2010 - Seven Who Rewrite the Rules
By WeNews Staff
Monday, January 4, 2010
Profiles of seven outstanding leaders dedicated to improving women's lives: Michael Dowd, Patricia Gruber, Ilene Lang, Ana Langer, Tonya Lewis Lee, Sarwat Malik and Maria Do Socorro Melo Brandao.
Once again, attorney Michael Dowd is in court, defending what many believe is indefensible: a woman accused of murdering her husband, a police officer, while he shaved. He's done it 25 times before, more than any other lawyer in the country. The judge in the case delivered a rare, and perhaps temporary, defeat to Dowd's client by ruling in December that Dowd couldn't enter psychiatric testimony that, after 25 years of abuse, his client was suffering from post-traumatic distress disorder at the time of the shooting.
Dowd says he had no real understanding of domestic violence when he got his first such case in 1979. A woman was on trial for killing her husband with a machete following years of abuse. Dowd says he kept getting postponements from the court to give him time to figure out how to approach the case. He sought to educate himself by meeting with a psychologist to discuss the issue, but he wasn't without skepticism.
"I was 38 and had been raised in New York in a male chauvinist environment," Dowd says, noting that his initial reaction to some of the explanation for domestic violence was that it was nonsense. The more he listened, however, the more he started to get it--and for the past 30 years, he's been an advocate for battered women charged with crimes.
The psychologist got him to see the "cornerstone of domestic violence is society's indifference to harm done to women. My whole view was changed," Dowd says. He broke ground with using what is now called the battered woman's defense to win the case.
In 1987, Dowd won a landmark case involving a Queens woman who had been charged the year before with second-degree murder in the smothering deaths of her two infants days after they were born in 1980 and 1982. Again, he relied on mental health experts to help him get a handle on what was unchartered legal territory. His client, a former pediatric nurse, was absolved of the charges based on his defense that she suffered from psychosis as a result of postpartum depression.
"It was the first time in New York that the insanity defense (based on postpartum depression) had ever been used, and the first time in New York that it had been used successfully," Dowd says.
Dowd went on to launch the Battered Women's Justice Center at Pace University in 1991 and served as its director until 1994, when he resumed practicing law. Now called the Women's Justice Center, the facility provides aid to battered women and trains lawyers to handle domestic violence cases, which they must take on a pro bono basis.
Dowd says the judge's decision in his latest case was "crippling," but such setbacks only motivate him to press on in the name of justice.
The "Nobel Prize for Women's Rights" is how the annual award given by Patricia Gruber and her husband, Peter, is thought of in the human rights community. Such a description is only fitting, as the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation is a major force in the global fight for women's equality.
Every year since 2003, the foundation has given a $500,000 prize to an individual and/or organization serving as outstanding advocates for women's rights. Activist Leymah Gbowee is one such person; she's been credited with organizing Christian and Muslim women to end the civil war in Liberia. Another laureate is Pinar Ilkkaracan, who pioneered reforms to anchor women's equality in the legal system and created a nationwide human rights program to enable women to exercise their rights in Turkey. The award to Ilkkaracan was split between her and her organization, Women for Women's Human Rights – New Ways. Gruber said the prize is often shared between a woman and an organization, explaining that women tend to work together.
A panel of luminaries in the field selects each year's recipient(s) from nominations received worldwide. Among current and former selection committee members are the Honorable Akua Kuenyehia of the International Criminal Court and Zainab Salbi of Women for Women International. Gruber says the recipients are chosen not just for their accomplishments, but for inspiring the movement of women's political, economic and social empowerment.
The foundation was established in 1993 and began its prize program in 2000. Besides the Women's Rights Prize, the Grubers present annual awards in the fields of cosmology, genetics, neuroscience and justice. Gruber explained that they chose those fields as ones of special importance today.
"The sciences have a lot to offer," says Gruber, a psychotherapist who previously worked at a clinic for women and children in California. But so do the human rights fields. "If you don't have women's participation and justice, you don't have the rule of law and you don't have a stable society. We thought, 'We've got 50 percent of the population--we can't leave them out'."
The combination of money and attention helps the recipients of the Gruber Women's Rights Prize make progress toward their goals and the ceremony itself connects activists from around the world.
"The initial concept of prizes had been individuals can make a difference, which is absolutely true. But in women's rights another emphasis is the importance of undertaking something as a group," says Gruber. "So many women are doing incredible work in women's rights. We're happy to be a part of that community."
As a trailblazer in the field of information technology, Ilene Lang, 66, was always concerned with opportunities for women's advancement in the business world. In 2003, she turned her avocation into a mission when she became president of Catalyst, a research and advisory organization working to build inclusive workplaces and expand opportunities for women and business. She was named its chief executive officer in 2008.
