The two women from Egypt had just started their presentation Monday when Leymah Gbowee spoke up from the audience. “I'm sorry to break up this meeting, but I cannot contain my joy,'' said the peace activist from Liberia. “The president of Ivory Coast has just been captured!''
The women, gathered for a three-day international leadership summit at the UMass Lowell campus, cheered the news of Laurent Gbagbo's arrest by opposition forces after a week-long siege. Many women at the summit — from the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Europe — have private fears about the fate of their own countries in the wake of popular uprisings. But they share the hope that the political revolutions sweeping the globe will lead to a flowering of rights and opportunities for women — often the first victims of oppression and war.
“Women and girls of all types were part of Tahrir Square,'' said Mona Makram Ebeid, a former member of the Egyptian parliament, referring to the center of Cairo's revolution. “It is said there are three deficits in the Arab world: Education, freedom, and women's empowerment. So women's issues are no less important than democracy or development.'' As innumerable global studies have shown, a country's economic health and security are deeply linked to the status of its women. Even the poorest societies are more stable when children are educated, resources are shared, and women are free. Countries that sideline women not only forfeit the human capital of half their population but also create conditions for unrest. It is no surprise that Ivory Coast ranks fifth-worst in the World Economic Forum's most recent gender gap index. Egypt, Syria, and Yemen — all countries simmering or embroiled in uprisings — also rank in the bottom 10.
But the period after a revolution can be equally precarious for democracy; things sometimes take an unexpected turn. South Africa's Barbara Hogan, a white anti-apartheid activist who was imprisoned for eight years for joining the banned African National Congress in the 1980s, spoke at the conference about the challenges of rebuilding.
In South Africa, she said, robust affirmative-action programs have helped rebalance a society in which the black majority was utterly dispossessed under apartheid. But a new class of super-wealthy black entrepreneurs and government ministers has evolved, what she called a “bling culture.'' South Africa may have achieved better racial equality, she said, but income inequality there is among the worst of any country in the world.