rape on campus, modern Muslim women, and “Generation Katniss.” 

Jolie Pitt joined the event fresh from the United Nations Security Council, sharing chilling images of the horrors she has seen firsthand as special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “Who among us thought we’d see in the 21st century images of women sold in cages, young girls sold in sex slavery?” she asked. She pointed to the civil war in Syria, a crisis that she said demands the immediate attention of policymakers around the world. The war has forced a generation of children out of school, she said, and has created a climate in which systematic rape is the norm.

“For all the awareness that has been generated worldwide, crimes against women are still being treated as secondary issues,” she said. “Women, we know, are the first to be affected by war, and the last to be taken into account when it ends.” She implored, “Everyone in this room knows an outcry is not enough. We need to change attitudes around the world. We have a particular responsibility.”

The day kicked off with Ambassador Samantha Power and Robin Wright discussing another important issue of our time—the endemic violence, poverty, and corruption in Africa, and the urgent need for individuals and nations to step up. In a conversation moderated by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, Power described meeting African women who have survived unthinkable sexual violence, and who send their girls to school despite attacks on schools, insisting that girls get an education. She said she appreciates her job because “you can use your voice on behalf of people who don’t have a voice.”

Wright discussed the problems caused by rampant corruption in the country’s mining industry, as well as how she is helping Congolese women in need with a line of sleepwear. She described receiving a video from some of the women who benefited from the initiative, “weeping with joy” because they were able to buy a sewing machine to make clothes to sell and create a better life. Power and Wright share another connection in addition to their interest in Africa: While Power is the US ambassador to the UN, Wright plays that role—as Claire Underwood—on the Netflix series House of Cards. When Walker asked if Wright had gained any insight into an ambassador’s life from the role, she joked, “I’m pretending to do something. All I’m worried about is whether my Spanx are pulled up.” 

Next up was teen phenomenon Tavi Gevinson, editor of the online magazine Rookie, who talked with writer and transgender activist Janet Mock about fashion, feminism, and growing up in the age of blogging. When Mock asked the 19-year-old Gevinson how she defines feminism, she said, “Being a girl doesn’t limit me, and I don’t want anyone else to feel limited.” She said that having started blogging at a young age, she feels “lucky to have an audience of people who have allowed me to grow and change.” She doesn’t want to be called “the voice of a generation,” she said, because she feels it is a limiting persecutive that can make people feel like outsiders. And she used an awesome word: “funderdog,” or fake underdog.

A lively teen performance troupe, the Get Lit Players, performed, followed by an array of experts who shed light on the human brain—and the science behind women and decision-making. Next came a fascinating conversation between Egyptian satirist Bassem Youseff and best-selling Turkish author Elif Shafak, who discussed women in Islam and the push and pull of modernism versus traditionalism. “I think the picture is complicated,” said Shafak, noting that the Islamic world is filled with many different voices. “When I write a novel, I love to raise questions. Every reader derives their own answers,” she said. “When I discovered books, I realized I don’t have to be bound to a certain religious or ethnic identity. Books showed me I can go beyond the limits.”

She also discussed how her writing nearly landed her in jail, as she was accused of “insulting Turkishness.” Cleared of the charges, she went on to become her country’s leading female literary voice, breaking barriers of religion and tradition. “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual,“ she said. “I think all modern-day religions are based on the mentality of us-versus-them. I don’t like that framework. I’m interested in that core that unites us.”

An enlightening look at “Generation Katniss” followed, drawing some young cheers from the crowd. Named for Katniss Everdeen—the arrow-wielding protagonist of The Hunger Games—Generation K includes girls ranging in age from 13 to 20, according to renowned British economist Noreena Hertz. She revealed her new study on how this generation differs from the Millennials and others. During their lives, Gen K girls have experienced traumas that include the attack on the World Trade Center, school shootings, terrorism, round-the-clock cyberbullying. Hertz talked about what all this means with Gillian Tett, U.S. managing editor of the Financial Times. “For this generation, the world is less oyster, more nightmare,” said Hertz.

But there’s some good news, too: “Out of all the things they’re worried about, the thing they’re worried about most is inequality—economic, social, gender inequality,” said Hertz. “These girls are horrified at the persistence of gender pay gaps.” So please don’t call them the “selfie, selfish generation,” she said.

An array of science and technology experts then spotlighed how the age of intelligence will change the way we live, followed by a riveting look at the topic of campus rape. US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand joined Annie Clark, cofounder of End Rape on Campus, and Jon Krakauer, author of the new book Missoula Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. Moderator Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC began with the shattering statistic that in America, more than 90 percent of rapists get away with the crime. Clark, a survivor of sexual assault, discussed the problematic attitude that “boys will be boys.” She noted that while men get praised for having a lot of sex, women get called “sluts” and “whores.”

When she first reported her own sexual assault at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Clark said, she got blamed. Since then, she has learned that this is a common occurrence, as victims often get asked what they were wearing or whether they were drinking. “Those are all the wrong questions,” Clark said. “The only thing that causes rape is rapists.” Gillibrand, who is backing legislation that would require more accountability for colleges, said there is a misconception that rape is a “date gone wrong.” Krakauer said rapists need to be held accountable: “If prosecutors and police don’t convict, it encourages the culture to stay the same.”

Tima Shomali, creator and star of Jordan’s first female-driven comedy web series, captivated the audience with her description of how she is trying to topple stereotypes. She told WITW editor-at-large Zainab Salbi about censorship and other challenges she faces as a female comedian in the Middle East. “Some support me all the way,” she said, but there are “always haters.” Salbi called her the “Arab world’s Tina Fey.” 

Libyan lawyer Rima Bugaighis shared her memories of her aunt Salwa Bughaighis, a human-rights activist who was assassinated in her home; her husband, kidnapped. “She gave her life for her country,” she said. Her wrenching tribute was followed by a lineup of trailblazing women inventors, including the creator of a cardboard shelter for the homeless.

And then, a sixth-grade girl from Africa, Eunice Akoth, brought the house down with a gutsy poem, drawing thunderous applause. Her school, the Kibera School for Girls, was founded by trailblazing activist Kennedy Odede, who grew up in Kibera—the biggest urban slum in Africa, in Nairobi—with a dream of making a difference. The founder of Shining Hope for Communities, he managed to get himself to college in America, then used his knowledge to help others back home. “Fathers are now saying, ‘I want my daughters to be like Eunice,’” he said. “The future is bright.” 


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