Growing up in Kenya, I particularly remember one woman who frequently appeared on television. Wangari Maathai was passionate, committed, vocal and stood by what she believed in. She successfully managed to save valuable green space in Nairobi, leading a protest movement that opposed the development of the land. Maathai was threatened, beaten and ended up severely wounded in hospital, but she prevailed. Kenyans today can appreciate the beauty of Karura Forest or Uhuru Park, our central park, both saved as a result of her actions. My friend and fellow Kenyan eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental activism and determination.
Poverty is everywhere in Nairobi – like many cities in Africa. I have seen women setting out at four o’clock in the morning, walking into town carrying fresh vegetables in kikapus – bags – around their heads to sell at the market or on the street corner. They work in the hot sun for hours, earning one or two dollars a day.
Millions of women in Kenya and in Africa still do not have access to basic needs: water, health, sanitation and education. Women on the continent have to deal with other important issues that need the attention of the global community: the use of rape as a tool of war, lack of security for women and children, the growth of child trafficking and as a consequence, child prostitution. There has to be – but still is not – enough political will to make serious and impactful changes in Africa.
However, there is much that has happened over the last decade that gives us hope and allows us to honor women’s achievements. I have supported Vital Voices for many years. Founded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it shines a spotlight on women who are leaders in their fields and who are making a difference. They are ordinary women making an extraordinary difference. Last year, I traveled to New Delhi with Vital Voices as the moderator of a regional summit in Asia. More than 300 women from over 20 countries shared their insights on effective advocacy and development, strategies to improve women’s access to opportunities, social, political and economic. These women’ stories deserve a global platform.
This is why Vital Voices honors women leaders every year at its annual Global Leadership Awards. I have been a presenter in years past, and am always impressed to hear how the honorees are taking on human trafficking, violence against women and barriers to women’s full participation in society. They are always creative determined and compelled to act by their ideals and vision of a more peaceful and just world.
For 2003 Political Participation Award honoree Anabella de León, the act of public recognition was a critical safeguard, a means of protection against those who would seek to silence her from exposing government corruption in Guatemala. The award, she said “is going to protect my life and the lives of my family because I am endangered.”
I’m reminded by what Clinton said previously: “I’ve seen what this event can do. I’ve seen it in the faces of those women who know that they’re not laboring in vain. I’ve seen it in the networks that have been created to support them. And I’ve seen it in the changed attitudes of governments and leaders who realize that no nation can be successful if it invests only in, and listens only to, one half of its population.”
Women are a driving force all over the world, for the progress and development of their communities, and trigger essential economic political and social transformation. It is critical that we recognize these heroines, because when they progress, we all do.
2011 VITAL VOICES HONOREES
SUNITHA KRISHNAN (INDIA)
Human Rights Award
Krishnan’s Prajwala, a Hyderabad, India-based group, rescues women and children from brothels and provides quality education and vocational training to survivors of trafficking and exploitation.
KAH WALLA (CAMEROON)
Leadership in Public Life Award
An entrepreneur, activist and elected official, Walla advocates for reform and transparency. In 2008, in collaboration with Vital Voices, she launched a program with women traders in one of her country’s largest marketplaces.
FATEMA AKBARI (AFGHANISTAN)
10,000 WOMEN Entrepreneurial Achievement Award
Akbari’s furniture manufacturing business in Kabul employs close to 100 Afghans, mostly women she has trained as carpenters. A widow herself, she prioritizes hiring women whose husbands have been killed or disabled in the war.
NOHA KHATIEB AND LIRON PELEG-HADOMI (ISRAEL)
Fern Holland Award
Liron Peleg-Hadomi, a Jewish community organizer, and Noha Khatieb, an Arab educator, are coordinators of a group of young Israeli women – Jewish and Arab – that meets monthly to share experiences and inspire the next generation of peace builders in Israel.