21 Leaders



Rina Amiri, Afghan Liberator

Rina Amiri

Since returning to her native Afghanistan in 2002, Rina Amiri has played an active role in the peace process and in strengthening the framework for women’s participation in the political process. In the last five years, Rina has played a variety of roles in the peace process, beginning with serving as an advisor in the United Nations Education, Cultural and Scientific Organization where she worked with women’s organizations and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Soon after, she was recruited to serve as a political affairs officer in the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. She served in this capacity for four and half years.

Currently she serves as a senior regional adviser for the Open Society Institute, where she works with civil society organizations and women’s groups, and other stakeholders, to strengthen and advance the reform efforts put in place during the last five years.

Amiri has largely sought to work toward putting the framework in place to allow Afghans within the country to determine the course for the future of Afghanistan and to enable Afghan women and men to speak on their own behalf.

As a UNESCO adviser, Amiri in March 2002 helped female journalists develop their own professional media outlet, Voices of Afghan Women in Global Media. This group of women eventually went on to develop radio programs within and outside of Kabul as well as produce television programs and women’s magazines. The programs played a significant role in generating awareness about women’s political rights during the election processes.

On election day in October 2004, as she waited to vote, she was "pressed among a throng of women from a myriad of backgrounds–in modern attire, in burkas–all participating for the first time in their life in the political processes of the country," Amiri says.

In 1973, when she was 4 years old, Amiri and her family fled Afghanistan during the overthrow of the king. Her family spent two and a half years in India before settling in San Francisco in the Afghan Diaspora community.

She also served as a senior research associate at the Women and Public Policy Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, where she joined the Women Waging Peace colloquium. The Harvard-based program brought together peace activists from around the world.

There, Amiri met hundreds of women, many of whom, after enduring great personal ordeals and loss, "channeled their grief and sense of outrage into action and became agents of change." She adds that when she returned to Afghanistan and became involved in peace-building efforts, in many ways, these women served as mentors.

–Irene Lew.

Josie Ashton, Tireless Advocate

Josie Ashton

Josie Ashton is convinced the Latino community needs a wake-up call and she is the person to challenge the community’s complacency about domestic violence.

The event that set her in motion was a murder that shocked much of the Dominican community in and around New York City and the nation. Gladys Ricart was killed as she stood in her living room, surrounded by her family and dressed in her wedding gown. Her prospective groom was already at the church, awaiting the arrival of his bride-to-be. Her assailant: a prominent businessman whom Ricart had dated.

Stunned by the facts in the news accounts of the homicide, Ashton and much of the community widely discussed the case. The more Ashton, a victim advocate at the time in the Miami district attorney’s office, learned, the more concerned she became.

What disturbed her most was the reaction from some in her own Dominican community. Many of the friends and relatives she talked to blamed the victim. "They say she contributed to her own victimization," says Ashton, now 34. "They had the perception that she had it coming because she was dating two men at the same time." The news media, meanwhile, usually portrayed the murder as a crime of passion.

Moved and outraged by the murder and the reaction, Ashton decided to don a wedding dress and walk from New Jersey, where the murder took place, to Florida, where Ashton lives.

Her colleagues at the Miami district attorney’s office tried to stop her. "They said it was professional suicide," recalls Ashton. "They told me, ‘you’re done.’"

Nevertheless, on Sept. 26, 2001, the second anniversary of the murder, she resigned her job and donned a wedding gown and departed on her 1,300-mile trek. She stayed in 14 domestic violence shelters and visited 22 cities. Her trip has since inspired annual Brides Marches in New York, Florida, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., in the month of September.

Many who saw her in her wedding dress stopped to offer their support. "I talked to people who were impacted in one way or another by domestic violence," says Ashton, who now works as victim advocate for the state attorney’s office in Fort Lauderdale.

Ashton hopes the marches will continue to expand. "We need to be more proactive," she says. "We need to change the perception that domestic violence resembles weakness. It’s like any other disease and needs to be fought the same way."

–Irene Lew.

Ananya Chatterjea, Our Bodies’ Storyteller

Ananya Chatterjea

The roughly two dozen performers at Ananya Chatterjea’s dance company range in age from 9 to 64, boast a variety of body builds and represent an eclectic mix of ethnic backgrounds–from Native American and Caribbean American to South Asian and Latin American–to express the realities of women’s lives around the world.

And, as long as their due dates don’t coincide with a show, Chatterjea, founder and artistic director of Ananya Dance Theatre, a company for women of color in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, encourages pregnant women to perform.

"I don’t want to be putting bodies on stage that are just thin, anorexic, ballet bodies," says Chatterjea, 41, who also teaches dance at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. "There are all kinds of different bodies being put on stage."

The casting approach serves what Chatterjea sees as a woman-focused purpose. "We can reclaim our own sexuality and try to find out what empowers women’s bodies," she says.

