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21 Women Leaders 2013 - Seven Who Shake the Status Quo

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Profiles of seven outstanding women leaders dedicated to improving lives of women and girls: Manal Al-Sharif, Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel and Elena Tsemberis, Helen Benedict, Kathy Bonk, Barbara Bridges, Catalina Escobar, Sandra Fluke

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Profiles of seven outstanding women leaders dedicated to improving lives of women and girls: Manal Al-Sharif, Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel and Elena Tsemberis, Helen Benedict, Kathy Bonk, Barbara Bridges, Catalina Escobar, Sandra Fluke

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Manal Al-Sharif: Driver of Change in Saudi Arabia

Manal Al-Sharif With her blog, Tweets and speeches, Manal Al-Sharif has come to embody the resistance of Saudi women to their apartheid existence in the Saudi kingdom. "Do not ask permission from him!" is the title of the most recent blog entry, written in Arabic. In the post, she recounts that after her younger brother Ghassan was born, her mother began to be called "mother of Ghassan." She was never referred to as "mother of Manal." From there, she moved on to challenging her readers to stop asking their male relatives or spouses for the okay to do any on the hundreds of actions law or custom say they need permission for.

The Saudi laws and religious dictates for women are the most extreme outside the Taliban. Women outside their homes must be fully covered with an abaya, a veil and a face covering. If not properly dressed, they will be publicly chastised by religious police who carry sticks to punish transgressors. They may not travel outside Saudi without the permission of a male guardian, a father, brother or husband. The list goes on.

Al-Sharif graduated from a Saudi university--a women-only computer science program--and found a job the same year at Aramco. Until multiple death threats forced her to leave Saudi, Al-Sharif lived and worked in relative comfort and freedom in the westernized compound controlled by Aramco, the state-owned oil company responsible for much of the nations wealth.

Then she did the unthinkable. After learning that no law actually barred women from driving in Saudi, she took the wheel of her car and left Aramco property. She then posted on YouTube a video of herself chatting about women's rights as she drove. It received 700,000 viewers in a single day and encouraged other Saudi women to drive.

Arrested by religious police, she was jailed for nine days in May 2011 for "inciting women to drive." The related social media campaigns and YouTube video were quickly blocked inside the country, but despite that, a month after her arrest 100 Saudi women protested the non-law law by driving cars publicly.

Al-Sharif and at least two other women have now sued the Saudi government, demanding driver's licenses. Religious leaders have expressed their objections by saying women driving would promote prostitution and other vice.

Born in 1979, Al-Sharif grew up in a conservative household in Mecca , the most holy city in the Muslim religion, with separate entrances for men and women.

Her views about the need for women's rights began to grow in 2000, when the Internet was introduced in Saudi. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, led by 19 Saudis, caused her to realize what the endgame for religious extremism actually was.

Her activism has been recognized widely; Foreign Policy magazine named her one of its "Top 100 Global Thinkers" and Time magazine called her one of the "100 most influential people of 2012."

But she still cannot drive her car in Saudi Arabia.

 

-- By Samantha Kimmey

Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel and Elena Tsemberis: Petitioners for Changing History

Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel and Elena TsemberisThree high school friends in Montclair, N.J., got a great idea and took action. They succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation.

Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel and Elena Tsemberis are the trio behind the petition on Change.org: "It's Time for a Woman Moderator: Equality in the 2012 Presidential Debates!" Turns out, many others thought so too.

The trio got the idea for the petition during a history class last year when they learned that a woman had not moderated a U.S. general election presidential debate since Carole Simpson in 1992.

"We weren't comfortable hearing that it had been two decades since a woman moderated the presidential debates," Siegel says. "It provided proof that there is sexism in our country and we wanted to change that. We don't want to be seen as less-than," adds Axelrod.

The young women posted their petition on a Monday and had more than 100,000 signatures by the Friday of that week.

"There's a real disparity between where we've come and where people think we've come," Tsemberis says. "There's so much farther to go and this was one area where there's such under-representation of women that we thought it was important to try to change."