As its leader, Lang works to ensure that the women of today don't experience the kinds of barriers she faced on her journey up the corporate ladder, which took her to the top of AltaVista Internet Software in 1996.
"In the early days of my career, gender bias was overt," Lang says, citing assumptions by managers and colleagues that she would not return from maternity leave to subtle treatment such as thinking that since she was married she didn't care about equal compensation.
Since she had few female role models to emulate while moving up the corporate ladder, she says she had to make her own way. "But women friends and colleagues," she adds, "were always supportive. We helped each other!"
Lang is now helping other women do the same, by working with corporations to change policies and practices that shortchange women. Over the last five decades, there has been significant progress. She says when Catalyst was founded in 1962, few women held managerial and professional positions; now they hold about 50 percent of such positions in the United States. But at the top there are still far too few women, she says: In 1962 there were no female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; today there are only 15.
Throughout Lang's career, she mentored junior businesswomen, advised female entrepreneurs and served on corporate boards. She now sits on the Global Agenda Council on the Gender Gap at the World Economic Forum and is a member of the National Board Development Committee of the Girl Scouts of the USA.
Even though women have made great strides in the business world, Lang says there's still a long way to go before women reach parity.
"Norway has legislated that 40 percent of all corporate board seats must be held by women. So has Spain. Canada, France, Italy and Australia are considering similar legislation. We are very slow in this country to legislate quotas," Lang says. "Yet old attitudes about a woman's place have not changed in many segments of our society."
Dr. Ana Langer stands at the intersection where women's rights and health meet. As an ardent advocate for women's health, she's on a mission to make maternal deaths a part of the past.
Langer's commitment to improving women's health can be traced back to the genocide in Europe during World War II, when her parents fled the Nazis in Austria. In their new homeland, Argentina, the family lived under an unstable government. But both parents, who were physicians, emphasized to their daughter that if she became a doctor herself, she should use her life's work to create social change.
Langer began her medical career in 1974 as a specialist in the care of newborns, especially those who were ill or premature. She quickly realized that in order for infants to be healthy, their mothers had to be healthy as well. This sparked her interest in public health and inspired her to work for policy changes that would positively impact the lives of women and their families.
"My interest in maternal health expanded to sexual and reproductive health and rights when I saw how interconnected these issues really are," Langer says. "Sometimes there are separate programs for family planning, sexual health and HIV, but it is critical to take a holistic approach to programming--with the woman at the center."
Langer's growing commitment to women's reproductive health coincided with a watershed agreement coming out of the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994. That same year, Langer joined the Population Council, an international nonprofit research organization, as its regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean. She oversaw research and advocacy in areas such as maternal health, gender equality, HIV and AIDS and family planning, generating evidence that led to progressive policy changes. One result of these efforts was a change in a law that made emergency contraception available to all women in Mexico.
In 2005, Langer was appointed president of EngenderHealth, a leading international reproductive health organization working to improve the quality of health care in the world's poorest communities. One important part of EngenderHealth's approach is engaging men to change harmful behavior, promote maternal and reproductive health and prevent gender-based violence.
Langer's experience as a clinician has proven vital to understanding the health issues at stake for women and she knows what it will take to see real improvements.
"We've reached the tipping point. Right now, there is greater attention and resources for maternal health than ever before and we must this seize this momentum to make sustainable, positive changes in health and rights for women everywhere," she says.
Maternal mortality and infant mortality rates in the United States are in the top tier among developed nations, and African American women and infants are significantly more at-risk--regardless of income or education. Acclaimed author and children's television producer Tonya Lewis Lee has spent the past two years on a mission trying to change the health profile of pregnant women and their infants, with a special focus on African American lives.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that African-American women are three times more likely than any other ethnic group to lose their child before its first birthday, regardless of their level of education or income.
With a deep understanding that instilling healthy lifestyle habits in women at an early age is critical to improving maternal health, Lee helped create the Preconception Peer Educator Program in 2008 for college students and pioneered a youth-to-youth model to address the issue. The program is part of her work as the national spokesperson for "A Healthy Baby Starts With You," a campaign from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health that's dedicated to improving maternal health and reducing infant mortality rates.
The peer educators complete a 10-hour study curriculum, then return to their communities to speak at local high schools and produce a health fair. The groundbreaking program launched at Spelman College, Fisk University, Morgan State University, Lane College, LeMoyne Owen University and the University of Pennsylvania's School of Nursing.
