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‘Gender equality can realize India’s true potential’



What is the idea behind the Trust Women Conference in London? How do you think it can benefit the marginalized and oppressed women across the world?

I came up with the concept of the Trust Women conference because I was tired of conferences that were all talk without action. So I discussed the idea with the publisher of the International Herald Tribune and he was quick to say yes. At TrustLaw, we shine light on issues affecting millions of women and girls. These issues include the lack of such basic rights as education or legal rights, and the worst of the abuses that happen when women don’t know or can’t access their rights, such as forced marriage, human trafficking, domestic slavery, FGM (female genital mutilation ) or rape.  But shining a light on these issues is not enough and we need actions. That’s why we have organized the Trust Women Conference in London on December 4 & 5. It is an action-based event that seeks to empower women to know and defend their rights.

Thomson Reuters says that its TrustLaw is an initiative which offers an electronic marketplace to connect lawyers willing to work at no cost with NGOs and social entrepreneurs in need of legal assistance.  Can you tell us how it has helped women in need of legal assistance across the globe, especially those who are not connected to the digital world?

Since I took over as CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, one of my biggest programmes has been the creation of TrustLaw. The idea behind TrustLaw is simple: give a lawyer for free to the best NGOs and the most creative social enterprises around the world. By giving them legal support for everything they do in their business, we let them spend more on their mission. Thanks to our 270 law firm members, TrustLaw Connect has become the first market place to find legal support.  We help organizations, not individuals – so we do not work with the women directly, but with the best of the NGOs and social enterprises working on their behalf. We have an incredible network of over 700 organizations fighting for the rights of both men and women. It therefore does not require the women themselves to be digitally connected.

Child marriage, women trafficking and slavery are some of the major issues that would be discussed and debated in the conference.  Can you tell us what exactly is the roadmap that this conference wants to chalk out .

 We will have 350 delegates from around the world, all of them female and male leaders in their fields. The conference will be provocative, with a mix of keynote speeches, multimedia, plenary discussions, debates, break-out “action groups” and opportunities for people all over the world to engage online. In the mornings, attendees will gain a better understanding of the issues, hearing from those on the frontlines as they discuss and debate the key challenges that women face in accessing their rights. During the second half of the day, attendees will take part in ‘action sessions’ that ask them to draw on their own personal and professional expertise to help non-profits and social entrepreneurs scale their innovative ideas. The first day of the conference will explore clashes between “culture” and the law, finding concrete strategies to tackle such wrongs as child marriage, female genital mutilation, acid attacks and honour killings. On day two we will embrace issues ranging from financial independence of women and the corrosive effects of corruption to how to put the trafficking business out of business and end domestic slavery.

Talking about child marriage, you may be aware that it is a big as well as sensitive issue in India among other countries. So what do you think is the solution to this deeply ingrained social practice in rural India?  

 Every three seconds, a girl under the age of 18 is married off. That’s 10 million girls every year who are married to older men often before they are mentally or sexually ready. The statistics are alarming. It is estimated that there may be as many as 50 million child brides under the age of 15 by the year 2020. The practice is most prevalent in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia and in India specifically, 47 percent of women are married as child brides.

Forcing a girl to get married before she is physically or mentally ready is one of the worst things you can do to a child. It damages every part of woman’s development and creates a vicious cycle of malnutrition, ill health and illiteracy. A girl who is married too young is far less likely to finish school and she is more likely to have serious complications during pregnancy and childbirth. And the cycle continues for her children, who are also more likely to be underweight and lucky to survive beyond the age of five.

Poverty makes this situation worse for women, but is not the cause. The problem is that girls are often seen as second-class citizens, not that they don’t have money. There are many examples in India – and in other countries – that wealth does not necessarily mean equal rights and respect for women. Some of the highest rates of female foeticide happen amongst wealthy middle class families in India because of their desire for a son. These are educated, wealthy families living in the wealthy colonies of New Delhi. In fact, some of the wealthiest states, such as Haryana and Punjab, have the highest prevalence rates of female foeticide.

We know that countries where men and women not only are equal but participate equally, like the Scandinavian countries, are also the richest and most successful. There is a lesson for India there. Can you imagine the immense potential of India if girls were given equal rights as boys?

 Another major issue across the globe, including India and south Asia in particular, is sex trafficking or human trafficking.  How do you think the issue would be addressed in the conference and what can be the takeaway from it for the activists, social workers and other stakeholders?

Lydia Cacho is a Mexican journalist who will speak at the Trust Women conference. She wrote a book accusing one of Mexico’s richest businessmen of conspiring with human traffickers in child pornography and sex trafficking rings. For that she was kidnapped, driven across Mexico, a gun rammed in her face and policemen taunted her with threats that she would be drowned, raped or murdered. She was jailed for a year on defamation and libel for naming and shaming of Mexico’s elite. Why did this happen? Because she dared to expose the corruption of public officials. Corruption is the grease that allows the spread of a global industry in human trafficking, which the International Labour Organisation estimates generates at least $32 billion in profits annually. That’s more than the total earnings last year of Apple and McDonalds Corp combined!

Without the bribery and collusion of police officers, immigration and border control, government workers, transportation officials, judges or anyone in power, traffickers could not enslave an estimated 21 million women, men and children each year, transporting many from one end of the world to the other.

Human trafficking and slavery rely on corruption, which depends on cash. Cutting off the international flow of money that greases the palms of corrupt officials would go a long way toward ending this barbarity.

In The Huffington Post you blogged that  many activists worry that women are being left out of the political process after the Arab Spring.   Was Arab Spring a disaster for women?

It is a difficult time in the middle east – but a very important time as countries like Tunisia and Egypt put the finishing touches on their new constitutions and so now is the time to push for women’s rights. Women fear their fundamental rights are under threat as conservative and religious forces who have gained influence push for a certain type of conservative country to grow from the ashes of the Arab Spring.

Don’t forget that Islamist-led governments are in place in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya. They are struggling to find a balance between secular forces and the rise of conservatism. A fundamental question is how compatible are Sharia and secular law.

But it is too early to say whether the Arab Spring has been a disaster for women. Transitions take time — we’re talking about countries that went from decades of autocracy to the possibility of democracy almost overnight.

 But this is a time of opportunity and the premise of the Arab Spring was to provide access to the corridors of power for citizens that had for too long been locked out. Women have played a big role in all these revolutions and have discovered that they have a voice and that this voice could be heard – and listened to. This is not going to disappear, whatever happens in these countries in the immediate future.


Monique Villa was appointed CEO of Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2008, shortly after the acquisition of Reuters by Thomson. She has since transformed the former Reuters Foundation into a strategic, high-impact and truly global corporate foundation that reflects the expertise and business acumen of the company, www.trust.org.    A French national, Monique spent the first part of her career at Agence France-Presse (AFP) where she   reported for a number of years from Paris, Rome and London. Excerpts of an interview ahead of the Trust Women Conference in London.


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