March 9, 2009

Cornell Holds First Summit on International Women’s Health

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Cornell Global Development Club hosted the University’s first Summit on International Women’s Issues in Global Health and Development this past Saturday in Goldwin Smith Hall. Approximately 200 graduate and undergraduate students, professors, health professionals, civic leaders and women’s rights advocates gathered to discuss the challenges that women presently face around the world.
Last spring, Vanessa Coleman ’10, former president of the club, came up with the idea of holding a conference that would just focus on women’s issues. Current Club President Carrie Bronsther ’10 explained that the goals of the conference were to shed light on the international crimes against women that had often gone unheard, promote the sharing of ideas and get people motivated to take action.
“A lot of people in the U.S. think about women’s issues only as part of a feminist movement,” Bronsther said.
Conveniently occurring the day before International Women’s Day, the summit included a video conference with female medical students at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, an introduction by Susan Murphy, vice president for student and academic services, and a keynote speech by Dr. Claudia Morrissey, World Health Organization member and president of the American Medical Women’s Association. After the speech, presentations and panels highlighted topics such as international violence against women, the role and influence of siblings on adolescent sexual and reproductive behaviors in Sub-Saharan 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 having 30 percent female decision makers, according to the International Women’s Day committee.
“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.
“… About 49 percent [of the student body at Cornell are women,” 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 11,” 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 — 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.