During the first week of August, the trio, Siegel's mother, Elissa Siegel, and the trio's advisors at Change.org, Shelby Knox (Women's eNews 21 Leader 2007) and Mike Jones, boarded Amtrak headed to Washington's Union Station.

They intended to deliver the petitions directly to the Commission on Presidential Debates. On the way down, the news media began to call.

"On the train ride there, we were on phone interviews the entire time talking with members of the press. The experience was so amazing and exhausting," Tsemberis says.

The trio carried flash drive with copies of the petitions and boxes of the printed petitions. They marched straight to the commission's offices with a trail of news reporters--with cameras and microphones--right on their heels.

"When we tried to approach the building, we were turned away by security. We were not acknowledged; we were brushed off, but we got the media attention for our cause," Axelrod says.

They also gathered statements of support from U.S. Congresswoman and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi; U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand; U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York; Speaker of the New York City Council Christine Quinn and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

On October 3, Martha Raddatz, senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News moderated the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. On October 16, 2012, Candy Crowley, chief political correspondent for CNN moderated the second of three presidential debates between President Barack Obama and former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney.

"It was the first time in history that women moderated 50 percent of the debates," Tsemberis says. "Raddatz handled it all very well and Crawley did an extraordinary job. It feels good to know that we played a part in spreading awareness."

The trio must now be focused on where each will attend college, but they will not leave this experience behind.

"To be honest, before this experience, I never really wanted to be involved in politics or advocacy," Siegel says. "But after this, it's completely opened my eyes that possibility."

 

-- By Stephanie Yacenda

Helen Benedict: Listener to the Silenced
Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism

Helen BenedictHelen Benedict is largely responsible for blowing the lid off the issue of sexual assault in the military. She is one of two winners of the Women's eNews Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism.

Benedict was the first journalist to uncover the magnitude of sexual abuse of U.S. female soldiers during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Her efforts prompted a precedent-setting lawsuit against the Pentagon on behalf of women and men who had been sexually assaulted while on military duty. She also inspired a 2012 documentary on the same subject, "The Invisible War." The lawsuit and film brought enough attention to the scandal to inspire a statement in April 2011 by President Barack Obama condemning sexual predation in the military.

 

Benedict, a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in New York, is the author of six novels, five nonfiction books and numerous essays documenting all manner of social justice issues. Her most recent nonfiction work, "The Lonely Soldier," received several awards, including an EMMA (Exception Merit in Media Award) from the National Women's Political Caucus. Her latest book, the novel "Sand Queen," was hailed as the first major book about women on both sides of the Iraq War.

To research her books and articles, Benedict interviewed some 40 veterans of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. She was intrigued by "those that fell silent, their hands shaking, their eyes filling with tears." She knew that something lay beyond those silences, a hidden story concealed by a military culture that she says is "fiercely secretive" and "self-protective."

Benedict spoke to a quiet soldier at the back of the room who told her, "I was a gunner, but when I talk about it no one listens or believes me. You know why? Because I am a woman." Benedict learned that not only was the military breaking the Pentagon's ban against women in ground combat by having them serve as gunners, raid houses, work checkpoints and fight alongside the infantry under the guise of "combat support," but also that female service members were being sexually attacked at sky-high rates -- by their own comrades-in-arms.

Benedict uncovered studies showing that 30 percent of military women report having been raped by comrades, 74 percent say they were sexually assaulted and 90 percent sexually harassed, all while they serving.

"The mortar rounds that came in daily did less damage to me than the men with whom I shared my food," one female soldier told her.

Benedict first realized she wanted to use her writings to address social injustice as an undergraduate at Sussex University in her native England. As part of a criminology course, she went to work in a prison for teenaged girls called Bullwood Hall for eight days. There, she learned that a staggering 80 percent of the girls had been raped as children by relatives. Benedict was rocked to her core.

"This is what really burned me up inside," she says. "The injustice of putting the wrong people behind bars."

