Invest in Women to Improve the World

The women of Vital Voices show that you cannot let obstacles big or small keep you down. The women and their stories taught me that you cannot use your past or circumstance to hide behind.
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Diane von Furstenberg hosted a Vital Voices luncheon for the media, fashion and philanthropic elite to honor Chouchou Namegabe, a journalist from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who has devoted her career to exposing the use of rape as a weapon of war in her country. Chouchou showed the room of powerhouse women that every person has the ability to make a difference, despite insurmountable odds. Joining Diane von Furstenberg were Diane Sawyer, Tina Brown, Wendi Murdoch and Yael Melamede, a film producer of an Oscar-nominated documentary.

Vital Voices was started when Hillary Clinton left the 1995 Women's U.N. Conference stressing to her Chief-of-Staff Melanne Verveer, now Global Women's Ambassador, that the conversation must continue. Vital Voices is about empowerment, pride and giving women tools and the strength to be strong. Chouchou embodies strength as she magnifies and amplifies women's voices in places that need change, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. In her province 2,000 women were raped, and some of the victims were as young as 10 months old. She is trying to give them a voice, while putting her life on the line. They have killed three male journalists in her province and threatened three women whom she has trained as journalists. As a world citizen and a woman, her story and work must be brought to the world stage.

Vital Voices empowers women to be strong in difficult times. As Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald said, "If you're strong enough, there are no precedents." Diane von Furstenberg began the luncheon with various stories from remarkable women who have been honored at the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Mukstar Mai's story was among them. As a young Pakistani woman, she was sentenced by a council of village elders to be gang-raped as punishment for an "honor crime" alleged to have been committed by her younger brother. In front of a crowd of several hundred people, four men pushed her into a mud-walled room and raped her repeatedly at gunpoint before making her walk home through the village naked. Normally people would kill themselves, but her mother showed her unconditional love and support, and she transformed her situation by holding the village accountable and filing a lawsuit. The judge ruled in her favor, and with the settlement money of $4,000, she started a school. Today she runs two schools and a crisis center. Her motto is, "End oppression with education." She turned a horrific event into an opportunity to make a lasting impact that will forever change the lives of so many young women and girls.

The women of Vital Voices show that you cannot let obstacles big or small keep you down. The women and their stories taught me that you cannot use your past or circumstance to hide behind. Sometimes you simply have to be your own Wonder Woman and not turn your back when life gets tough. The women at the Vital Voices luncheon were reminded that you can "[n]ever underestimate the ability of a small group of individuals to change the world. Indeed, they are the only ones who ever have," as Margaret Mead once said.

Growing up, my mother was a strong role model in my life who taught me to see myself no matter what the world was saying around me. I was also fortunate enough to have a formidable grandmother, aunt and sister. They showed me that each individual has the power to define their own path and their own future. They encouraged me to see myself as I would like to be. There will be times in your life when no one will stand up for you. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't stand up for yourself. I would visualize myself as my grandmother, mother, aunt, sister or a strong friend, and I could become a very confident and powerful woman. Every girl and woman has the chance to write her own history, and women like Chouchou are bravely risking their lives to bring about meaningful and lasting change. Chouchou lives in a different world; I could never imagine being punished for a sibling's crime or living where a 10-month-old child needs to worry about rape. Vital Voices connects women all over the world because there must be universal human rights. Vital Voices enables every girl and woman to find the bravery and backing that she needs to succeed and create a better world for us all.

This dream was made real for me as I helped a friend launch the non-profit She's the First, a media campaign that promotes the importance of educating girls who would otherwise not get the opportunity to go to school. My dream is that every girl and woman, by connecting with others around the world, will find the courage and support to pursue a chosen dream that fulfills her personally and improves the world around her -- even if she must be the first to prove it can be done. Vital Voices helped me find my voice by selecting me as the Vital Voices "Rising Voices 2009" award winner. It's my turn to pay it forward by making an impact with my generation and young girls who will be the next generation of rising leaders. That is why I have learned firsthand that the most effective strategy is to "invest in women to improve the world."