Summit hears from women on the world's front lines

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Indy Politics

In the plush surroundings of New York's Lincoln Centre, Leymah Gbowee, joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize last year, gave 2,000 women an inkling of the determination it took to end the civil war in Liberia. When a peace conference in Monrovia was locked in stalemate, she rallied a group of women to link arms and sit down in the street outside the conference centre, telling the delegates inside that they would not let them leave until they made progress.

"Security came and said they would arrest me because I was obstructing justice," she told Tina Brown, co-host of the third "Women in the World Summit". "This made me angry." She threatened to strip naked, and the police backed off. She had realised, she said, that "no white knight" was going to turn up. "We have to be our own Gandhis, our own Kings, our own Mandelas."

The "Women in the World Summit", co-hosted by Tina Brown and fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, identified the female Gandhis and Mandelas of the developing world, both celebrated and obscure, and got them to tell their stories. "People in the US need to hear narratives from other places," said Brown, and 2,000 people packing the theatre over the past three days seemed to agree.

Tina Brown defined the event as "a combination of journalism, human rights, foreign policy and narrative". Her stellar cast included Angelina Jolie and Meryl Streep, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton and the IMF's Christine Lagarde.

But more haunting were the stories of unknown women from the front line. Two female US Marines revealed how the biggest threat they face on active duty overseas is not from the Taliban or al-Qa'ida but serial rapists among their male colleagues, many of whom escape punishment thanks to complicity in the male ranks. Women from Mexico and Guatemala described an appalling wave of rapes, tortures, mutilations and killings of women in their countries, atrocities blanked out by the West's front pages.

There were also the stories of what women uniquely can achieve. The women Marines revealed how, once Afghan women realised that underneath the fearsome kit they were actually women, their reaction was joy, relief and trust: they got into homes where neither male Marines nor Taliban would ever penetrate. Lynsey Addario, a photographer who paid tribute to her friend and colleague the late Marie Colvin, made the same point. Herself a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, she is a new mother – but when the Newsweek writer Christopher Dickey asked her, "You have a 10-week-old baby – are you going to keep doing this?" she was plainly livid. "Do you ask men that question?" she snapped back. She had every intention of doing so, she affirmed.

What happens to women on the front line of revolt when the uprising is over? Four women veterans of Tahrir Square, three wearing headscarves and professing loyalty to the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, wrestled with the dilemma. Women had been at the forefront of Egypt's uprising, but now some of Egypt's new rulers wanted them "inside a box in the home" as one panel member put it. "There is no spring without flowers," another insisted, "and there is no Arab spring without women."

This is Tina Brown's third annual "Women in the World Summit" and the event grows bigger every year. With a trimmed-down version of the event opening in Brazil in July and requests for editions in India and elsewhere, it is fast becoming a brand. The germ was provided by an organisation called Vital Voices which has mentored thousands of emerging women leaders in 127 different countries.

"I've been involved in Vital Voices for 10 years," Brown explained, "and I was at one of their conferences in Florence in 2009 and I thought, these stories are incredible, why can't they have a larger public? People are interested in stories, not issues, and as an editor my mission is to tell stories that dramatise issues."

The challenge, she said, is "to cover the world from the perspective of women, the stories behind the news." There are plenty of business conferences for women, she points out, but none where the success stories of female American entrepreneurs rub shoulders with nightmare accounts of Guatemala, and the struggles of women in benighted corners of the developing world to redeem their communities.

In the process Brown, who edits both the exclusively digital Daily Beast and Newsweek, has discovered a new kind of synergy, with the stories that are at the heart of the summit prompting investigations in her media titles and vice versa. Another spinoff was Leymah Gbowee's memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers, published by Beast Books. And now the event has spawned the Women in the World Foundation, set up last September and dedicated "to advancing women and girls through stories and solutions."