Chatterjea discovered the power of dance growing up in India, where her mother practiced informally and encouraged Chatterjea to pursue dance more seriously. Chatterjea studied in India until age 23, when she moved to New York to get her master’s degree in dance at Columbia University. She then earned her doctorate at Temple University in Philadelphia and moved to Minnesota in 1998 to teach.

As a teacher and a dancer, Chatterjea blends ancient and contemporary South Asian dance forms. She incorporates a range of styles, such as classical South Asian Odissi, the Indian martial arts of Chhau, ancient ritual practices, yoga and Indian street theater, a form of female expression that inspired her as a young girl in Kolkata.

During her childhood in India, Chatterjea saw women’s groups performing street theater at places like bus stops and markets. It was a "powerful way" for women "to grab people’s attention about issues," she says. "I was very influenced by that."

A recent show, called "Duurbaar," which means "unstoppable" in Chatterjea’s first language of Bengali, explored women’s relationship to water and femininity. Chatterjea is currently preparing a piece about environmental racism.

She says the ethnic mix is key to her creations because women from different backgrounds often do not communicate with each other.

"I wanted to create a space to do that," she says. "When you have all these bodies sweating together to reach a common goal, then it creates a space for people to figure things out."

–Allison Stevens.

Kathleen DeBold, Lesbian Care Giver

Kathleen DeBold

Kathleen DeBold is all about equal access to health care. As head of the Mautner Project, DeBold is dedicated to ensuring that lesbian, gay and transgender people receive the best possible care.

The initial goal of the Mautner Project was to support lesbians who had been diagnosed with cancer. It has since grown to become the national lesbian health organization, improving the health of women who partner with women through advocacy, education, research and direct services.

"The whole idea of women taking care of women and fighting for health care equality touched every chord in my lesbian-feminist heart," says DeBold, 51.

DeBold became executive director of the Mautner Project in 1999 and since then has developed a wide range of programs that have included Healing Works: the National Conference on Lesbians and Cancer; Support, Assistance and Information for Lesbians (S.A.I.L), the first patient navigation program focused on LBT women; and Delicious Lesbian Kisses, a lesbian-focused anti-smoking campaign. She has also spearheaded research that includes the Spirit Health Study, the first national survey of black lesbian and bisexual women’s health.

Lesbians face many barriers to obtaining quality health care, says DeBold. Most doctors are uneducated about the needs and concerns of their LGBT patients. Most employers don’t offer spousal health insurance for same-sex couples, so a large number of lesbians are uninsured. Lesbians have to obtain numerous and costly legal documents to guarantee the health-related protections many heterosexual couples take for granted, such as visiting life partners in the hospital or having joint custody of their children.

To help overcome these barriers, Mautner trains health care workers to provide competent care to their LGBT patients, including an initiative that focuses on nursing homes and eldercare facilities. It also teaches lesbians to defend themselves against discrimination in a health care setting and advocate for themselves and their loved ones.

"Because of sexism, women’s health still lags behind men’s health," says DeBold. "Add sexual orientation and gender identity to the equation and that spells major neglect."

DeBold served from 1992 to 1999 as deputy director of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, an advocacy group that works to increase the number of openly LGBT public officials at all levels of government. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park.

–Irene Lew.

Janice Reals Ellig, Career-Maker

Janice Reals Ellig

"Make it happen" is Janice Reals Ellig’s mantra for corporate women. She has been there, and has the know-how and savvy to be the strategist for their careers. She even wrote a book about it.

When "The Rules" dating guide hit the nation’s bookshelves a decade ago and offered women retro tips on how to snag a man, Ellig was inspired to write her own self-help book for women. Instead of being about how to catch Mr. Right it was about creating the "right game plan" to land a top job in corporate America, statistically far more difficult than finding a husband.

Ellig–who is co-chief executive officer of Chadick Ellig, an executive search firm in New York–and co-author Bill Morin interviewed hundreds of female corporate employees about how to advance in the workplace.

McGraw Hill published the book, "What Every Successful Woman Knows: 12 Breakthrough Strategies to Get the Power and Ignite Your Career," in 2001. The book was acknowledged as the best in its genre by Business Week.

"It was really saying if you want this to happen, women, you have to make it happen," Ellig says.

In their search practice, Ellig and her colleagues have made a point of presenting a diverse slate of prospective candidates for senior-level corporate positions. As result, 60 percent of the firm’s placements are women and minority men.

But Ellig says the face of corporate America isn’t going to change overnight. In fact, she and her co-author Morin will publish "Driving the Career Highway: 20 Road Signs You Can’t Afford to Miss."

Ellig grew up Westchester, N.Y., and earned a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Iowa in Iowa City and a master’s degree in organizational development from Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. Since graduating, she has worked for major companies such as Pfizer Inc., Citigroup and Ambac Financial Group.

