IWHC President Adrienne Germain celebrates extraordinary women from Asia, Africa and Latin America
On this, the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, I’m moved to pay tribute to the extraordinary women from Asia, Africa and Latin America who have inspired me for 40 years. Last year, days before I landed in Lagos, Nigeria to visit our local partners, a national Senator bought a 13-year-old Egyptian girl for $100,000. He married her in the capital, Abuja, after divorcing his 17-year-old wife, with whom he has two children. Nigeria’s Child Rights Act prohibits the marriage of girls under 18, but he claims immunity under Islamic law. The Nigerian women’s movement, including several International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) partners, mobilized nationally to demand that the senator be formally charged. While he still has not been charged, the women’s protest ignited public debate on women’s rights and marriage too long neglected. I remember when there were no women to lead in this way in Nigeria, and I know the courage and strength it required for them to challenge a “big man.”
This is just one of scores of examples I could cite, and there are even more that the public does not see: small but tremendous acts of courage by even the youngest “women” in their homes where, as Eleanor Roosevelt realized, human rights begin. Just one is Emelia who refused female genital mutilation for herself and her sister based on the knowledge and skills she gained through the Girls Power Initiative (GPI) in Nigeria.
GPI was founded in 1993, and today reaches approximately 20,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 18 through programming that arms them with information about their rights, their bodies, their responsibilities and life management skills. In a culture where women are encouraged to be seen and not heard, GPI girls are strong, assertive, articulate, informed and keenly aware of their rights. And in a country where adolescent girls are disproportionately vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, and trafficking, GPI girls are equipped with the strategies, skills and self-esteem they need to negotiate their adolescent years in good health and safety.
The women working for women’s health and human rights come from many different backgrounds and experiences. I met Tarcila Rivera Zea in 1994 at meeting in Rio de Janeiro. Then a young woman advocating for indigenous people’s rights in Peru, Tarcila had not yet thought about sexual and reproductive rights and health. In Rio, over 200 women from 79 countries crafted a new agenda for women’s health and human rights in preparation for the 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development. At the conference in Cairo several months later, IWHC and women we helped mobilize persuaded governments to agree that women’s population policy should focus on sexual and reproductive rights and health.
When Tarcila and I met recently in New York, she told me that the Rio meeting changed and inspired her thinking, and proudly shared her work to build a sexual and reproductive rights agenda within the movement for indigenous rights in Peru.
As we work with growing networks of women, we realize we must ensure that the next generation of leaders has the tools and the access they need and take this work in directions that meet their aspirations. Our colleague Ishita Chaudhry, a young woman from India who founded The YP Foundation when she was just seventeen years old, says that, “Leaders in our generation, I believe, don’t need to be single individuals: When you invest in building the skills, knowledge and access that a young person has, you empower young people to create a certain kind of change in their communities.”
Leaders often emerge in response to grave injustices, personal loss, or community problems. As part of the International Women’s Health Coalition, it has been deeply rewarding to support and partner with scores of women as they transform their passion into results for women and girls.
From Nigeria to Peru to India, women are stepping up and laying claim to the rights we named 15 years ago in Cairo. Tarcila, Ishita and Emelia – like so many others I’ve known – are carving out new lives and better futures for themselves, for their children, and for millions more.
They are the engine of yet another quiet revolution, spreading worldwide.
Women Deliver has created an inspiring list of 100 leaders working to secure a just and healthy life for every woman and girl. I am honored to be among so many friends and allies on the list and it leads.
Adrienne Germain is president of the International Women’s Health Coalition.