 

--By Victoria Fitzgerald

Kathy Bonk: Global Communicator for Women's Human Rights

Kathy BonkKathy Bonk has been at the front lines of the great game-changing events of this generation.

Recalling the early years of the 20th century women's movement, Bonk says, "The fight back then was one in which women and girls were met with so many barriers; women weren't allowed in colleges, we weren't paid the same, there were male-only clubs, banned from little leagues, and so on."

Today, Bonk is the Executive Director of the Communications Consortium Media Center, an organization she co-founded in 1988, that develops media strategies for policy change.

Bonk grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, as the youngest of four sisters; her oldest sister was the first to identify with feminism after experiencing inequality when she became a teacher.

"My sister was paid two-thirds what a man was and the ironic thing is it never occurred her to even challenge the law," Bonk says.

Bonk did not accept the narrow roles imposed upon women, and, in fact, made a career out of challenging them. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1973, she moved to Washington D.C, where she met her mentor and feminist icon Catherine S. East, a government researcher who became a persistent goad to the nascent feminist movement,

Bonk went on to direct the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund's media project for nearly 10 years and helped established the National Commission on Working Women; she worked to implement the first family planning clinics in Moscow during the break-up of the Soviet Union; she was instrumental in increasing worldwide media coverage of the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994; and she was an advisor to the U.S. delegation to the U.N.'s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

Looking forward, Bonk plans to work with the Ford Foundation to bring an end to child marriage, as it affects 2 million young women around the world today. She will also focus her efforts on reproductive health and family planning for disadvantaged women.

"I have tried to serve the cause the best I can," Bonk says. "As my generation starts to retire, we want to make sure the next generation has all the tools they need to fight for women's rights."

-- WeNews Staff

Barbara Bridges: Story Teller for Social Justice

Barbara BridgesBarbara Bridges is an entrepreneur, businesswomen, philanthropist and an impassioned women's activist.

"My passion is women's stories and the discussion of social justice issues," she says.

 

Barbara was raised in Pittsburgh and followed her mother's footsteps as a teacher by receiving a degree in elementary education. Her path, however, led her to co-found an oil and gas software company with her husband. They raised two sons, one of whom recently received a master's degree from Harvard. When the company was sold 14 years later in 1994, Barbara says she "began an exploration to find my passion."

She spent considerable effort learning to become a responsible philanthropist and she contributed enormously to her community of Denver, Colo. In one of her first generous acts, she and her ex-husband donated their former company's office building to Colorado Public Radio. The Bridges Broadcast Center is now one of NPR's premier broadcast and recording studios.

She formed the Barbara Bridges Family Foundation to focus her philanthropy on women, children and peace. She's served on a variety of boards, including the Denver Children's Hospital and the inner-city Wyatt Edison Charter School.

Barbara joined the board of The White House Project, dedicated to women's leadership in business and politics. She credits that experience as "starting to open my eyes to the challenges that women are facing in the world."

Barbara is a member of Women Moving Millions and will soon become Board Chair of the Women's Foundation of Colorado where she will lead the organization's work of focusing on women's struggles with poverty.

She has received numerous national awards, including the Girl Scout's Woman of Distinction Award, NARAL's Lifetime Achievement Award and the first PeaceJam Hero Award, an organization that brings Nobel Peace laureates together with young people from around the world.

But it was her experience as executive producer of a feature film that impassioned her about the power of films and their ability to tell meaningful stories to wide audiences. She joined the board of the Denver Film Society and quickly brought women into the picture. She founded Women+Film, where screenings ignite discussions around global issues. Now in its seventh year, Women+Film has grown into one of the Denver Film Society's most popular programs.

 

"We are raising the voices of women in the film industry and are telling the stories of women from around the world. We have the opportunity to learn from them and to be inspired by them," she says.

-- By Jenna McGuire

Catalina Escobar: Embracer of Young Mothers

Catalina EscobarGrief over her infant's death was a catalyst for Catalina Escobar Restrepo to find a way to reduce maternal and infant mortality in the hospital serving one of the poorest communities in her coastal region of Colombia.