Progress for women in the workplace has been "painfully slow," she says, noting that nearly 40 years have passed since the first of the Baby Boomers graduated from college in 1968. In that time, many women have moved into pioneering new roles but equality is still far from reach.

Indeed, it will be 2076 before women achieve parity on Fortune 500 corporate boards at the current pace, Ellig notes. "That’s another 70 years to go. I want my legacy to be that I helped decrease that number."

–Allison Stevens.

Gloria Feldt, Sexual Health Pioneer

Gloria Feldt

When she was 5 years old, reproductive health advocate Gloria Feldt says she dreamed about being a writer. "I’m just now becoming who I always thought I could be," she says.

It took a while. At age 20, Feldt was already a "tired and exhausted" mother of three in Odessa, Texas. "The birth control pill," Feldt says, "saved my life." It was approved by the FDA in 1960 and Feldt discovered it a couple of years later.

The opportunity for women to control their own fertility would preoccupy Feldt, now 65, for the next four decades, eventually leading to a position as the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, from 1996 to 2005. There she created, with its 120 affiliates in 860 locations, a 25-year vision for the organization. She expanded services and shifted its advocacy strategy from an emphasis on protecting rights to setting a broad agenda to address women’s reproductive issues, including insurance coverage of contraception, access to emergency contraception and establishing reproductive rights as human rights.

"I feel that I turned the movement battleship around from being defensive to being proactive, and it was a big battleship," she says.

Feldt also spearheaded the March for Women’s Lives in April of 2004, one of the largest marches on the Washington Mall in the past decade. An aerial photograph of protestors gathered on that day, many of them in signature pink Planned Parenthood T-shirts, hangs in her bedroom.

Feldt feels liberated from the need to "sanitize" her statements now that she has no official affiliation. "People have said that I led with an iron fist in a velvet glove," she says, smiling mischievously. "Now that I’m independent, I can take off the glove and have even sharper words."

In the last three years she has authored or co-authored three books: "The War on Choice: The Right-Wing Attack on Women’s Rights and How to Fight Back" (Bantam, 2004); "Behind Every Choice Is a Story" (University of North Texas, 2003); and "Send Yourself Roses . . . And Other Thoughts on Life, Love and Leading Roles," co-written with Kathleen Turner (Springboard Press, 2008). Feldt helped to establish and now serves on the board of the Women’s Media Center.

A frequent contributor to Women’s eNews, she plans to turn her attention to the topic of sexuality, specifically America’s difficult relationship with sex. "We are never going to solve the problems of teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases until Americans learn to deal with sex," she says.

–Courtney E. Martin.

Aloisea Inyumba, Civil Society Engineer

Aloisea Inyumba

Aloisea Inyumba rose from the horror of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered within 100 days, to become a leading advocate for justice and reconciliation for the survivors, 70 percent of whom were female. She also has become a leading advocate for changing the nation’s legal system to include women’s rights.

Inyumba’s father was killed during an earlier massacre and she was reared and educated by her mother in Uganda. At the age of 30, with Rwanda in shambles, she returned to serve as a finance minister, the only woman on the 10-member executive committee of the Rwandese Patriotic Front, the current ruling political party.

"I wanted to engage women to act as a cornerstone in the promotion of unity and reconciliation in the country," says Inyumba, 42.

The killers specifically targeted Tutsi women, who were raped, tortured, mutilated and killed. In many cases, they were raped by men who were HIV-positive and knowingly transmitted the virus. Early meetings were difficult as women sat in different corners, divided by hate and anguish.

Gradually, Inyumba devised a national adoption program for the children who lost parents to the genocide. She encouraged widows to adopt each other’s children–Tutsis raising Hutus–as a dramatic step toward eliminating the racism that touched off the genocide. The program reduced the number of orphans from 500,000 to 4,000.

As the chaos subsided and a society was beginning to take shape, Inyumba pushed for women to have a leading role in reconstructing Rwanda. Now a senator in Rwanda’s parliament, she has also established a national women’s network to adjudicate family and property issues resulting from the genocide. Also, as a member of parliament, she is responsible for oversight of the implementation of Gacaca, a community justice system to address the crimes of the 1994 genocide.

Inyumba also organized the Rwanda Women’s Initiative, a national network designed to encourage dialogue among Hutu, Tutsi and Twa women. To date, 2 million women have participated in the Rwanda Women’s Initiative.

Through the effort, Inyumba also began programs to improve the earnings of women. One is Ikigega, "granary" in the local language, a revolving seed fund. She also helped develop a number of microfinance projects. Inyumba was also active in pushing for the changes in the nation’s rape laws and family codes so that women had rights to inherit property and decide on the matrimonial regime, or the rules that govern an economic relationship between spouses.

–Irene Lew.

Irene Lew is the editorial intern at Women’s eNews; Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief; Courtney Martin is a writer, filmmaker and teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y.


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Event – Gala Benefit Dinner Honoring 21 Leaders for 21st Century 2007