"When I realized that the World Health Organization ranked the United States 29th in the world in infant mortality, I had to become involved," Lee says. "American children are dying at the rate of third-world countries. It's a shame, and it doesn't have to be that way if we educate the public on the problem and begin to work on eradicating some of the causes. The infant mortality rate is a marker for the health of a nation and I know that all of those babies lost to infant mortality are important resources lost to us all."
To give a face and voice to those impacted by the health of African American women and the resulting infant mortality rates, Lee produced and released "Crisis in the Crib--Saving Our Nation's Babies" in 2009. The documentary highlights participants in the Preconception Peer Educator Program and their grassroots work in Memphis, Tenn.--a city with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country.
"It is my hope that in the next three to five years we will begin to find the health disparity gap is closing and we can help researchers give us more insight into why we have this problem."
--Kimberly Seals Allers
Dr. Sarwat Malik is hoping to see the results of her efforts to empower Muslim women in her lifetime. Diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007, she was told by her first oncologist she had a life expectancy of six months to a year. With her persistence and new advances in treatment, she now is stable and has a new life's ambition.
She made the Muslim Women's Fund her life's work in 2008, becoming co-founder and vice-chair after retiring from her Rochester, N.Y., internal medicine practice of 35 years.
"What inspires me is the energy I get from this work and the huge transformative potential for Muslim women globally," she says.
The fund, a special project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, invests in strategic educational and economic microenterprise programs that support women in becoming fully empowered stakeholders and change agents in their societies.
Growing up in Pakistan, Malik studied medicine at the Fatima Jinnah Medical College, an all-women's medical school. She says it wasn't until she moved to the United States in 1966 that she realized Muslim women were marginalized. It was an article written by her husband, history professor Salahuddin Malik, and presented in academic circles during the late 1960s and early 1970s highlighting gender justice and the special status of Muslim women in the teachings of the Quran and Hadith that changed the direction of her life.
The paper and the ensuing discussion led her to the conclusion that cultural practices based on misogynistic misinterpretation of the faith prevented Muslim women from receiving the same level of rights, dignity, security and respect as their male counterparts.
"I felt this was a challenge. I wanted to make sure that women understood those rights," she says.
In 2006, after attending "Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality Conference" in New York, Malik and a group of other attendees got together to talk, and the core of what would become the Muslim Women's Fund was formed.
The fund collaborates with the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy to reform the curriculum in madrassas, or Islamic schools, in Pakistan. "The program includes secular education with a focus on human rights, gender rights, gender equality and non-violence," she says.
A pilot project was also launched in 2009, in conjunction with the Egyptian Association for Society Development, a Cairo-based nongovernmental organization, to eradicate female genital mutilation through a dual strategy: religious re-education and microenterprise incentive for the barbers and midwives who perform the practice. Malik says 90 percent of African people believe the cultural practice is mandated by their religion.
"I'd like to see every woman empowered in a way that she feels that she has dignity, respect, human rights and the desire to do something positive in the world."
Maria do Socorro Melo Brandao was five years old when her family left the impoverished state of Ceará in northeast Brazil to search for better opportunities in Rio de Janeiro, more than 1,000 miles south. But the life of a migrant family was difficult in 1966 and her parents struggled for years to secure even the most basic amenities.
"We lived in a wood shack above open sewage, and then in the basement of a house with no running water," Melo Brandao says.
The family moved between hillside favelas (squatter settlements) until Melo Brandao was 17, when her parents managed to buy a house in the City of God. The hardscrabble neighborhood would become synonymous with gang violence years later thanks to the eponymous 2002 movie. After graduating from high school in 1983, she worked as a typist for several years before gaining admission to a psychology program at Pedro II College of the Humanities--an ambitious career path for a woman of her circumstances.
In 2002, Melo Brandao helped found the Seed of Life Association of the City of God, a nonprofit organization whose cornerstone program aims to help women with little formal education. She believes that by harnessing their creative abilities, these women can improve their economic and psychological welfare. Participants learn to make clothes, jewelry and other household products--out of recycled, discarded or inexpensive materials--to be sold in markets around the city. In addition to income-generating skills, the organization also teaches women about drug prevention, sexual health and civic responsibility.
"Nowadays, women in (the) City of God know that if they want to, they can do a lot of different things," Melo Brandao says. "We've noticed small but fundamental transformations in their lives. They have higher self-esteem. They believe in themselves."
Despite being staffed entirely by volunteers, the Seed of Life Association of the City of God continues to turn out fresh initiatives. It runs an after-school program for 8- to 14-year-olds, offers computer courses to residents of all ages and provides orientation to mothers of public school students on issues pertaining to sexual health and citizenship.
"But we don't think only about women," Melo Brandao says. "We think about the family: the mother, the father and the children."
--Gabriel Ponce de Leon