In the time it takes to read this article, around 100 girls below 18 years old will have been forced into marriage. Usually this means they are removed from school, from society and certainly from whatever childhood they knew.
On top of that, each year two million girls under the age of 15 are launched into the commercial sex market. 79 million girls are ‘missing’ from various populations, mostly in Asia, as a result of sex-selective abortions, infanticide or neglect. At least 130 million women live today with genital mutilation; another 2 million are at risk each year. And there is no country where women earn the same wages as men.
Surely, something must be done.
Since I took over as CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation four years ago, one of my biggest programmes has been the creation of TrustLaw. The idea behind TrustLaw is simple: give a lawyer for free to the best NGOs and the most creative social enterprises around the world. By giving them legal support for everything they do in their business, we let them spend more on their mission. Thanks to our 260 law firms members, TrustLaw Connect has become the first market place to find legal support.
And TrustLaw is also a hub of news and information on two key issues: corruption and women’s rights.
We shine light on issues affecting millions of women and girls. These issues include the lack of such basic rights as education or legal rights. The worst of the resulting abuses include forced marriage, human trafficking, domestic slavery, physical harm whether it be genital mutilation carried out in the name of tradition, or the rape within marriage that occurs each day in the West as in the South.
But shining a light on these issues is not enough, we need actions. That’s why we have organized the Trust Women Conference in London on December 4 & 5. It is an action-based event that seeks to empower women to know and defend their rights. It’s a joint venture of the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International Herald Tribune that stems from our own ongoing efforts to ensure women’s issues are covered in the media.
This conference will be focused on action – not just another talking shop, but an event that is focused on using the exceptional talent in the room, from politics and corporations to legal minds and Nobel laureates – to find real and lasting solutions to the worst problems facing women today.
This is a conference rooted in the desire for deliverable, measurable action. Attendees will hear inspiring tales of heroism and sacrifice, and debate the issues. We have 65 speakers from 28 countries and very diverse backgrounds. Just to name a few:
Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel peace prize laureate, who was stripped of her position as a judge after the revolution by the Khomeini government. She has ever since fought with courage and bravery for freedom of expression and the rights of women and children. And of course, she has paid dearly and still cannot live in her own country.
Manal al-Sharif, whose name you may not recognize but whose work you know. She was brave enough to organize a demonstration against Saudi Arabia’s ban on women drivers, and gained worldwide fame and admiration.
Martina Vandenberg, an American lawyer who has spent nearly two decades advocating against human trafficking, forced labour, and violence against women. She has won every case she has taken to the American courts to defend victims of trafficking.
Tracey Tully, an Australian Maori and former sex worker who fights for labour rights for sex workers as the best way to tackle illicit trafficking and help control the spread of HIV.
And Lydia Cacho, the Mexican journalist and author, who has not hesitated to put her life at risk to defend victims of the traffickers and drug lords in Mexico.
These are just five of the key women who will take part in Trust Women. The conference is bringing together great minds like these to find common solutions and make commitments. This is what the Thomson Reuters Foundation does well: be the neutral broker between people who want to make the world better.
Studies repeatedly show that companies with higher percentages of women in their leadership perform better financially and the same is true about societies. It is the countries where men and women not only are equal but participate equally, like the Scandinavian countries, which are also the richest and most successful.
And it is this new approach, harnessing the minds of those who have achieved success across many sectors, both for-profit and not-for-profit, that we are emulating at Trust Women.
Imagine that twenty years ago nobody knew what FGM stood for. As Emma Bonino, an advisor and speaker at the conference and Deputy President of the Italian Senate said in New York in 2010, “When our work started, many people didn’t even feel free to say the words “female genital mutilation”; that wall of silence has been removed, and the issue is now a part of the public debate”.
Talking about these issues is a start and awareness is surely progress. But we are after more.
Of course, the results for women are not all positive around the world. For example, India was a world leader of involving women in high-level politics and has had one of the first woman prime ministers. But in a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll of which G20 countries were the best to live in as a female, India came last - even after Saudi Arabia - because of its record in areas like foeticide, child marriage and domestic violence.
So while there may be opportunity and change for some, there are still many millions of women for whom basic human rights remain a distant dream.
The Trust Women conference will actively seek to find real solutions for many of these ongoing questions. Questions like, what do we do when there is a clash between the law and traditional cultures that condone child marriage and FGM? How do we put the sex trafficking business out of business? What can we do for the up to 27 million people in our world who are slaves, something that affects women and children disproportionately? And as the fallout from the Arab Spring continues to shift and evolve, how do we ensure that the rights of women and girls are embedded in constitutions? These are the major themes for Trust Women.
Whether they work in an office in Luxembourg or a field in Malawi, abused women cannot play their full part in building a better world. Stopping these abuse is among the foremost challenges of the 21st century. It is vital not just for human rights, but for human advances in every society. Do you agree?
Monique Villa will be giving the opening address at the Trust Women conference
Read more articles on openDemocracy 50.50 exploring the
themes of the Trust Women conference in London, December 4th-5th