Imagine that any time you or someone in your community overheard a neighbor abusing his wife, daughter or mother, you rang their doorbell. Using a pretense such as asking for a glass of water, or asking for the time, you'd be interrupting an act of violence and putting the perpetrator on notice that his behavior was unacceptable. Moreover, you might even be saving that woman's life.
This elegantly simple action lies at the heart of a campaign to reduce entrenched domestic violence in India, where "dialing 9-1-1 is not really an option," said Mallika Dutt, executive director of Breakthrough, a non-profit organization devoted to human rights. Called Bell Bajao, Hindi for "Ring the Bell," the campaign has made men and boys part of the solution to India's epidemic of domestic violence, Dutt said.
The idea, she added, came after Indian women shared their feeling that "unless men get involved, we're not going to get anywhere."
Her organization commissioned a series of award-winning television advertisements to engage men in the fight against victimization of women. "It was the first time that they were asked to be part of a solution."
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The ads proved so effective – reaching an estimated 130 million people and raising by 49 percent awareness about a problem normally kept behind closed doors -- that Ring the Bell is going global, with help from the Clinton Global Initiative, Dutt announced Tuesday at the opening session of the Initiative's 2010 annual meeting in New York. In an interview afterward, Dutt said she was delighted with the opportunity to showcase the program "to some of the best and the brightest leaders. It's very exciting to be going global with something from a BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India and China] country."
The strategy is just one of a number of simple solutions discussed at the meeting, many of which place women at the center of the equation.
Eliminating disease and improving health for everyone "comes down to women," said Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Foundation, which is the world's best-endowed charity, recently announced it would invest $1.5 billion to support women and girls. Specifically, the Foundation seeks to afford girls access to education, which has been shown to reduce the likelihood they'll marry early and become pregnant in their teens, when they're more prone to dying in childbirth, Clinton noted.
The relationship between health and a woman's traditional domain of home and hearth was driven home by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. She announced the launch of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, an international public-private partnership to improve health conditions for the 3 billion people in developing countries whose meals are prepared on old stoves or hearths, typically by women who breathe in "a toxic mix" of smoke and pollutants reaching levels 200 times "the amount that our EPA considers safe for breathing." Cleaning up that indoor air with cleaner-burning, fuel-efficient stoves means fewer women and children will die of lung diseases caused by smoke. It also means fewer women will have to forage for twigs and sticks in countries where just stepping outdoors puts a woman "at increased risk of sexual assault," Clinton said.
President Clinton expressed frustration that, in 2010, his forum needed to have special sessions on empowering women and girls, but then cited several practices that prompted the focus. Those include female genital mutilation and the stoning of women in countries like Iran.
"It makes me sick to hear about these women being stoned to death because 'it's just our law,'" he said. Clinton decried the existence of societies "where men define themselves by their ability to control someone else."
A few hours later, Ashley Judd, the actor and board member of Population Services International, talked about women in Congo "gang-raped repeatedly by armed militia," and Richard C. Holbrooke, the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that in Bosnia, where he was instrumental in brokering peace, there was "a calculated use of rape as an instrument of war."
Holbrooke agreed that men need to be the part of solution to improving the health and welfare of women in countries like Bosnia, or Afghanistan. "If you want to fix the problem of women in these areas, you have to address the men," he said. Speaking of U.S. policies overseas, he said: "This is the biggest single failure of our programs." He noted for example, that with the U.S. providing training of Afghan police, "nowhere was there anything about respecting women."
The gathering, conducted under extremely tight security, this year drew 1,300 participants from 90 countries, President Clinton noted in his opening remarks. Those gathered included 67 heads of state, 600 captains of corporations, and 500 leaders of non-governmental organizations. CGI, which in its six years has come to be viewed as the World Series of networking, is where, moments after appearing with Secretary Clinton to announce they would "change the way the world cooks," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson entered a ladies room with Chelsea Clinton's new mother-in-law, former Pennsylvania congresswoman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, and immediately got buttonholed by a New Jersey entrepreneur interested in helping to reduce hydrocarbon emissions from stoves.
The ballrooms are where political power, brain power and passion come together -- and when the chemistry is right, yield new solutions to problems of poverty, pollution, paternalism, and the recent devastation of Pakistan. It's where progress is logged in the "commitments" to turn plans into action with time and money. It's where Muhtar Kent, the chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola, can share a stage with Jordan's Queen Rania Al Abdullah and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president of Liberia, and say with a big smile, "What a privilege it is to share a panel with a queen and a president. It's the first time," before returning to the subject of empowering girls and women.
It's where Abigail Disney, a philanthropist and producer of the film "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," which told the story about how average Liberian women brought an end to 14 years of civil war and helped install Sirleaf as their new president, can gather support for her latest project. The five-hour public television series, "Women, War & Peace: The Untold Story," focuses on the terrible toll women have suffered in conflicts that have raged in Colombia, Bosnia and Afghanistan, but also how they have been active in bringing about peace.
That sometimes elusive peace, along with the elimination of poverty, are the foundation of assuring women's health -- and global health.