Improving the Lives of Women From Two Different Sides

Years ago Joni Mitchell sang about looking "at life from both sides now." With apologies to Mitchell, that's exactly how I felt recently in a 24-hour period...I saw two sides of the efforts to improve the lives of women and girls - efforts that are literally worlds apart.

First, I attended the opening session of Tina Brown's seventh annual "Women in the World Summit." The evening was about the struggles in violent and war-torn countries. I heard Sonita Alizadeh, an Iranian refugee, who uses rap lyrics to fight child marriage. There was a panel about African Jihad. One of the panelists was Dr. Obiageli Ezekwesili, who co-founded "Bring Back Our Girls" when 270+ school girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria. Today (two years later), 219 of those girls are still missing. The panelists talked about the need to make the victims of such horror so important that something happens...and to deal with the drivers of violence, not solely the aftermath.

Then it was a true honor to hear from Rula Ghani, First Lady of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, who was interviewed on stage by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman. Ghani and her husband are both working to elevate women in their country. For example, the First Lady has started a public university for women because of the importance of girls' education. And she was surprisingly candid when she plainly stated that she could not see where what is being said to women, there and elsewhere, is in the Quran. She talked about how difficult it is for us sitting in a theater at Lincoln Center in New York City to imagine what the impact of prolonged war does to society.

We've all read about and seen on the news the refugee crisis around the world. The plight of refugees was brought to life by a panel of women who have either been refugees or work with those refugees, interviewed by Tina Brown. Panelists reiterated that people need to be "pushed to the wall" with no options before they leave their countries, and that as refugees people are often forced to make unimaginable choices. What many/most refugees want is a "dignified life" in their own country.

Hearing from women from countries where conflict is all around them underscored the human need and impact. And it underscored the courage and tenacity of women in those countries.

Less than ten hours later I saw a very different, but important, view of efforts to support women and girls when I attended the twentieth annual Philanthropic Round Table on Women and Philanthropy held by Miss Hall's School, a college-preparatory school for girls (who come from 28 countries). Twenty years ago, women's philanthropy was not on the radar as it is today, and so the forward-thinking of Miss Hall's was impressive in and of itself.

Miss Hall's brought a range of women philanthropists to the table, from Hali Lee, Founder of the Asian Women's Giving Circle, a meaningful but relatively small funder, to Jennifer Buffett, Co-President of the Novo Foundation, a really large funder. The panel was moderated by Andrea Pactor from the Women's Philanthropic Institute of Indiana University - itself a force. I must confess that I was excited to see and hear from Jennifer Buffet (whose husband is Peter Buffett, the youngest son of Warren Buffett and with whom she founded Novo). If you've ever heard of "the girl effect" it's because of Novo and Nike. The girl effect is a movement "...to get the world to stop seeing girls as part of a global poverty problem and to see them instead as co-creators of new solutions." The panel was a testament to the critical role that women in the developed world can play in lifting up the neediest women through their philanthropic efforts.

Julia Heaton, Head of School at Miss Hall's, wrapped things up by stressing the importance of focusing "...on the 'we' in a world of stark divides.'"

And so the events of those 24 hours were for me really about looking at both sides, hearing from those helping on the ground and from those helping from afar...literally cultures, approaches, and worlds apart, but with the same goals.