Women@theTable (or, The Only Man In the Room)

Woman-in-Sierra_Leone.630x300.OPTI’m used to attending events that are focused on women so being the only man in the room is fine with me. What I have come to realize over the years is it affords me the opportunity to hear about women’s issues at an early stage or at the grassroots level, if you will.  

The Marmalade session last Thursday called Women@theTable: The Cutting Edge (Marmalade is held in conjunction with Skoll World Forum) was standing room only and focused on women’s issues in emerging countries because there is such a huge opportunity there for impact. (Note: I have decided not to use the term Third World any longer as I feel it carries a negative connotation.) There were five women who participated on the panel, all of whom are focused on providing support or services to women in emerging countries. To westerners, the condition of human rights in emerging countries seem almost unbelievable.

While all panel members work in very interesting areas, I want to highlight a couple.

Breast ironing

I think we are all aware that women in emerging countries traditionally get married at extremely early ages, partly due to the belief that once a girl starts puberty she’s ready for marriage, i.e. sex. To complicate the issue, nutrition has improved over the last generation so girls are tending to start puberty sooner (some will argue it is due to the hormones that are in food sources being supplied by big agriculture firms but that is a conversation for another day).

With the belief that a girl is ready sexually also comes the increased likelihood that she will be raped, get pregnant and, in a number of cases, murdered if she resists. In order to help hide the effects of puberty from the village men, mothers and grandmothers in Cameroon and other countries practice something called breast ironing. It’s an extraordinarily painful, desperate and heartbreaking practice.

I was unaware of this until attending the Women at the Table session. Millions of women in Cameroon alone have been subject to this practice.

There is a movement that has recently started to ban the practice of breast ironing. If you’re interested in learning more about this or donating to help support the movement to eradicate the practice,  World Pulse was present at the session and is helping to lead the way.

Connecting and educating women — and the police

During the session one of the presenters, Sharon Bylenga of Media Matters for Women, was talking about technology, specifically what can be done with mobile phones since they’re the most prevalent technology in emerging countries. One initiative called MMW In A Box has created a radio station that links nearby villages (as I mentioned briefly in a previous post). Women in the villages are encouraged to become broadcasters via bluetooth and tape items of interest, similar to podcasts. These short 10 minute recordings are then played over the local mobile phones which in turn are linked into the ad hoc radio stations. They end up playing the short items of interest over and over again so all women can listen to as many times as they like. Solar panels are used for charging stations as there’s no electrical power in a majority of the villages.

They broadcast on all kinds of topics but what really struck me was the recording about wife/spousal abuse. It turns out that people did not know it was against the law — even police officers didn’t know.  One police officer in particular said that when he heard the podcast it was the first time he was aware he that he was supposed to be arresting men who beat their partners.

Media Matters for Women in excited to share the concept and has put together materials that will help others replicate what they’re doing and adapt it to their own needs.

If you’re interested in learning more about the women who participated in Women@theTable and their organizations, visit these websites:

  • Meagan Fallone, Barefoot College, CEO — Scaling its revolutionary rural model around the world
  • Musimbi Kanyoro, Global Fund for Women, CEO — #BeTheSpark campaign to put women + technology front + center
  • Jensine Larsen, World Pulse, CEO — Digital vision to connect women worldwide + give voice to the voiceless
  • Antonella Notari Vischer, Womanity Foundation, Director — replicating + scaling groundbreaking work
  • Sharon Bylenga, Media Matters for Women, Founder — Connecting rural women to information + community through technology
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