A Special Power for Gender Equity

from Ashoka

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A Special Power f or


Ashoka’s Special Power This booklet is part of a series that, in field after field, shows the very special power of the individual Ashoka Fellows and of the overall Ashoka movement. On every continent, the Fellows in an area have pioneered one important new way after another. Each of these entrepreneur’s proven, practical social change innovations help the others with technical learning, new power levers, new ways of organizing, and increasing public support. Here is another example of Ashoka’s special power to change the world. That power flows from the fact that Ashoka is the global community of most of the world’s truly leading social entrepreneurs and their partners. It is a community of trust and omnidirectional collaboration. The magnetic attraction of this community, much more than a network effect, is strengthening as (1) the community’s team of teams architecture grows new sinews and effectiveness and (2) the historic emergence of the “everyone a changemaker” world give the members of the community, working together, opportunities to be midwives to big history.



Katherine Graham was the first female publisher of a major American newspaper and the first female Fortune 500 CEO. Her courage in breaking the Watergate scandal despite dire threats from the President changed history.

Chiaki Mukai, a highly respected cardiovascular surgeon, was, in 1994, Japan’s first woman to go into space. A skilled astronaut, she repeated the experience serving JAXA.



Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the world’s first female elected head of state. She was central in drafting the constitution for the newly independent state of Sri Lanka and enabled it to spread and deepen education.

After living in the East, Angela Merkel was elected the first female Chancellor of Germany. She was just ranked by Forbes as the World’s Most Powerful Woman.

The movement to build gender equity is profound, historic, accelerating (see front cover)—and, for all those reasons—hard. It is hard to change the deeprooted mindsets of billions of people and all their institutions. And, until the last skirmish in that struggle is over, the world faces a thousand battles. According to the World Health Organization, one in five girls suffers sexual abuse, often recurring, before age 18. And 25 million (a quarter of whom are children) are trafficked. In the U.S., 20 percent of women are sexually harassed in college. The World Economic Forum estimates that, at the current rate of progress, it will take 200 years to close today’s gender pay equity gap. Many hundreds of Ashoka Fellows are entrepreneuring the big changes needed to overcome these problems. This report introduces five Fellows from five continents, each with a hugely individual solution. However,

their work (and that of all their colleagues) fits together and leverages one another. All five have taken on the mental frameworks that are the roots from which all the many manifestations of inequity spring. For four, this is central. Their approaches range from making allies of Islamic religious institutions to inducing the advertising/ media complex to switch from sexualizing to empowering women. They also are introducing solutions that deal with today’s problems. These answers range from the first all-sectors and -states collaborating attack on trafficking to giving the victims of abuse, be they college students on campus or women entrepreneurs harassed by venture capitalists, a safe way to report that catches repeat offenders (90 percent of the problem).

What they are doing is also central to Ashoka’s and the time’s overarching purpose — to build a world where no one is left out or behind, where everyone is powerful, is a giver, is a changemaker.

ENLISTING RELIGION One of the most striking examples of converting traditional obstacles into new vehicles for empowering women is in Indonesia’s Aceh province. Still coping with the effects of the tsunami and earthquake of 2004 and an insurgency put down in 2005, Aceh is characterized by a more conservative form of Islam than other parts of the country. It’s the only Indonesian province under sharia law, polygamy is common, and the incidence of domestic abuse and rape is high.

In that seemingly improbable environment, UMI HANISAH, a female ulama or religious leader, succeeded in working through otherwise male-dominated religious institutions to protect women and give them greater freedom and influence in especially conservative Acehan society and then beyond. She’s become the progenitor of a movement of women ulama working for gender equality across Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Hailing from a family of eighteen children, through sheer determination she managed to attend a pesantren, or Islamic boarding school, an institution she left her mark on. In pesantren classrooms, girls were traditionally screened from male teachers by a hijab or curtain. Umi saw how girls behind the curtain tuned out, slept or even left the room, so she did the logical thing: she opened it. Her teacher was outraged, but Umi’s defense was persuasive. The curtains were banned,

Eid al-Fitr prayers are offered in front of al-Makmur mosque, one of the oldest in Banda Aceh.

