Apr 03, 2013 at 10:32 AM
New York Times — Melanne Verveer ought to know. She’s been at it for more than 15 years, pushing, pleading, traveling, carrying her message to the powerful and the weak. While pounding away at male-dominated cultures, she has managed to help bring a crucial measure of rights and economic advancement to women and girls worldwide.

“I feel heartened by the progress, but aware that many challenges remain,” Ms. Verveer, who will be a co-host at the Women in the World Summit in New York this week and who served as ambassador at large for global women’s issues in the U.S. State Department, said in a phone call from Venice last week.

“There’s been a great deal of progress in government policies, education, civil society, and in the private sector,” she said. “We’re moving in a way we’ve not seen before.”

Tina Brown, the Newsweek and Daily Beast editor who co-founded Women in the World, calls this juncture a “tipping point for women.”

“There’s the outcry in India” over a history of gang rapes, she said. The rapes most recently ignited protests in Delhi, led mainly by women, and drew the attention of the world to India’s disregard for women’s rights and safety. A study released Sunday reports a sharp drop in the number of foreign tourists, especially women, to India. Taken by surprise and shamed into action, the government promised to protect women and prosecute rapists and sexual abusers.

Women in the World, which features women from diverse cultures and backgrounds, brings in celebrities, media stars and fashion figures. Since it started in 2010, it has leaped to the forefront of the scene, drawing thousands of chief executives, world leaders, artists and activists to a tightly packed program at Lincoln Center. “We have been a galvanizing force,” Ms. Brown said in a phone interview. “We’ve fomented debate.”

Of course, many women’s conferences crowd the global calendar. A quick rundown includes:

•The 57th session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, which advanced an initiative to prevent and end violence against women and girls;

• The inaugural Trust Women conference in London, organized last year by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International Herald Tribune, which seeks to put the rule of law behind women’s rights;

•The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, previewed her hot book, “Lean In”;

•The Catalyst awards dinner in New York, which rewards multinational corporations for advancing women in business;

•The 2013 Vital Voices Global Partnership gala Tuesday in Washington, to celebrate little-known women and high-profile figures who foster rights and development.

“On our side it’s very different,” Ms. Brown said. “It’s driven by a news edge. We show stories of women that the media doesn’t anymore have the ability to tell. We provide a stage, a platform, a voice. We promote the women. We put them up on television. We give them a heightened platform.” For the rest of the year, she said, the Women in the World Foundation acts as “the connector,” putting women in touch with each other, linking people to money. “We’re making a lot of headway.”

Though Ms. Verveer and Ms. Brown said they didn’t worry about a convention glut, some leaders are concerned.

“I worry it’s now the big thing,” an official of a Washington-based nonprofit group told me recently, requesting anonymity to avoid any appearance of undercutting a specific group or gathering.

“We have to be mindful and clear about what real services we are providing,” she said. “It’s not enough to bring victims and advocates from oppressive cultures to the big stage and give them the spotlight. What happens after the conference is over and everyone goes home?”

With all of these forums and conventions, there is plenty of cross-pollination and overlap. This week, Ms. Brown and Diane von Furstenberg, Ms. Verveer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, all featured on the Women in the World program, were also headlining the Vital Voices dinner. (Ms. Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security in Washington, will be co-hosts of Women in the World after accepting a tribute at Vital Voices, which she co-founded as an outgrowth of a 1997 initiative by Mrs. Clinton, then the first lady, and Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. secretary of state.)

Among the scheduled speakers at the Vital Voices dinner was the New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, who wrote the best-selling book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, with whom he shares a Pulitzer Prize. The book served in part to originate the Female Factor series in the International Herald Tribune and is now a transmedia project including a PBS documentary filmed in 10 countries. The documentary examines health, education and economic advancements as well as sex trafficking, forced prostitution, forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

None of those problems are going away in hardened male-dominated societies. In Egypt, conservative Islamists blame not men, but women themselves, for the appalling number of sexual attacks and gang rapes at Tahrir Square in Cairo, as The New York Times reported. “Sometimes a girl contributes one hundred percent to her own raping,” a lawmaker was quoted as saying.

For Ms. Brown, those are some of the stories the world needs to hear. “We want electrifying action and involvement, spotlighting women in the world who have none,” she said. “We talk a lot in America about a lot of issues about getting to the corner office” — an allusion to the Sheryl Sandberg credo — “but these women are fighting for basic rights, and I want to bring the spotlight to them.”

A version of this article appeared in print on April 3, 2013, in The International Herald Tribune.

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