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Lessons From the 2012 Women's Global Forum: Day One

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This week, I've had the privilege of attending the 2012 Women's Forum Global Meeting in Deauville, France, alongside some of the most innovative and talented women thinkers and doers in business, the media, civil society and academe. I have been thoroughly impressed by the discussion and the caliber of thought leaders in attendance. Following, I share my impressions of day one.

Forum Opens
My day began joining the dozens of other women at the Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport for our shuttle to Deauville for this year's Global Women Forum.

As I looked around I recognized that there were women around me from all over the world. With all of the chatter and excitement it took me a minute to notice that I was one of the few Americans in the group. Even though this was somewhat overwhelming, I knew that all of us were looking forward to the days ahead and that we were all excited to come together to discuss our vision, the women's vision of the future.

Attending the forum this year are some of the most innovative and talented women thinkers and doers in business, the media, civil society and academia in the world. I am honored to be able to be a part of this experience. I know that not only as a woman but also as a representative of Tupperware Brands, a global company that has worked to improve the lives of women for the past 60 years, the next three days will be eye opening and informative.

What Do We Still Need to Do Better for Women?

The forum began with a discussion around the question, "What do we still need to better for women?" This discussion was a conversation with some of the world's leading women's rights advocates about the major achievements of the global women's movement and the challenges it will face in the future.

The moderator was Raghida Dergham, Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, Al Hayat, and Founder and Executive Chairman, Beirut Institute. The speakers were Shirin Ebadi, human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate; Leymah Gbowee, Executive Director, Women Peace and Security Network Africa, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate; and Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, Government Spokesperson and French Minister of Women's Rights.

This discussion led me to think about my take on the role women play in the world today. Women in the world today have the ability to be a part of things that not even a few years ago would have been unheard of.

For example, in Saudi Arabia, although there are no specific laws that make it illegal for women to drive, male interpretation of the strict religious edicts has led to the prohibition of female drivers. These same edicts also prevent women from opening bank accounts, obtaining passports or even going to school without men by their side. However, just recently a Saudi princess, not wearing her hijab, was speaking boldly about the rights of women in Saudi Arabia on TV. This simply would not have happened in the past and this bold female confidence set the example for the other Saudi women. For the confident women who started the Women2Drive campaign, they set out to demand the right for women to drive and travel freely in Saudi Arabia. This movement led entirely by women commanded the streets and the roads normally reserved for men showing a new take on the culture.

Sexual Corruption: A Weapon of War

Next I went to a discovery session called "Has Arab Spring (Awakening) Become Desert Storm?" The panel was comprised of women who were present in Egypt and Libya during the revolts. The moderator was journalist and AFP Sofia Bouderbala. The speakers were Iman Bibars, Head of the Middle East and North Africa Office; Annick Cojean, journalist, Le Monde; Marwa Daoudy, Departmental Lecturer in Politics and International Relations of the Middle East, St Antony's College, Oxford; and Tom Porteous, Deputy Program Director, Human Rights Watch.

According to one panelist, the people felt that they were victims of the system, but now they feel empowered. One of biggest problems was that there was no leadership during the revolution in Egypt, which is what allowed it to be hijacked.

In Libya, rape has always been widespread and used as a weapon of war. Gaddafi is known for his mistreatment of women of all ages. This fact has been proven alone by the high number of women who have come forward stating they have been raped by militiamen loyal to Gaddafi. This is coupled with the countless number of other acts of violence against women.

One person on the panel shared the true story of a young girl who had just turned 15 when Gaddafi came to visit her school. All the children were told how special this event would be and were told to look beautiful for him. This girl was chosen for her beauty to present a floral bouquet to Gaddafi. After she made the presentation, he placed his hand on her head -- a sign to his security that he had chosen her. The next day a woman came to the girl's home to tell her family that she had been requested by Gaddafi. She was taken from her home, driven for hours to a tent in the desert where she was "prepared" for him. She was given a blood test and was told that he would now be both her husband and her father. She lived in this compound for five years among all the other women who had been chosen for this purpose.

This is only one story that makes up an entire system of sexual corruption being used as weapon of war.

Sex is used to govern and dominate. No one is immune. Even wives of other heads of state have been targeted with this crime.

And sadder still, many young girls are killed by their own families after they have been raped. The stigma that rape carries is one of shame and families in this region will stop at nothing to keep up the honor of their family.

"It is from the greatest dangers that the greatest glory is to be won," said Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War written in 431 B.C.E..

Thousands are killed striving for freedom and dignity around the world.

This was a very eye-opening and sad discussion; however, one message discussed still continues to stay with me. Today, social media prevents many regimes from keeping the abuses they inflict secret. This is something I am interested in exploring further.

Women in Media: "As a Journalist, Courage Is Not a Gender."

The next panel discussion I attended focused on women in the media who have experienced war. I thought we were going to hear from women from post-conflict countries. Instead, we heard from two brave professionals -- two very brave women -- whose work landed them in the midst of conflict: Daphné Benoît, deputy head of the lifestyle department of AFP Paris and a former Pentagon correspondent, and Anna Neistat, associate director for the program and emergencies division of Human Rights Watch.

One question that was posed: Is it an advantage or drawback to be a woman in a war zone?

One clear message that was emanated from this discussion was that it is important that female journalists, in addition to male journalists, cover war conflict. It is important to have various points of view. When reporting from a war zone you are explaining situations and issues that the public cannot see or hear. The speakers explained that is a privilege to be a woman in this condition. As a journalist, courage is not a gender and that is what it takes to report from a war zone.

As a female journalist, Benoît found that she had more access to information in some countries because she is a woman. The women would talk to her, but not feel comfortable with her male photographer. Her strategy when working in war zones is access, advantage, surprise.

Benoît was in Tahrir Square in Egypt when her colleague, also a journalist, was attacked and sexually assaulted dozens of times. She was lucky to get out unharmed. This tragic incident set a new limit for reporters. Reporters Without Borders sent out a release that female journalists were not allowed to go to Tahrir Square because of Benoît's colleague. Many women have fought this restriction, but violence against women in this area is a very real danger.

Anna Neistat is an investigator for Human Rights Watch. Her main job is to train others that are going into war zones. She does, however, go in herself when there is an incident when human rights have been violated. Her job then is to interview victims and others on the ground about the situation. Her strategy when working in war zones is investigate, expose and change.

Neistat has worked in Syria, Northern Israel and Sri Lanka. She has also worked in closed countries that are impossible to enter. She has multiple wardrobes so she can blend into any culture that she may come in contact with. It is important that she is not compromised by authorities and that she does not indemnify anyone she may speak to when gathering her gathering of information. When she goes in initially it is often very difficult to discern the truth from mythology when interviewing those involved.

The media stationed in war zones face special challenges when they are out of the field and back at home. For Neistat, her family and children give her a different perspective. She feels an "obligation" to come home alive and without clear symptoms of trauma after her time in the war zone.

And, just like you and me, she feels good when her son tells her he thinks she's "cool"!

The women who led this discussion are living lessons in resilience. They have seen tragedy and pain, but they have also seen an unbelievable amount of power. When they return home they are empowered.

They also learn to do more with less when in the field -- a good lesson for everyday life.

When asked for suggestions for coping with the stress that comes with balancing work and home life, the women stated that it is important to have the right mindset. It is crucial to separate your work from personal home life. Self-affirmations, passion and patience are necessities.