Umi Hanisha, Ashoka Fellow 2013.

and other pesantrens eventually followed suit. It was a harbinger of the success Umi would have in opening up Islamic institutions throughout her career. She went on to attend the Islamic university in Aceh’s capital on scholarship, earn money as a religious teacher and preacher, and use it to become one of the very few women to open

her own pesantren in Aceh. Established in 2000, it taught students how the Quran views men and women as equals, very much in contrast to Aceh’s norms. It imparted empowering skills, from computers to literacy classes for women. At the same time, the pesantren also functioned as a field hospital, a safe house during armed conflict, a women’s shelter for victims of abuse, and a neutral setting for mediation in abuse cases. The school protected many Acehan women and children. But beyond teaching and sheltering them under her own roof, Umi realized being a visible advocate for women in such a conservative region could be a powerful platform for wider social change. In 2005 she founded the Women’s Ulama Forum, a network now of hundreds of women religious leaders who tour Aceh’s villages promoting gender equality. She organized the wives of village heads to hold Majelis taklim, familiar gatherings for religious teaching and performances, but in this case with unfamiliar content. Women ulama addressed the gatherings, preaching about gender equity, and women’s reproductive health and rights. She also recruited male ulama

Students in Umi Hanisah’s pesantren.

to help spread these teachings. Seeking to extend and institutionalize growing representation of women ulama and their influence on deci-

Umi Haniseh’s groundbreaking and tireless work has opened Islam’s door to more and more female uluma (religious leaders), which in turn has created an extraordinary force for gender equity.” WIMAR WITOELAR

Spokesperson/Advisor for Indonesia’s first democratically elected president

sion-making, Umi lobbied the provincial government, demanding that Aceh’s Majelis ulama (Islamic clerical council) be composed of at least 30% women ulama. She prevailed, and her proposal was made provincial law. She then took the same demand to the national clerical body. Under Aceh’s sharia law, women lack legal status or protection in marriage, putting them at high risk for abuse. Umi sought, by working with civil and religious leaders and lobbying the provincial government, to mandate three months of premarital consultations between husbands and wives before the marriage could take place. The consultations would lay out the responsibilities and expectations of both parties and reinforce the rights of women. Marriages would have to be registered with the Office of Religious Affairs to be legal.

Discussion with female ulama of Muslimat Nahdlatul Ulama Association and housewives in Aceh to prevent violence against women in their area.

Again, Umi’s proposal prevailed and became a provincial mandate, and again, she has taken it national. She has expanded the proposal to include all religions, not just Islam, and is working with the Ministries of Internal Affairs and of Women Empowerment & Child Protection in Jakarta to get it adopted across Indonesia. Umi has been fierce in her determination to break taboos and stigmas to protect and advance women. She has faced reprisals: She has been the target of threats, and she was expelled from the pesantren she established for pursuing these activities, which some see as un-Islamic. But she remains undeterred. She continues to build new alliances across Indonesia and Islamic Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand, demanding mandatory representation for women ulama and standing up for the rights of women in Islamic society.

The remarkable thing is that, despite resistance, she has been able to do this by working through religious institutions, finding allies and building alignment around her agenda for gender equity. Like her early act of opening up the segregating curtain in her classroom as a teenager, Umi’s demands may go against existing norms, but her arguments for them are compelling, and they’ve gotten traction. Umi’s success is a powerful object lesson in changemaking: she had an insight, built a team and leveraged system change that seemed previously impossible. She has exercised a special jujitsu in freeing mainline Islamic institutions to become champions of gender equity.

END ASSAULT In the US, one in five women suffers a sexual assault while in college. JESSICA LADD was one of them, and also one of the fewer than 10 percent who actually report it.

But she found the reporting process “more traumatic than the assault,” and experienced feeling “like I didn’t have control. A lack of agency. I wasn’t believed, and ended up regretting reporting.” She filed the experience away and went on to a career as a sexual health educator and researcher, a public policy associate at The AIDS Institute, and working at the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. She also founded Baltimore’s Social Innovation Lab and a chapter of FemSex at Pomona College. Then, a decade after her own traumatic experience, Jess came up with an original solution for the “reporter’s

With 90 percent of campus assaults committed by repeat assailants, creating a culture of prevention is critical, but so is making available a reporting mechanism that allows survivors some privacy and control.”

