On Thursday, March 8, in coincidence with International Women's Day, hundreds of influential women from over a dozen countries flocked to New York's Lincoln Center for Newsweek and The Daily Beast's third annual Women in the World conference.
The three-day event featured panels with a host of remarkable individuals, including Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, and Janet Napolitano, among others. The summit largely focused on women's empowerment and how activists are working to address issues facing women around the world today.
While many of the discussions highlighted women's achievements and advancements, a sobering panel on violence against women in Central America served as a stark reminder of how far gender equality has to go in many parts of the world.
The panel opened with the spotlight on a young woman sitting with her back to the audience. The panel host, Paris Bureau Chief for Newsweek Magazine Christopher Dickey, informed the audience that the girl could not show her face because she was the victim of forced prostitution. The girl, referred to only as 'Esther,' could not reveal her identity because her captors remained at large.
Yet Esther told her story through a translator. She spoke of how she was forced into prostitution at the age of 16, how she was introduced to the practice by someone she knew and trusted, and how she was at one point sold to drug cartels.
Her family was struggling financially at the time, and so Esther flew to Monterrey, Mexico, to work. However, when she arrived, she was informed that instead of receiving money, she owed her captors money, and that to pay them she would have to work as a prostitute. She earned about 700 pesos (about 50 USD) a day until she was finally rescued 5 years later as part of a police operation.
Following Esther's story, the conversation turned to the situation in Guatemala, where a horrifying trend of gender-motivated murders that local activists call 'femicide' continues to sweep the country.
Panel participant Sylvia Gereda, founder and editor of Informe Especial, estimates that over 7,000 women have been murdered in Guatemala in the past 10 years. Femicide differs from homicide in the way the murder is committed; femicide follows a pattern in which women are raped, tortured, killed, and left in public places. Ms. Gereda explained that women are dumped on the roadside with their arms, fingers, and legs cut off, or parts of their bodies are sent with a message to instill fear in those fighting against impunity laws that protect the perpetrators.
Although the Guatemalan congress passed a Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women in 2008, the reality on the ground remains grim, according to Ms. Gereda.