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March 13, 2012, Volume 58, No. 25

A Box of Rice

by Afaf I. Meleis

BenchmarksIn Liberia in January, the country’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf presented me with very valuable gift. It was a box of rice. For Liberians, rice is as valuable as jewels. It is also a political tug-of-war for this economically challenged country.

Rice means physical sustenance, the livelihood and hard work of crops and agriculture, and the economic strength of a nation. From woman to woman, rice means caring for the family, the feeding of children, and the pride of meaningful, fruitful work. President Sirleaf used the box with her picture and her message on it in her campaign to win re-election for a second term. And she did win!

As we marked International Women’s Day last week, I reflected again on President Sirleaf’s gift and my meetings with her and her countrywoman Leymah Roberta Gbowee. They both won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for their efforts toward peace in Liberia.

We shared robust and powerful dialogues during a visit to Liberia and Ghana as part of a delegation I co-led for three U.S. congressmen—Tom Marino (R-Pa.); Hank Johnson (D-Ga.); and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.)—and for donors and supporters of CARE, one of the world’s largest private humanitarian organizations fighting global poverty with an emphasis on girls and women. The delegation was supported by the Gates Foundation.

Throughout our meetings with these remarkable women, the importance of global women’s health was foremost in my mind. The courageous work of President Sirleaf and Ms. Gbowee admirably demonstrates the centrality of women in the health of the community, nation, and society and in the significance of women bringing about peace.

To raise international attention and develop a global research agenda in this area, we have established the Center for Global Women’s Health at Penn Nursing, led by an eminent director, Dr. Lynn Sommers, the Lillian S. Brunner Professor of Medical-Surgical Nursing. The center will contribute to international research in women’s health scholarship, education, and practice, guiding policies that are sensitive to gender equity and educating future leaders in this area.

Empowerment, Safety, and HealthOn May 11 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Center for Global Women’s Health will host its inaugural symposium, Empowerment, Safety, and Health: A Global Mandate for Women and Girls. The keynote speaker is Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International. The entire University community is welcome to join us. As a university-wide community of scholars, we have among us many leaders in women’s health and development in practically every school in this university. It will be through the voice and actions of all who are engaged in any and all aspects of women’s health and development that we will be able to support empowering women globally.

President Sirleaf and Ms. Gbowee are inspirations for all of us who care about the health, safety, and empowerment of women around the world.

Now in her second term, President Sirleaf is the first woman elected and re-elected as head of a country in Africa. She was named by Newsweek magazine as one of the 10 best leaders in the world. Time magazine placed her among the top female leaders and The Economist called her the best president Liberia ever had. She received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in securing peace in Liberia, promoting economic and social development, and advocating for women’s rights.

Ms. Gbowee is articulate, passionate, and even more engaging than her dynamic memoir Mighty Be Our Powers. During the brutal Liberian civil war, she mobilized groups of women from different religions and convinced Charles Taylor, then president of Ghana, to let them attend the peace talks in Accra, Ghana. Her stories­—how she and her delegation of women camped out and blocked politicians and the chiefs from leaving the hall where they were negotiating until they came to a cease-fire agreement, and her account of why she threatened to tear her clothes off and expose herself unless they stopped the killing in her country—were mesmerizing.  Even more mesmerizing was her rationale. Paraphrased, she said that the war stripped her of her dignity, her identity, and the last that was left were the clothes that covered her body. Her clothes represented that last shred of her dignity and identity and she was willing to forgo her clothes because nothing else was left to protect her. 

That threat scared and impressed the negotiating men. It is said it was the turning point and the beginning of peace. She is founder and executive director of Women Peace and Security Network Africa, based in Accra, the capital of Ghana. 

Our visits in Liberia and Ghana focused on women, economic development, health, and nutrition, and a review of progress and outcomes of U.S. support in those countries. In both countries, nurses and midwives were the subjects of many discussions. The meager healthcare offered in villages as well as in many poor urban areas benefited from the expertise, the leadership, and the passion of qualified nurses. President Sirleaf and Ernestina Naadu Mills, the Ghanaian First Lady, and Juliana Azumah Mensah, the Minister of Women and Children Affairs, acknowledged the centrality of nurses and midwives in their healthcare systems and pledged support to their education and welfare and, by turn, to the girls and women in both countries.

Here at Penn Nursing, through the Center for Global Women’s Health, we aim to unlock the power of a box of rice by making the health, safety, and empowerment of women an international imperative.

Afaf I. Meleis is the Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing at Penn Nursing.

Almanac - March 13, 2012, Volume 58, No. 25