Jess Ladd, Ashoka Fellow 2018.

dilemma:” a software platform called Callisto for secure online reporting of sexual assault and harassment. It lets survivors report on their own terms, and store a private, encrypted, time-stamped account of what they went through. That encourages them to write up the details sooner, while their recall is fresh (students who do report campus assault wait an average of 11 months). They can either keep the report private, and come back to it later, or file it with a Title IX coordinator or with police. A student can also choose a “matching” option whereby her report remains private unless and until someone else accuses the same

person of another assault. In that case, her report will go to campus authorities, flagging repeat perpetrators. That’s a key innovation, because repeat offenders are the crux of the assault problem. The best estimate is that they commit 90 percent of college sexual assaults and reoffend an average of six times before they graduate. But as long as fewer than 10 percent of survivors report college assault and harassment to authorities, it’s unlikely they will even get reported, much less held accountable. Callisto is changing those odds by identifying repeat perpetrators and encouraging survivors to band together to report them. “For a lot of victims, knowing they are not the only one can be an important part of deciding to disclose,” says Jess. For those who don’t choose to disclose, the system still provides aggregate data on unreported assaults that can inform prevention strategies. Launched in 2015, Callisto is already official policy on 13 college campuses reaching over 150,000 students. Those colleges have seen reporting double since they started using Calisto. 30 percent of users choose the “match” option, and lag time in reporting has decreased markedly. Sexual assault and coercion aren’t limited to one type of institution or industry, and Calisto offers a model for lowering reporting barriers and combating the problem more widely. Even as Callisto is scaling up on college campuses, the #MeToo movement hit critical mass, and Jess was inundated by requests from other sectors, including entertainment, journalism and tech startups. More than

I think Callisto is really an absolute good in terms of what it can offer students and campuses,” says Miriam Feldblum, the Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Pomona, Jess Ladd’s alma mater and another new Callisto client. “We advertise Callisto from the first day that students step on campus.”

20% of female founders of companies are subjected to assault, often by venture capitalists from whom they seek investment. To meet the exploding demand, this year Callisto launched an expanded version of its reporting platform for the workplace. In the new version, victims input the identity of their perpetrators under the precondition that, if a match for a repeat offender is found, a Callisto Options Counselor will reach out to each victim individually, and counseling on legal options is also made available. Data is shared across different industries and the cost per employee is about $40 a year – “Less than the price of a Netflix subscription,” says Jess. Among the early adopters of the workplace platform so far are six venture capital companies. As Callisto expands into more industries, Jess expects that it will increasingly be a market disrupter, challenging existing dynamics in law enforcement and HR departments, which in the past have had an incentive to make

Jess Ladd’s Ted Talk on “The Reporting System That Sexual Assault Survivors Want”.

reporting difficult and keep assault and coercion underreported. By giving survivors a full range of alternatives and powerful new levers, Callisto is shifting power dynamics and culture towards empowered women. This also makes it very uncomfortable for any institution to linger stuck in the old assumptions and patterns — and that is turning more and more powerful organizations into champions of a new equality.

Callisto was founded on the premise that those who experience unwanted sexual contact may be more willing to report it if they know that others have spoken up as well.”

Callisto helps reporting victims evaluate their options.

END TRAFFICKING AND ABUSE In India, HASINA KHARBHIH built an effective way to combat trafficking, now recognized and adopted internationally as a model.

She originally developed it for India’s Northeastern region, a trafficking hotspot. It’s a remote area with porous borders, where poverty and armed ethnic conflict leave children and young women highly vulnerable to exploitation. While some of the victims are boys trafficked into “rathole” mining and other slave labor, the majority are girls and young women exploited for the sex trade. There has been a sharp rise in trafficking across the region since 2015, and the problem will only increase as India’s new Act East Policy builds a new transport corridor designed to multiply trade with Southeast Asia.

Hasina Kharbhih, Ashoka Fellow 2006.

organization helps them build strategy, communicate, share data more efficiently, and respond faster. Both through this network and directly, Hasina is increasingly able to raise awareness of trafficking, track and rescue trafficking victims, prose-

Trafficking’s furtive and cross-border nature, Hasina realized, requires many sectors and states to come Dhaka, Bangaladesh. together in a coordinated response, with an empowered citizens’ sector playing cute offenders, and facilitate rehaa key role. She weaves together bilitation. She also provides women women’s groups and all sorts of other with alternative livelihoods because, civil society organizations, governas Hasina says: “If women have the ment agencies, law enforcement, the power to choose, they can nip unsafe judiciary, and media. Only by working migration in the bud and consequently together are they able to identify the human trafficking.” areas where traffickers are operating, and mount an effective response. Her

Hasina Kharbhih recording the truth.

