March 9, 2009

Cornell Celebrates Int’l Women’s Day

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“These are faces that have never seen peace, yet [these women] carry on with an incredible sense of humor, and a will to live life the best they can,” said Rosemary Stasek ’85 as she presented photos of women she worked with in Afghanistan.
Stasek, keynote speaker at the Recognition Reception for Outstanding Work for the Advancement of Women, founded “a little help” — a successful organization aimed at small-scale, grass-root activism that assist Afghan women.
The reception, held yesterday on International Women’s Day, recognized women in the Cornell community who made exceptional contributions to gender equality.
Among the honorees are Julie Cantor ’09, the director of the Vagina Monologues; Angie Hsu ’10, vital organizer in the International Women’s Day committee; Prof. Helena Viramontes, English, and 21 others.
“Right now is a time to celebrate being a woman [in America], especially with Obama in office,” said Anushree Ray ’09, who was honored for building schools in rural India. “Internationally, however, there’s a lot that needs to be done. There is a lot of talk, but not enough action to steer us forward.”
Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, yet earn only 10 percent of the world’s income. 70 percent of the 1.3 billion people who live in extreme poverty are women. Moreover, only 11 countries have met the UN’s target of 30 percent female decision makers, according to the International Women’s Day committee.[img_assist|nid=35933|title=Speak out|desc=Rosemary Stasek delivered the keynote address Int’l Women’s Day Saturday.|link=node|align=right|width=|height=0]
“I think a lot of gender issues [happen because] people don’t believe that there are gender issues. You can’t seek out and solve a problem if you’re not willing to admit there is a problem,” Kristin Pufpaff ’09 said.
“We have about 49 percent women [in the student body at Cornell],” President David Skorton said. “But when you get to the professional ranks the proportion falls quite a bit. Women represent only about 26 percent of our full time faculty members. We have quite a long way to go.”
According to President Skorton, Cornell is taking many initiatives to bridge the gender gap. The Cornell ADVANCE center, funded by the National Science Foundation, is dedicated to increasing women’s participation in science and engineering. Also, the Avon Foundation recently donated $1.5 million to launch the Avon global Center for Women and Justice at the Cornell Law School.
“People need to be more aware of what they can do to help,” Camila Márquez ’09 said.
The majority of the reception was devoted to Stasek, the keynote speaker.
Stasek entered Cornell as an “unwilling economics major.” After graduation, she worked at the Bank of America, and eventually became the mayor of Mountain View, California.
However, “everything came to a crashing halt after September 11th,” she said.
According to Stasek, the Afghan American community in Northern California that “chose to be as invisible, under the radar as they could for the past 20 years” was suddenly pushed into the international spotlight.
Reporters “rushed into Kabob restaurants, sticking microphones into [innocent people’s] faces, asking ‘Are you related to Osama Bin Laden?’”
“It was a devastating time for women in that community,” Stasek said.
As a result, Stasek began a series of community outreach programs to revive the reputation of Afghan Americans in her community. When the Taliban fell in early 2002, Stasek joined a reconstruction delegation that visited Afghanistan for three weeks.
“I was completely, utterly captivated. Not by the destroyed country, but by the people, the optimism, and the energy,” Stasek said.
“It was like having a front row seat in the brick-by-brick rebirth of a nation. [I] felt like never in [my] life would [I] have this opportunity again. It is absolutely intoxicating,” Stasek added.
Stasek was frustrated about the abundance of talks and assessments and lack of actual actions from governments and larger non-profit organizations. In early 2003, She flew to Afghanistan with $5,000 tucked in her underwear. Four days later, she began her first small project of renovating a women’s prison.
“If you think something needs to be done, you must start doing it,” Stasek said. “Even if you feel like you are the only one out there, keep going.”
Her project directed the attention of many larger organizations towards Afghan women. Soon, the United Nations constructed a brand new facility that was “nicer than what Uris Hall used to be,” Stasek said.
Stasek moved to Afghanistan in 2005. Over the years her organization lowered maternal mortality rates, made education available for more Afghan girls, trained women police and army officers, funded Afghan women artists, and provided knitting materials for women blinded by landmines.
“Even though they can’t see, they know [what they made] is beautiful,” Stasek said.