“Once you are a conscious being you have no choice but to be a change agent,” South African anti-apartheid heroine and academic Dr. Mamphela Ramphele told Charlie Rose—a rare male in Lincoln Center yesterday—at the opening night of the Women in the World Summit. Dr. Ramphele’s inspiring remarks were part of a steady stream of emotionally moving interviews and speeches in a two day summit to raise awareness of the often violent issues plaguing women around the world.
“Our mission at this summit is not just to lean in but to lean on,” said Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of Newsweek/The Daily Beast, the host of the 4th annual event, referencing Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In during her welcoming remarks to an audience of mostly women, including a significant number of university students from nearby colleges.
Michaela DePrince, an eighteen-year-old ballerina for the Dance Theater of Harlem, opened the evening with a captivating performance. A short video introduction shared her story of being orphaned in Sierra Leone at the age of three during the civil war, and her journey to being adopted by an American family that helped her achieve her longshot dream of becoming a ballet dancer after seeing a picture of a ballerina in a magazine as a little girl.
Her mother, Elaine DePrince of New Jersey, was interviewed today at the summit about raising 11 children, 9 of whom had been adopted, including Michaela’s sister. She said that she’s proud of all of her children, including another daughter who is an accomplished singer and musician. Asked by ABC News’ Juju Chang about her parenting secrets, DePrince said, “Love. Realism. Encouragement. I search for what their interests are and encourage those interests.”
Meryl Streep spoke passionately, and often humorously, about her “tall and towering” friend Inez McCormack, an activist for civil rights in Northern Ireland, who passed away at the end of January from cancer. “As the first female to lead Northern Ireland’s trade unions, Inez revolutionized the cause for ‘equal pay for equal work,’ that radical notion that hasn’t made its way over the ocean,” said Streep. Citing McCormack’s lengthy list of pioneering leadership roles, Streep used a charming Irish accent to quote her friend, “’Well, there’s no fun in being the first woman in anything!’”
Christiane Amanpour led a sparkling discussion about a stark subject—girls education in Pakistan and Afghanistan—with three young activists: Humaira Bachal, a 25-year old education advocate in Pakistan; Khalida Brohi, a 24-year-old activist against so-called “honor killings” and forced marriages; and thirty-something Pakistani-born Oscar and Emmy-award winning filmmaker and journalist Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy.
Chinoy’s footage from her documentary, Pakistan: Children of the Taliban, of Bachal and Brohi going about their respective work—visiting rural villages in Pakistan, and politely confronting the male community leaders about the importance of education for girls—is stunning for three reasons. First: the compelling visual of each lone woman pointedly addressing an all-male audience of elders. Second: the men respond with laughter and emphatic death threats, underscoring the men’s fears, as Brohi explained last night on stage, of losing power if women achieve equality in their communities. And most strikingly, the young women’s fearlessness.
Brohi told Amanpour that she considers these men her allies, “I was patient when I was there [talking to them], because I knew that one day these men would be working for me.”
In a lighter moment, Brohi gushingly admitted that she wants to be Chinoy—the filmmaker—when she grows up, and Chinoy gushed that, ever since she watched CNN as a little girl, she wanted to be Amanpour.
Brohi also told the story about her father escaping an arranged marriage by going away to college, and returning just to educate the nine year old girl who his family had arranged for him to marry. He married her after all, and, at the age of fourteen, she gave birth to Brohi.
Angelina Jolie ended the first evening with a powerful speech honoring Brohi’s good friend, sixteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai, the girls’ education activist in Pakistan who was shot in the head six months ago by the Taliban. Jolie pledged $200,000 to the Malala Fund, which Malala said in a video message recorded in central England, where she’s recovering from point-blank gunshot wounds, will educate 40 girls in her village, and one day educate 40 million girls around the world.
The summit continued today with Hillary Clinton calling women’s rights the unfinished business of the 21st century, and Tom Hanks getting choked up talking about his friend Nora Ephron, the mother.
Image Credit: The Daily Beast