Traffickers work through local agents who prey on areas where there is little or no surveillance, then move elsewhere as pressure is brought to bear. Hasina’s coordinated approach enables an orchestrated “early warning system” that alerts villagers when traffickers are operating nearby, or are likely to move in. She also assembles research on trafficked girls, their traffickers and who works for whom into a shared database, the first of its kind in India. Shared with over 1000 government and citizen sector groups, the data helps them piece together a girl’s identity and the likely destinations where she may have been sent. Eight states in Northeastern India have adopted Hasina’s model and have worked with her over the past decade. Her approach has saved over 70,000 people in the region from enslavement. As trafficking extends its reach, Hasina recognized that she had to engineer international data sharing. However, India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar were stuck not cooperating. Working with all three parties, Hasina recently brokered an agreement whereby INTERPOL acts as host for each

country’s database and the parties commit to upgrading and harmonizing their systems using best practices, with the database Hasina developed for Northeastern India as the model. Her work in this field is endorsed by the Government of India and is seen by the parties as the most advanced.

Hasina has been fighting... to end trafficking in the Northeast and so far, has saved 72,442 people.”

The cross-sector approach Hasina pioneered is now internationally recognized as a model for combating trafficking effectively. Beyond the Northeastern states and the Interpol agreement, India is piloting it nationally, and Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh have adopted it. Hasina is currently working with the British High Commission to take the model global.

CULTURAL SHIFT Like Jess Ladd, Chilean psychologist NEREA DE UGARTE is entrepreneuring a cultural shift with two, linked goals—to empower women and to pull a critical part of society, advertising and the media, from being part of the problem to becoming engines of change.

Now these two sectors are a central part of the problem. “Mass communication affects all areas of a person’s life because it inculcates stereotypes, weaknesses, social pressures, emotional disconnection, distrust, insecurity,” Nerea says. “Eight years ago, I was bulimic myself. When I got over it, I started thinking about all the talent that is lost through having this obsession, created culturally, with looking a certain way.” A survey of Chilean girls and women her organization, Rebellion, commissioned found:  6% of girls ages 10 to 16 gave 3 up on a public activity they liked because of insecurity about their appearance.  6% of women ages 18 to 25 age 3 reported having low self-esteem. 58% of girls and women ages 14 to 25 think about their body three hours each day Nerea has effective tools not only to make the destructive patterns that have long prevailed risky and unattractive end, but also to help these industries find new, socially helpful paths that will be a big win for them.

Nerea de Ugarte, Ashoka Fellow 2018.

Nerea is the founder and spokesperson of the social collective La Rebelión del Cuerpo (Rebellion of the Body), a movement with chapters across Chile, as well as in Mexico, Argentina, Spain and Australia. The chapters educate and empower girls and women to stand against gender stereotyping, and work on changing the sexist mindsets and cultures of companies at the local level. Rebellion also organizes coordinated nation-wide attacks on media campaigns that use harmful stereotypes. The tactics range from direct protest to large-scale social media posting aimed at companies’ Facebook and Instagram accounts, and

they’re extraordinarily effective. Of the five national ad campaigns in Chile Rebellion has targeted, all five shut down. Nerea proposed a mandatory warning on advertisements that use digitally altered images of women, and got Congressional candidates from all Chilean political parties to sign a pledge to enact it. But Rebellion doesn’t stop at disrupting sexualized advertising. Two of the companies it targeted asked for Rebellion’s help to retool their products for the Chilean market, and that’s part

of the point. Rebellion seeks to build long-term relationships with companies to promote cultural shift. Indeed, Nerea now has a consulting group with that mission. It works with clients to help them redesign offending clothing, to stop provocative advertising, especially ads aimed at girls ages 10 to 16, and to use their resources instead to weave messages around empowering women and also warning of the real harms stereotyping and hyper-sexualized imagery can trigger.

RECOGNIZING PARENTING PROFESSIONALLY Helping firms change their world view also leads to internal changes. For example, maternity leave isn’t just time away from work that conflicts with career; it can be a time of valuable personal and professional development.

That’s the insight of RICCARDA ZEZZA, an Italian executive-turned-social entrepreneur who is coaching corporations on how to re-envision maternity leave as master’s level training in valuable skills. She has branded it as MAAM, short for “Maternity as a Masters.” It’s the world’s first and only training for mothers (and fathers) of children 0 to 3 years old that taps parenting

Riccarda Zezza, Ashoka Fellow 2016.

experiences as vital relational, organizational and innovation skills. “The problem we are addressing with MAAM is that women are very new to the workforce, so they are bringing diversity to a system that was not built for them. This is particularly true when they become mothers, because

men the opposite way: 91% of Italian men with one or two children work, as opposed to 77% of childless men. As a result, Italy ranks relatively low – 41st in the world according to the World Economic Forum – in gender equity.

