Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World

Alyse Nelson, Jossey-Bass, 2012

Alyse Nelson is the president and CEO of the transnational organization Vital Voices. Since Hillary Clinton founded Vital Voices in 1995 at a United Nations conference for women in Beijing, the NGO has grown into a global organization with over 12,000 women members in 144 countries. This book, by Vital Voices CEO Alyse Nelson, offers biographies of some of these women and describes the work they are doing in their respective countries. It is inspiring and informative.

The systematic oppression of women in the vast majority of the world’s countries coupled with neocolonialism, dictatorships, corruption, poverty, racism, and war would seem to produce overwhelming and hopeless odds against doing anything to bring about social and economic justice and an end to violence against women and children.

Consider the following facts:

  • A majority of women in the world cannot legally own, control, or inherit property, land, or wealth.
  • Women have less access to credit, education, job training, and employment among other decisive measures of equality with men virtually everywhere.
  • Women are paid substantially less than men when they are employed, even in the United States where women’s median wage is $0.77 to men’s $1.00.
  • Women-owned businesses represent less than one percent of sales to large, multi-national corporations.
  • Two-thirds of the people in the world who are illiterate are women.
  • Sex trafficking in women and girls pervades, especially in the Global South, but also in countries in Eastern Europe, and remains disturbingly evident in the United States.
  • Rape remains a persistent form of violence against women, despite being declared a war crime and a crime against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal in 1998.
  • Millions of the world’s women are subject to female genital cutting (FGC), an invasive, dangerous, and painful practice, which endangers women’s (and infants’) health, especially in childbirth.

This is only a partial rendition of conditions women confront to varying degrees all over the world each and every day.

In the face of these realities, Vital Voices celebrates women’s astonishing achievements, including, for example, the awarding of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize shared by Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Tawakkul Karman, the “mother” of Yemen’s pro-democracy movement in 2011. Nelson honors the life and work of the Burmese prodemocracy and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi following her release from nearly 20 years of house arrest. Nelson recounts Aung San Suu Kyi’s election to parliament, and her continuing leadership in the struggle to establish democracy in her country. It is inspiring to learn that Rwanda, after decades of brutal civil war and genocide, and the horrific rapes of thousands of its women and girls, now has a National Gender Policy that includes a 30 percent quota to ensure that women are represented at all levels of government. Nelson reports that “as of 2011, women make up 56 percent of the lower house of Parliament, the highest percentage of women’s representation in the world, and also hold a number of key cabinet positions.” With these and other examples the book shifts the paradigm for thinking about women exclusively or primarily as victims, especially in the Global South. Instead, we see them as survivors, courageous and ingenious, persistent, indefatigable actors with political and economic agency.

To this end, Vital Voices documents case after case of women’s efforts to change their conditions. Individual stories abound. For example, we read of Sunitha Krishnan from India, who survived a gang rape when she was eight years old and turned that trauma into a healing commitment to rescue women and girls from female sexual slavery. Founding an organization called Prajwala, which means Eternal Flame, Krishnan developed a five-point program of prevention, rescue, rehabilitation, reintegration, and advocacy. As of December 2011, she and her co-organizers had rescued 6,436 women and children.

Likewise, we read the story of Dr. Hawa Abdi from Somalia. As Nelson explains, since its founding in 1960 that country has been ravaged by war, unfathomable poverty, and now the starvation of tens of thousands of its people. Nearly all of the women of that country have undergone female genital cutting. In the midst of all of this, Dr. Abdi, trained in obstetrics and gynecology, turned her family’s farm into a hospital, school, and refugee camp in 1991, sheltering some 78,000 people suffering from war injuries, severe malnutrition, and disease. Nelson reports that in 2011, in a country of nearly 10 million people, there are only 365 doctors.

The story of Noha Khatieb, an Arab Israeli was also particularly inspiring to me. In 1998 she became a teacher in what was then a new, integrated primary school in Israel called Hand in Hand, in which Jewish and Arab children were taught together in a bilingual and bicultural program. Six years after its initial opening, four additional such schools were established and Khatieb became co-principal of one of them. Nelson reports that, in 2009, Khatieb took a position with Israel’s Ministry of Education as the director of civic and multicultural education.

