Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Women and Power

Little girls are seldom encouraged to be strong, assertive, demanding or, God forbid, powerful. Growing up in the Philippines, studying in all-girls convent schools, the nuns did not exactly prepare us to take charge and lead. Marriage was our calling, and obedience was our virtue. Yet, those nuns led these convent girls to the front lines during the People Power Revolution that toppled a dictator.

How did we do it? Armed only with bibles, rosaries and faith, we held hands, knelt down and prayed. In that moment when we found ourselves in front of a tank, I realized that I had the power to change my fate. Overthrowing a dictator by peaceful, even prayerful means, gave me my first taste of power, the power to make a difference.

For most women around the world, the odds are stacked against us. Seventy percent of people living in extreme poverty worldwide are women. Poverty affects women the most and through them, their children. Two thirds of the world's illiterate adults are women, and only one percent of the world's women own land. In a world where women hold up half the sky by doing two thirds of the world's work, we receive only ten percent of the world's salaries. Melinda Gates was right in saying that poverty is sexist. 

In contrast, women in America today control 60 percent of the private wealth. Over the next 30 years, American women are expected to inherit 70 percent of the 41 trillion dollars inter-generational wealth transfers. That's a lot of philanthropic power!

The power of women giving, alone or together, creates potential for disrupting the status quo of philanthropy today. Our impact and voices will shape the future of wealth and giving. We can use that power to alter the fate of women and girls anywhere in the world and change the equation of power in the global sphere.

Power is not a word often used to describe women leaders, even women like the Queen of England, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, or Germany's Prime Minister, Angela Merkel. Yet women throughout history have wielded power. A powerful woman in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, was "a woman at her own commandment," meaning no one commands her.

Feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun defined power as "the ability to take one's place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one's part matter." Women today are exercising that power.

A study of 40 peace processes in 35 countries over the past three decades showed that when women’s organizations were effectively involved - whether as a political party, as in the case of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, or by actively campaigning for the end of hostilities in Liberia - an agreement was almost always reached and had a higher chance of implementation. The reason, according to Marie O’Reilly, director of research at Inclusive Security, a think tank based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is that women tend to reach across ethnic and religious divides and think of the day after the big signing.

Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, a peace movement started by women in Liberia, succeeded in ending the Second Liberian Civil War. The movement started with thousands of women praying and singing in the fish market daily for months. Thousands of Muslim and Christian women from various classes mobilized their efforts, staged silent nonviolent protests that included a sex strike (witholding sex from their husbands) with the threat of a good African curse.

It worked - these Liberian women, led by Leymah Gbowee, who received the Nobel Prize, staged a sit in outside the presidential palace, blocking all the doors and windows to prevent anyone from leaving the peace talks without a resolution. The women of Liberia became a political force that brought about a peace agreement after a 14-year civil war, bringing the country's first female head of state to power (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf).  

In Ireland, women undertook a peace initiative in 1976 after the death of three children in Belfast at the time of "The Troubles."

The children's aunt, Mairead Corrigan, and Betty Williams, a housewife from a mixed Catholic-Protestant background who witnessed the accident organized a peace march to the new graves of the Maguire children. Women primarily, Protestants and Catholics, adherents and secular folk, rich and poor, walked together. Ciaran MeKeown, a journalist, helped formulate a "Declaration of Peace" with a simple appeal to engage in nonviolent struggle. Their slogan was, 'peace by peace, there is no way to peace but by peaceful means."

They called their movement the "Northern Irish Peace People,' to suggest an inclusive  Irish identity which could be shared by everybody. The campaign attracted tens of thousands of supporters throughout Northern Ireland and engendered solidarity events around the world. The hope for peace and enthusiasm for a genuine grassroots movement led to the 1976 Nobel Prize for Corrigan and Williams.

At the Women Wage Peace March of Hope 2016, Arab and Israeli peace activists walked from the banks of the Jordan River near Jericho on October 19, 2016 to Jerusalem, camping in front of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's residence to demand peace.

Women Wage Peace is made up of women from across the political spectrum and the religious divide. “We are not an organization; we are a movement. We have defined goals, and when we reach those goals we will disband,” said Marie-Lyne Smadja, a co-founder of the group. “From history we have seen that when women are involved in resolving conflicts, there was much more success.”

Organizers of the group cite U.N. Resolution 1325, which “urges all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts.” It worked in Northern Ireland and in Liberia, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Leymah Gbowee, spoke to Arab and Israeli women to spark the same hope in Israel, telling them "you have the power to make peace."

Every woman has this power to stand for truth, justice and human rights. Be not afraid of your own power. Lehman Gbowee encourages us to "do one thing everyday that everyone else is scared to do" because everything is within your power, and your power is within you.

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