Around the World, Grassroots Women Leaders Rise Up

The video footage is jerky and grainy, but the action is breathtaking. Women in a Sudanese jail, protesting their sentences of flogging for such trespasses as wearing pants and committing adultery, are rising up and chanting, their voices jubilant and strong. “My heart sings out,” they say as they clap and dance. “You can’t stop me from singing!”

I’m watching this illicit video—shot by a woman who smuggled a cellphone into the jail in her underpants–at the Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, California. Some 3,500 people attended the 22nd annual confab, which brings together social, scientific and artistic innovators to share practical and visionary solutions to global environmental and social challenges. The event always includes a strong women’s leadership track, thanks to Nina Simons, the organization’s co-founder and co-CEO (with her partner, Kenny Ausubel). Nine of 15 conference keynotes were given by women, including one by Gloria Steinem.

Just one week earlier, the Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, fellow Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni pro-democracy campaigner Tawakkul Karman, a choice that Nobel committee head Thorbjorn Jagland described as “a very important signal to women all over the world.” The Sudanese-jail video seemed to express the mood of the moment—a joyful, collaborative, grassroots arising of female voices who have traditionally been silenced.

The video was screened at a panel called “No Women, No Democracy” moderated by journalist Jensine Larsen, the founder of World Pulse, a global news website that amplifies local women’s voices. Larsen said she received 600 applications last year from women who wanted to be trained as citizen-journalists:

[Women] will go through hell or high water to access the Internet … and they’re speaking not just for themselves, they’re also speaking for their communities. … I’ve come to think of … these women leaders as transmitters. … [We are] linking up a critical mass … of these women transmitters.

Panelist Achieng Beatrice Nas, a communications officer for Build Africa Uganda, shared how her solidarity with fellow World Pulse citizen-journalists changed her family’s life. Her mother was married at 12 to an abusive man who cut her arms with razor blades and “poured chilies in her private parts”; Nas lost seven brothers and one sister to AIDS. Her father died in 2006. When the last of her brothers died, her mother faced eviction because only men are allowed to own land. Nas sent an email alert to her World Pulse network and received countless responses of support, which strengthened her mother’s resolve:

When the community leaders came … to take us from the land, … [my mother] stood up and said, ‘This is my land and I’m not going anywhere. Should anyone tamper with my land, women around the world are going to come here.’ … The [men] disappeared. So I want to let you know that there’s power in Internet, there is power in communications, there’s power in realizing our voices.

Steinem, also on the panel, was clearly riveted by Nas and emphasized the power of exchanging such stories: “The most revolutionary thing we can do is listen to each other.”

The idea that women can lead from the trenches, on the basis of their life experiences and without any special blessing from an established hierarchy, came forth in many ways at Bioneers. Anisha Desai, director of Earth Island Institute’s New Leaders Initiative, talked on a panel titled “Moonrise: A Whole Systems Inquiry into Women Reinventing Leadership,” moderated by Simons, about how she was invited to lead a feminist organization. Desai initially resisted because “as a young woman, as a woman of color, … I didn’t see choices I had made to that point on my life path as something I could draw on, … [so] how am I equipped to be a feminist leader?” She continued:

But I found a calling to social justice feminism. … I learned about how to put those who are most impacted into the center of decision making. Most of all I learned that my experience as a human being, as a young woman, was enough to be a feminist leader. … [Organizations are] moving from the one person who has the big picture vision and all the answers to … a more shared, collective wisdom and a collective understanding.

Bioneers is all about imagining a better future, and the final keynote speaker presented us with a fresh paradigm so radically humane it actually made me cry for joy. Dr. Pam Rajput, an academic-turned-activist, talked about the First Women’s Parliament of India, which she helped organize for the National Alliance of Women in 2009 to create an alternative space for legislative discussion from a gendered perspective and to build the capacities of women leaders.

In a short film Dr. Rajput screened, I saw images I’d never imagined: 543 women leaders from all over India, who had been democratically elected and trained for a year, discussing matters of law for the good of their whole nation. They drew up a budget based on the principle of Gross National Happiness, an index “based on sustainable development, social justice, conservation of nature and good governance.” In just four days they passed a slew of laws about such issues as child sex trafficking, food security, and domestic workers’ rights. After the film, Dr. Rajput’s proposal for a global women’s parliament was met with overwhelming applause. “We are citizens of the world and we have also the right to say what kind of world we want to live in,” she declared.

If you’d sneaked in a cellphone, you might have caught me getting up to sing and dance.

Photo copyright Lori A. Cheung,