Riccarda in a Plan C meeting.

the birth of a child can be a huge problem for working women.” Riccarda experienced that firsthand. She had a 20-year career as an executive of major companies such as Pirelli, Microsoft, Banca Prossima, and Nokia. She spent two years working for Nokia in Finland and was given responsibility for CSR for the all of its operations across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. In 2012 she returned from her second maternity leave in three years, only to find she had been demoted and transferred to another department. She resigned, and has been working full-time on changing attitudes toward maternity leave ever since. Her experience is far from unique. In the corporate world, where working long hours and weekends are the norm, women who get pregnant can expect their careers to decline. Although Italy has relatively generous maternity leave (five months at full pay, and up to a year after that at 40% pay), taking it can be a career killer. 26% of Italian women with a private sector job are unemployed two years after giving birth. Parenthood affects

Taking time off for a master’s degree is encouraged and even funded by companies. Returning executives are presumed to be more highly skilled, and often promoted to more senior roles. But when women return from maternity leave, they are presumed distracted and less committed, and often get downgraded to less prestigious roles.

Thanks to MAAM, we bring back to the Municipality of Milan, people with stronger skills, able to ensure better services to citizens.”

This isn’t just discriminatory, it’s needless and wasteful, Riccarda argues, because parenting trains ‘soft skills’ and unlocks creativity, enhancing employees’ value to the company. “I saw it as a big waste of resources, the fact that motherhood was felt to be a problem,” said Riccarda, “when I had had seen myself that becoming a mother made me more balanced, and

trained me in skills that made me a better manager.” Globally businesses spend $356 billion a year to train soft skills. But Riccarda felt she learned more from maternity leave than many corporate trainings she took. It honed her empathy and attunement, her ability to listen and motivate people – all essential for effective management and teamwork. It demanded Olympic-level time management, multitasking, and prioritizing, harnessed in the service of a long-term vision (in this case child development) – the fundamentals of innovation.

She gathered evidence that … the caring that follows childbirth transforms the human brain, increasing autonomy, resilience, and determination.”

In 2013 she gathered evidence that confirmed her own experience, including neuroscience showing that the caring that follows childbirth transforms the human brain, increasing autonomy, resilience and determination. Partnering with the newspaper Corriere della Sera she and a colleague designed and conducted a survey in which more than 85% of women found maternity leave improved their organizational and listening skills. Armed with such proofs, in 2014 Riccarda created Piano C (“Plan C”), physical spaces for mothers to meet, work, care for their children and experiment with new ideas emerging

from MAAM. The centers have spread across Italy through the Piano C Partner Network (PCPN). The same year she also began offering workshops for companies on how to translate parenting skills into managerial and leadership skills. Among her clients were Pirelli, Luxottica, Valore D, Schneider Electric, HP, Invitalia, Ikea, Poste Italiane and others. In 2015, Riccarda started a new organization focused on a digital platform enabling many more new parents to access MAAM learning, which corporate partners like UBS helped to scale up. It structures maternity leave as a seven-part master’s course focused on relationship, care, empathy, and complexity management. The platform has been adopted by over 40 firms in Italy, most of them global brands. Corporate clients include Amgen, Barilla, Birra Peroni, Boston Consulting Group, Coca Cola, Danone, the City of Milan, UniCredit, Unipol, and many more. MAAM is now being piloted in 23 countries and 218 cities across Europe, the United States, Southeast Asia and Australia.

MAAM is now being piloted in 23 countries and 218 cities.”

MAAM’s rapid uptake is a salutary example of corporations becoming part of the solution by changing discriminatory mindsets and aligning their cultures with women’s empowerment.


Increasing rates of social mobility. The number one thing for me was meeting other people like me… And every Fellow that I’ve met, and that’s men and women, we follow a similar life cycle, and that has been so reassuring to me.”


Building community-based environmental leadership in Chile. Having identified myself as a social entrepreneur was truly significant. It defined my role and gave me the security of belonging to a network of people with similar abilities and vocations.”


Working with Mexican young people. My network has expanded so much since I became an Ashoka Fellow. Before, it would take me a very, very long time to get significant alliances and reliable working partners. And, now that I am part of Ashoka, that has changed a lot. … Ashoka helped me to understand things from a bigger perspective.”

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