Escobar is the founder of the Juan Felipe Gomez Foundation, which brings reproductive education and healthcare to more than 2,000 teen mothers in Cartagena, a Caribbean resort community with a large proportion of the population living in poverty.

In October 2000, she was a volunteer at the Cartagena, maternity hospital when a 12-day-old infant died her arms. When Escobar learned that the baby's teen mother had not been able to raise the money for treatment that would have saved his life, she was crushed. At the hospital where she volunteered, at least one infant died each day.

Less than a week later, Escobar lost her second son, 16-month-old Juan Felipe, when he fell from the balcony of her home.

In reaction, Escobar built a neo-natal unit, brought in experts to train the employees, and designed a program for young mothers to help cover medical costs.

Since her involvement, maternal mortality dropped steeply and the hospital has seen a 67 percent drop in the infant mortality rate.

Escobar designed a young mothers program to reduce the high rate of teen pregnancy and ultimately to end the cycle of violence, abuse and poverty.

"Often times, the girls start being abused when they are 4, 5 and 6 years old," Escobar says.

The teen mothers program has two cycles: education in basic hygiene, infant care, reproductive health, and contraception. They also participate in intensive counseling to help cope with the abuse.

"First, we have to empty their hearts. There is a lot of crying when they tell their stories and release their pain," Escobar says.

In the second cycle, the teens can finish high school on site and the program helps them find jobs or scholarships to continue their education.

The Foundation started with 30 girls in 2002; with the opening of a new center last year, 400 pregnant teens and young mothers now enroll annually. Recently, 127 graduated with technical degrees.

In May of 2012, she was among the 25 women worldwide for the "Fortune/US State Department Global Women's Mentoring Partnership". And in August 2012, Escobar was named a CNN Hero for her work with the Juan Felipe Gomez Foundation.

"I am convinced that our foundation has a model of intervention that is going to be an economic model for the future," Escobar says. "Our model for teenage pregnancy breaks the cycle of poverty."

-- By Stephanie Yacenda

Sandra Fluke: Truth-Teller to the Powerful

Sandra FlukeNewly-minted attorney Sandra Fluke became an icon for women's rights last year amid the national debate over religious freedom and affordable access to contraception.

Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh blasted her with "vile" and inflammatory comments about her private life after Fluke testified before members of Congress as a student at Georgetown University Law Center, a Jesuit institution.

Fluke's testimony came as a response to the all-male panel at a hearing on requirements for contraceptive insurance coverage, convened by the Republican chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"I don't think that a statement like [that], issued saying that his [Limbaugh's] choice of words was not the best, changes anything. Especially when that statement is issued when he's under significant pressure from his sponsors, who have begun to pull support from his show," Fluke says.

But Fluke adds that, "Some fights are worth the scars. Sensitive issues produce the worst scars because they are worth fighting for."

Hailing from Saxton, Penn., Fluke's pivotal moment came during a class discussion in high school of a recent incident of sexual assault.

"I remember students talking about that she could have prevented it, what she was wearing, the fact that she was out late and various other victim blaming comments," Fluke recalls. "I raised my hand because I had a different opinion."

She didn't yet have the knowledge or political understanding to fully articulate what was wrong about those comments, she says, but she knew she did not agree that the victim was to blame. "My teacher stopped the class because I was reacting 'sensitively' to it."

Later, at Cornell University, where she studied policy analysis and management, as well as feminist, gender and sexuality studies, Fluke was introduced to progressive ideas on gender bias and gained the knowledge and tools to discuss victim blaming, she says.

For her support of Obama's health care law and her calm response to Limbaugh and other harsh critics, she was tapped by the Obama campaign to introduce the president at a Denver campaign rally and was given a speaker spot at the Democratic National Convention, highlighting the visions of Democratic female House and Senate candidates.

"The issues are important enough to keep me up at night and keep me fighting for those things that I believe in," she says.

The next issue causing her to lose sleep will likely be poverty. "That work brings together so many communities that I care about and have advocated for," she says.

--By Victoria Fitzgerald

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