A hundred women from across the world — the list included politicians, lawyers, businesswomen, social workers, writers, musicians, actors, sportspersons, and even comedians — came together for a day of debate, discussion and introspection on the most crucial issues facing women at the 100 Women Conference on Friday.
Hosted by the BBC at the New Broadcasting House in London, the conference was the culmination of the 100 Women Season launched by the BBC on October 7. The woman-centred focus of the new season of programming on all platforms of the BBC’s global news channels commenced with a documentary on Malala Yousufzai by Mishal Hussain
From former tennis champion and 18-times Grand Slam singles winner Martina Navratilova, who spoke of the need to “break boundaries, be yourself and believe in yourself”, to physicist and Gender Equality Champion of the University of Cambridge Professor Dame Athene Donald, who spoke on why women are under-represented in science and technology, the 100 Women Conference presented a many-layered picture of women’s experiences of inequality.
The gang rape of a young girl in the winter of 2012 in Delhi set off a process of soul-searching within the BBC. Journalists and editors reflected on whether the multi-platform media organisation with a formidable world presence was doing enough in its coverage of women. An audience survey came back with findings that laid the foundation for the 100 Women Season. Women audiences said that they wanted their experiences to be better reflected and represented on the BBC World Service.
“The idea for this had its roots in India, as it took shape following the New Delhi rape which started a debate on where we were with women’s rights,” Fiona Crack, Editor for 100 Women, told The Hindu.
The 100 Women Conference was structured around four major debates or themes. The first was News of the Day, under which the 100 discussed three issues that are currently in the headlines; namely, phone tapping; the Syria crisis (and its impact on women); and discrimination against the Roma community.
The second was The Big Idea in which six women — Obiageli Ezekwesili, Senior Adviser, Open Society Foundation; Cherie Blair, British barrister; Fawzia Koofi, MP and former Deputy Speaker in the Afghan National Parliament; Cerrie Burnell, children’s TV presenter; Claudia Paz y Paz, Attorney-General of Guatemala; and Selma James, writer and activist — each presented a Big Idea on how women’s lives could be improved. Of the 100 women present, 24 per cent voted for the Big Idea from Claudia Paz y Paz who called for greater levels of prosecution of those who perpetrate violence against women.
The third debate had four representatives from major religions and one atheist engaging in debate on an issue that is increasingly confronting the women’s movement today: Can faith and feminism coexist? It saw the radical Spanish nun Teresa Forcades and the British woman stand-up comedian and atheist Kate Smurthwaite cross swords. Ms. Smurthwaite spoke of the “deeply misogynistic” history of all major religions. Ms. Forcades argued that as a Catholic she is working to change the patriarchal system in the Church.
The fourth debate was on whether motherhood is a barrier to women’s equality.
“We did not seek to compile a list of the 100 most powerful women in the world,” said Rupa Jha, a senior editor with BBC and co-host of the Conference. “These women have pushed boundaries, and they represent the world of women and women audiences.”
The response to the 100 Women Conference was overwhelming. “Women took it to the next level through the hash tag, and we realised that we had tapped into something very relevant. In London, 100 Women was trending at the top the whole day and globally it was between number one and three,” Ms. Crack said.