New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote a moving story about 15-year-old Memuna Mansaray McShane. As a toddler, Memuna lived in Sierra Leone, and became a victim of the horrific atrocities brought on by the hands of an evil militia, known to cut off the arms and legs of innocent women and children. After miraculously escaping death, she became known as the "Peace Girl," and her story helped galvanize support to end the brutality in West Africa. Memuna is now a star soccer and basketball player (despite her amputated arm) at her high school in Washington D.C., living with her loving adopted family.
There are millions of other stories in so many countries, in so many unspoken places and even here at home, that have much different endings. To list just one shocking statistic, the United Nations estimates that one billion girls and women will be raped or sexually assaulted this year -- most in relation to war crimes. One BILLION.
In the 21st century, women are still battling many old world problems: poverty, disease, war, famine, injustice, inequality, rape and assault, trafficking, reproductive rights and much more. It's ridiculous.
On the positive front, the majority of U.S. college graduates and grad students are now women. Other nations are following suit. While still far from equal, income levels for women are rising, and we're seeing more and more evidence of how women positively affect the economy and the workforce. To list just one example, in corporations where women have seats on the board, there is an 84% better operating profit margin than in those boards that do not include women. We women are living in a time when those of us who are thriving have a real opportunity (and a duty) to help those who are suffering.
If you read Fast Company magazine's latest issue, you will learn about a number of "extraordinary women" who are focusing on specific needs related to girls and women, which lead to social and economic benefits for all. These smart, fearless, empowering and inspiring leaders are leveraging their personal success and their platforms, and using the new tools of technology to solve real problems.
Because of my work with Keep a Child Alive, (an organization which brings life-saving treatment, surrounding care, and nutrition to children and families affected by HIV/AIDS) I was honored and humbled to be recognized as part of this esteemed group titled, The League of Extraordinary Women. I'm in incredible company-- Seriously, it's like being part of The Avengers;-) -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Jennifer Buffett (President and Co-chair, NOVO Foundation), Maria Eitel (CEO, Nike Foundation), Pat Mitchell (CEO, Paley Center for Media), Charlotte Oades (Global Director of Coca-Cola's 5 By 20 Initiative), Sheryl WuDunn (Co-Creator, Half the Sky), Leila Janah (Founder, Samasource) Laura Pinkus Hartman (Founder of Zynga.org), and Tory Burch (Entrepreneur and Designer extraordinaire).
If there is a common thread between us "extraordinary women" it's that we are all just "ordinary women" who achieved success in another arena via business, government, academics, politics, and entertainment, etc., and soon learned that true fulfillment and self-worth comes from a higher calling... helping others.
I found my calling in the fight against AIDS. I wasn't necessarily looking for a cause to support. When I traveled to Africa and witnessed first hand the faces of women and children pained by the disease made me realize I had to be part of their fight. These pregnant women looked at me praying I had an answer and I felt obligated, moved and motivated to help find one. Most people don't realize that in 98% of the cases, an HIV positive pregnant woman can have an HIV free baby if she is given the right treatment during pregnancy. But the chances of an HIV pregnant woman getting these treatments is no better than a coin toss-- 1 in 2 women do not have the access to the drugs they need. This was unacceptable to me- and rather than wait for someone else to do something, Leigh Blake and I did something, and Keep a Child Alive became a reality.
A decade later, with over 9,000 children and family members currently on ARV treatment, more than 300,000 people served where we work, orphan care projects in Africa and India receiving our support, and major clinic sites in expansion, Keep a Child Alive is making a direct impact in the lives of so many who need help. And that fills me with enormous pride and gives me pure fulfillment.
What people often assume is that in order to make change a reality, you have to have some kind of superhuman quality and power inside of you. You don't have to be a politician, or a scholar or a singer or a celebrity to recognize a problem and work towards fixing it by empowering others around you to take up the fight. You have to be you and that makes it all the more valiant.
At the age of two living in the worst place on earth, Memuna showed the world she was extraordinary. Today, at fifteen years old, Memuna has become a symbol of triumph. When she uses her amazing footwork to kick a soccer ball, she reminds us of what's possible for the human spirit. We girls are all connected by the inner desire to make this world better, by reaching what's beyond us. Our maternal instinct extends beyond our children and families to the world around us. We need to tap into it for the greater good. And we always do! We are the safe havens, the shoulders, the holders, the lovers.
It's my dream that all women will realize the power is within them. By inspiring others in their communities and through their platforms, all women have the opportunity to be extraordinary too. We must become much more than we ever dreamed possible!!
I've always believed women have an incredible power to be catalysts of change for other women of the world. It is our job to fight these issues that matter most to us, and realize how much of an impact we can have when forces unite. Come together, my sisters. Let's be extraordinary!
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