Conference for women celebrates progress, and calls for action

American universities and office parks look a lot different than they did 50 years ago. The efforts to recruit women into higher education have paid off so much that the majority of college students are now female. With men taking on greater childcare responsibilities, and technology increasing women’s options for balancing a family and a career, is gender inequality a thing of the past?

The 6th annual Massachusetts Conference for Women, held at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in the USA on December 9th, answered this question by recognizing past victories and highlighting the work still to be done. According to the conference web site, it had the goal of providing “connection, motivation, networking, inspiration and skill building for thousands of women,” and hosted speakers – including supermodel Christy Turlington Burns and Dr Auma Obama, with diverse areas of expertise. The consensus at the conference seemed to be that while women are finding fewer barriers to success, many continue to face hardships based on race, socioeconomic status, and gender. The issues of domestic violence and healthcare are just two examples of how women’s activism and innovation has defined the feminist movement in the 21st century.

Domestic Violence

The issue of domestic violence is still of critical importance to promoting women’s basic rights. “Abuse comes in all different packages. It can be emotional, physical, psychological… and this happens to one in three women in their lifetime,” said Johanna Crawford, executive director at Web of Benefit, an organization that assists survivors of domestic violence. “That is staggering. And it happens equally across all cultures and across all socioeconomic demographics.”

Web of Benefit provides grants of up to 650 dollars to women who have been away from their abusers for at least 6 months. Survivors of domestic violence may apply for a grant to cover the unforeseen costs of starting a new life: fees for lost legal documents, a laptop for college, or an emergency rent payment. In return, they must “pay it forward” by performing three acts to help other women, such as offering to babysit or edit a resume.

Crawford believes strongly in the power that women have to help other women. “My definition of empowerment is the ability to help someone else,” she explained. “I ask women to define their dreams and the steps and goals needed to get there. So often, one of those dreams is to help others, because they once felt so alone.”

When she founded Web of Benefit, Crawford intentionally raised only private funds so that grants could be given at a moment’s notice if needed. “No other organization in Boston can do that,” said Crawford. While other publicly-funded organizations can provide a survivor of abuse with shelter, healthcare and basic necessities, Web of Benefit can help her take the next step toward building a future.

For her efforts with Web of Benefit, Crawford was awarded the Be the Change Award at this year’s Mass Conference for Women. The award is given each year to a Massachusetts woman who “personifies compassion for her community and commitment to improving the everyday lives of those around her.” Award recipients receive an all-inclusive one-week stay for two at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona or Lenox, Massachusetts.

Healthcare

Advocating for women’s rights today means demanding quality healthcare for all women. For Christy Turlington Burns and Dr. Auma Obama, two guest speakers at the Mass Conference for Women, this means advocating for better health practices in developing countries.

Burns, a former supermodel, explained that she was inspired to create a documentary about maternal health after experiencing complications during her pregnancy. Though she recovered, she learned that women in developing countries commonly die during childbirth due to a lack of medical resources. “Almost all of these deaths are preventable,” said Burns, “almost 90 percent. And we’re not even talking about doctors or nurses. [Maternal deaths can be prevented] by providing caregivers, who act in a culturally appropriate manner, with basic medications and a plan for what to do when complications arise.”

Burns, like Dr. Obama, worked for an organization called CARE that provides HIV education and prevention. She explained that women in sub-Saharan Africa are twice as likely as men to contract HIV. “However, when given the access to testing and prevention strategies, women take charge to protect themselves and their partners; they take charge to prevent their children from contracting the illness. If we invest in girls and women, we are really making a difference,” said Burns.

Dr. Obama invests in girls by coordinating activities for CARE’s Sports for Social Change Initiative. “The reason we do sports is because we work with children, and children need to play. And in the cultures we work with, the boy is often valued more than the girl.” Through the initiative, girls are empowered and educated about their health while participating in sports programs. “This is not about saying women are better than men,” explained Obama. “It’s because if you value a woman, if you value a girl and help her to grow, you will be helping yourself and you will help men and boys.”

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