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I diritti delle donne a Villa La Pietra
November 2, 2009

A Global Working Session of the Vital Voices Coalition

A group of 50 exceptional individuals – from government, civil society and the private sector, including Muhammed Yunus, Nobel Prize winning economist and founder the Graamen Bank;  Kim Azzarelli, Vice President for Corporate Engagement at Glodman Sachs; Beth Brooke, Global Vice Chair for Ernst & Young; Laura Alonso, Argentinian parliamentarian; Melanne Verveer, The U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues; and Emma Bonino, Vice President of the Italian Senate - sat around a table together to discuss the obstacles women face in realizing true equality.

What has worked and what hasn’t? What and who has been missing from the debate? How can the obstacles be overcome? Which new players, different approaches and innovative actions can move us forward? In short, what will it take to convince a much larger community of institutions and individuals to see themselves as stakeholders in the achievement of women’s empowerment and gender equality? How can we appeal to their self-interest and sense of the common good?

The participants agreed on three main ‘roadblocks’ to women’s empowerment and began to outline some of the steps that must be taken to overcome them and to move the women’s agenda forward:

1) The historically inferior status of women, or as Melanne Verveer called it, society’s ambivalence about “the worth of a girl”. Women are undervalued by legal, social, and cultural institutions and are sometimes considered downright inferior. In many countries sex-selection abortions, female genital mutilation, early marriage, domestic violence, maternal mortality and limited property and inheritance rights are manifestations of the widespread disenfranchisement of women, who are denied rights over their own bodies and a role as actors in society. Cultural or religious extremism is to blame for some of these practices, the group concurred, but the definition of culture was controversial and many asserted it is too often used with a Western frame of reference to highlight negative practices and customs in developing countries, rather than objectively representing any society’s collection of beliefs, customs, traditions and behaviors. Culture can and should, however, be a positive tool, especially religious culture. And the links between culture and economics should be underlined. We must think of a new way to use culture and cultural institutions to empower women and to create new messages for society.

2) The lack of political will. Not enough people, especially people of influence, demand that government act to advance the status of women- and they must for governments to enact policies and legislation and commit resources to advance women’s rights. How can we make this happen? Zainab Salbi, Founder of Women for Women International said, “Change happens when people here, at the base of the pyramid, organize and build a structure. The leadership at the top can make the commitment to make the change happen but they will lack sufficient political will to do so until there is societal acknowledgement in the middle that decides ‘we need to change’.” We must, thus, widen the base of stakeholders who perceive the empowerment of women to be to their own advantage and to the advantage of society, including men, private sector leaders, religious leaders, young people and the media. The message must be reframed and has to be based on a body of evidence. The media has an important role to play in reframing and the public message. But laws can’t do everything, implementation is also a challenge and there we need to strengthen the oversight of our institutions.

3) The need for alternative economic opportunities. Women occupy a disproportionate share of unpaid and uncounted (or unmeasured) work. The lack of access to decent paid work leave too many women on the margins of the economy, often in the informal economy, subject to low pay and unsafe and insecure jobs. Participants agreed that the current economic crisis is an opportunity and a possible starting point for a ‘breakthrough’: Not only is the economic crisis universal in its reach and urgency, it is also one of the few major areas of concern where the evidence supporting women’s positive impact has been building. Research shows that gender equality yields higher economic growth, a healthier and more educated population and less corruption in governance.

In the concluding sessions, the participants’ attention turned to the steps that need to be taken to achieve women’s empowerment and gender equality. There was a consensus: we need to develop a better language to reframe the issues, to bring in diverse stakeholders, develop sustainable partnerships, build a broader coalition in order to make an evidence-based case for change, and leverage the current economic crisis to make the connections between economic development and women’s empowerment. These objectives will serve as the foundation for the creation of the La Pietra Coalition.

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The Global Working Session is closed to the public.

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Partners and sponsors
Vital Voices Global Partnership
Paul E. Singer Family Foundation
New York University
Starwood & The Westin Excelsior
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