Reflections on the ‘Women in the World Summit’
Making a spectacle of American self-absorption

Tina Brown and Angelina Jolie at the Women in the World Summit, March 8, 2012


It isn’t easy to attract 2,000 people to a conference on women’s rights. But Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of Newsweek and the Daily Beast, carried it off. On March 8, she filled an auditorium at Lincoln Center in New York City with mostly high-powered professional women and kept them enthralled for three days. Even on day three, Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m., the hall was packed. This year’s “Women in the World Summit” was much larger than the 2010 and 2011 editions. The surroundings were grander, the special effects more impressive. With generous funding from HP, Bank of America, Toyota, Intel, Coca-Cola, and other corporations, the entire event was exquisitely choreographed. The program was filled with celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, and Oprah, and star journalists such as Barbara Walters, Christiane Amanpour, and Andrea Mitchell.

Yet this year’s gathering was a letdown. Last year’s summit was confident, positive, and non-partisan. It was focused on honoring and helping those who are working to advance the status — often lowly and precarious — of women in the developing world. As Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg then said to the assembled women, “We’re here because we know that with good fortune comes not just the opportunity to help but the responsibility to help others.” The 2012 summit, by contrast, was intensely partisan: A recurring theme was the alleged war against women waged by Republicans. More generally, the gathering was suffused with the grievances and anti-male vitriol of successful, wealthy American women. It was as if the women’s-rights activists from Liberia, Egypt, and Burma were there to offer succor and guidance to American women in our time of need. Tina Brown said as much in the Daily Beast: “It is ironic that American women now need to be fortified by the inspiration of the women of the Arab Spring, who risked so much to win basic human rights.” What is ironic, and sad, is that Brown has lost track of the purpose and meaning of the summit, her own brilliant creation.

The stars of the summit, this year as in previous ones, were women’s-rights activists from across the globe, mostly unknown in the United States. On one panel after another, we heard from change agents successfully combating child marriage in Pakistan, indentured slavery in Burma, femicide in the Congo, and genital cutting in Senegal. The conference began with a riveting presentation on the plight of British girls whose parents take them out of school at 14 or 15 and send them to Pakistan to marry strangers. We heard a recording of a terrified girl calling a hotline and explaining that she might be forced onto an airplane at any minute. The calm, focused person on the line told her that if she did not have time to escape to a shelter and found herself being whisked away to the airport, she should place a metal spoon inside her underclothes. That would set off alarms at the airport security line and she would be sequestered for questioning. She could then tell her story.

The discussion revealed that mothers are often the ones most determined to force their daughters into marriages. And it showed that the solutions were being forged by brave women and men working together. The panel included two extraordinary men, one of whom is stationed in Islamabad and leads rescue operations. Also present were two young women who escaped forced marriages. One of them, Jasvinder Sanghera, has founded an organization called Karma Nirvana, which works to stop forced marriage and honor killings. Its motto: “No apologies. No excuses. No backing down.” The group receives 5,000 calls a year.

One of the many things the summit does right is to highlight solutions. Molly Melching is an American woman who has spent the past 36 years living in Senegal working with locals to improve the status of women. A few years ago, she and her Senegalese colleagues realized that their efforts to stop genital mutilation were not working. Their focus had been on educating women and raising their awareness of their rights and needs. They came to realize that to foment change, they had to involve the entire community — especially male tribal leaders. By involving local imams, by appealing to their impulse to protect vulnerable women, and by working with rather than against local traditions, Melching’s group has achieved something unprecedented. More than 4,000 villages have abandoned genital cutting. Melching was joined by Imam Demba Diawara, a Senegalese village chief who is leading a national effort to replace harmful traditions with healthy ones.