Shifting the paradigm for thinking about women’s “vital voices” also complicates our understandings of cultures and how dynamic they are. Within each story, and within each country, we begin to see that women are able to negotiate, mediate, and move in ways that seem impossible from an outsider’s view.

While Nelson provides this inspiring view of the world’s most impoverished and subordinated women, she does so in an uncritical way in her introductory essay. Hillary Clinton has certainly, for example, played a courageous and sometimes daring role in defining and re-envisioning women’s potential. However, she and Nelson and the Western leaders who founded and fund Vital Voices are also doing so within the framework of neoliberal, postcolonial politics, in which U.S. imperial interests are often deeply at play. Agencies, like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and multinational corporations, like Walmart and Coca-Cola, that provide fiscal support to the women are also motivated, at least in part, by efforts to ensure a particular kind of development in which they can control, influence, and manipulate policy.

The exploitation of both women’s labor and the natural resources that are especially abundant on the African continent and in the Middle East is certainly evident on the global landscape. I would have found the stories and the overall sense of Vital Voices more balanced had Nelson offered us a more critical and skeptical eye. What goes unstated in Nelson’s book, but is, of course, implicit and ought to be stated, is that men are responsible for these conditions, and that patriarchal conventions, politics, economics, and cultural policies and practices remain predominant in the world. This is true even when some reforms have been put in place, or when individual women have risen to political or economic prominence.

Moreover, what is also unstated in Nelson’s introductory essay is any historical mention about how much of the suffering in the Global South is a consequence of the European and American slave trade and slavery, followed by more than a century of colonialism. For example, many of the ongoing tribal conflicts on the African continent are, at least in significant part, a result of the ways in which European powers arbitrarily carved it up. And U.S. colonialism in the Philippines and Latin America, for another example, is also significantly responsible for setting in motion more than a century of turmoil and destruction.

In addition, Vital Voices focuses almost exclusively on women in the Global South (Ireland and Israel are exceptions). It would have been useful had Nelson turned a critical eye in her introductory essay to look at conditions for women and girls in the United States. For example, we now have to fight, yet again, for women’s reproductive freedom, even for something as basic as access to contraception in some states. The United States has the highest infant and maternal mortality rates of any industrialized country, largely as a result of racism and its correlation to increasing impoverishment. We face uphill struggles for a progressive and humane agenda on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil and human rights. Serious attention to devastating environmental degradation and climate change remains elusive. Violence against women has escalated, most especially in military families, which is to be expected since we know that there is a relationship between combat experience, post-traumatic stress, and domestic violence. All of these conditions and policies deeply impact women’s lives. The point here is that the book conveys a sense of “us” (liberated women in the West) and “them” (oppressed women in the Global South). The reality is that women are subordinated everywhere, albeit in various ways and to varying degrees. We are all part of one another, and this sensibility is fundamentally absent in the very conceptualization of Vital Voices.

All of us who witnessed the Arab Spring in 2011, celebrated the release from custody of Aung San Suu Kyi, or cheered Hillary Clinton’s immensely courageous defense of human rights and equality for gay, lesbian, and transgendered people in an international forum in 2011 (which, significantly, is not mentioned in this book) know how fragile democracy is, and how ruthless military dictatorships and vested economic interests can be. We also know how fragile women’s inclusion in post-revolutionary governments can be, despite their often central and heroic roles in the prodemocracy movements that brought these new regimes to power. Although I have criticisms of Vital Voices, it is also evident to me that the organization plays a significant and progressive role within an international panorama of seismic change. Alyse Nelson’s book contributes to a well-documented understanding of the organization and the women who give it life.


Bettina Aptheker

Bettina Aptheker is a professor of feminist studies at the University of California where she has taught for more than 30 years. Her course Feminism & Social Justice includes issues affecting women...

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