Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World, is Alyse Nelson’s account of her journey from the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing to her current role as CEO of Vital Voices, but told through the stories of the inspiring female leaders she has come to know. It is a moving and inspiring account and worth reading for more than the leadership qualities of the women profiled.
I must say that the word “leadership” in the discourse around women in business has, in my opinion, become hackneyed. It’s like “natural” when connected to potato chips, a word that is, more likely than not, connected to something insincere and profit-seeking.
But Alyse Nelson’s stories remind us of what a breath-taking thing true leadership is. It is not a popularity contest nor is it a climb to personal advantage, but an eyes-wide-shut leap, born of a sense of responsibility to others. In these stories, that sense of responsibility is usually coming out of a painful confrontation with the horrors that still form women’s lives all around the world.
For instance, Marina Pisklakova built a network to help victims of domestic violence in Russia. She began in a moment of recognition that comes close to the purest insight. She read two letters sent to her research project at the Russian Academy of Science, a project that focused on identifying issues of concern to women. These two letters told stories of a phenomenon that then had no name in Russia–what we call “domestic violence” in English. As she began asking more questions, women all around her told stories that convinced her she had discovered a massive problem that the police denied even existed. Recognizing the truth of something for which your culture has no name is a feat of imagination that we normally ascribe to poets and visionaries–and real leaders (not rich corporate puppets). Twenty years later, Marina’s network had assisted 200,000 women escaping violence at home.
Sex slavery is something most of us just don’t want to think about. But it is such a huge problem in the world today. Millions of girls are forced into it, subjected to terrible cruelty and degradation. Sunitha Krishnan of India was gang-raped herself–by eight men at the age of 15. Can you imagine? Instead of retreating into herself (as many of us might have done), Sunitha instead began building a series of shelters and schools. She focused on the children of women in prostitution and others vulnerable to brothels. To help reintegrate those rescued from slavery–who are often ostracized–she began retraining programs that have helped hundreds of survivors to get good jobs. Finally, she works with state authorities to help shape prevention policies.
Slave rescue is a very risky business indeed. Only the worst kinds of people engage in it and, because it is very lucrative, they don’t intend to be stopped. Sunitha has been attacked many times and frequently receives death threats. To withstand that kind of pressure is actual courage.
The vignettes are well-written and inspiring. It was refreshing to be reminded–working as I do in a world where “leadership” is too often reduced to getting a promotion–of who the real world sees as leaders.
Alyse Nelson will be joining the “Family, Law, and Customs” panel at the Power Shift Forum next week and will be available to sign copies of her book at lunch on Tuesday, 21st May.
As well as the terrifying challenges that still face women around the world today.