The sky is the limit: How Rotary’s women of action help to close the gender gap around the world – By Sandra Prufer

Evelyn Karungari Mungai/Photo: courtesy of Mike Eldon
Evelyn Karungari Mungai/Photo: courtesy of Mike Eldon

1989 was a year of change. It was the year of the peaceful Revolutions of the 20th century. It was the year that the Berlin Wall came down, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War. It also marks the fall of an old men-only bastion. In 1989, Rotary International lifted the requirement that membership in Rotary Clubs to be limited to males, permitting any club in any country to admit persons without regards to gender.

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Since its founding in 1904, Rotary has harnessed the strength of professional and community leaders to tackle humanitarian challenges at home and abroad through volunteer service. The tipping point for Rotary to finally accept female members came in 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Rotary International’s revocation of a Californian club’s admission of women was a civil rights violation.

The Supreme Court’s 7-to-0 decision affirmed the 1986 ruling of the Court of Appeals of California. In a 49-page groundbreaking decision, Justice Eugene McClosky wrote: “Incredibly, 14 years before the start of the 21st Century and 210 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we still find ourselves having to write an opinion defending the right of American women to equal opportunity in a secular organization of approximately 20,000 clubs, with more than 900,000 members.”

At the beginning of the 21st century, there were more than 100,000 female Rotarians worldwide. Today, about 18 percent of Rotary’s 1.2 million members are women. However, focus groups in various countries showed that the perception that women are not allowed and welcome in the world’s oldest international service organization still continues, and over the past decade there has been no growth in the total number of members.

Wanted: Women in Rotary

The low number of women is a matter of great concern to Rotary leaders and Kerry Kornhauser, a marketing executive and past president of the Rotary Club of Albert Park in Australia. Realizing that clubs in Australia and New Zealand do not reflect the diversity of the communities in which they operate, in 2011 Kornhauser co-founded Women in Rotary, an initiative dedicated to increasing gender balance and to achieving equality for women around the world. Showcasing the importance of women in Rotary and in leadership roles, the initiative is supported by Rotary leaders in 46 countries, including Germany, Russia, the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, India and Pakistan.

“If we had a 50/50 gender split, we could arrest the decline in the number and build up a volunteer base of more than two Million Rotarians,” Kornhauser wrote in a “In Search of the Rotary Woman” op-ed piece.

Increased diversity, she says, yields better outcomes, and clubs that reflect the communities they serve are able to better engage those communities and meet their needs because women offer a differing and complementing perspective to that of men. Put simply by William Donaldson, former chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission: ”Monolithic backgrounds are destined to foster monolithic thinking.”

White House honors ten Rotary Women of Action

This October, 25 years after the Rotary Club doors were opened to women, the White House recognized ten outstanding female US Rotarians for donating their time, talents and expertise to help thousands of people in need. The White House visit was part of the annual Rotary Day in Washington (Oct. 6-7) which included high-level administration speakers and a look at the lasting improvements the honorees have made in the lives and communities they serve. (Watch photo essay Rotary’s 2014 Women of Action)

A few years ago, while working for Rotary at its world headquarters near Chicago*, I had the privilege to meet some of them as well as hundreds of amazing female Rotarians and change makers in Africa, Europe and other parts of world, getting to know about their inspiring work and stories. Their stories had one thing in common: They were using the power of Rotary’s global network to give back to their communities and to empower women and girls at grass-roots level. Over the past 25 years, female Rotarians across the globe have initiated thousands of projects to lift women out of poverty, to educate girls, to improve women’s health, and to prevent trafficking and child Labor.

Taught by Mother Teresa, she won’t back down

Deepa Willingham was one of ten women recognized at the White House as a champion of change and vocal advocate for girls’ universal right to education. Born and raised in Calcutta, she’s a naturalized US citizen who joined Rotary after a successful career as hospital administrator in Santa Barbara, California. Willingham, who was educated under the stewardship of Mother Teresa, says her mother instilled in her a respect for all people, regardless of cast, religion or gender.

With these values in mind and the support of her local Rotary Club, in 2001 she founded PACE Universal (PACE stands for Promise of Assurance to Children Everywhere) to deconstruct the debilitating cycle of poverty. PACE’s flagship project is the Pivali Learning Center in a village near Calcutta, where more than 200 girls are educated instead of becoming child-bribes, being used for child labor, or sold in the sex trade.

Willingham hopes her educational and community development programs will become models to fight poverty in other regions. (In an interview with United Nations South-to-South News, she talked about her holistic approach and PACE’s work in India and Latin America.)

Empowering women and girls in the Swat Valley

For Zebu Jilani the Swat Valley in Northern Pakistan is not just a place, but a part of her being. “Swat flows through my veins. I have tremendous love for Swat and its people and they have given me so much. I feel it is my obligation to help them now that they are going through such a difficult time,” Jilani explained in an interview with Elan Magazine.

Born as a princess into the ruling family of Swat, a mountainous region called the Switzerland of Asia, Jilani moved to the United States in 1979 at age 26, but kept strong ties with her home country and continued her grandfather’s legacy of investing in education and health care. When in 2008 the Taliban sized power in Swat, she founded the Swat Relief Initiative to help two million displaced people and to improve the lives of women and children.

Zebu Jilani  (m), founder, Swat Relief Initiative/Photo: Swat Relief Initiative
Zebu Jilani (m), founder, Swat Relief Initiative/Photo: Swat Relief Initiative

A member of the Rotary Club of Princeton, Jilani also founded Swat’s first Rotary Club and invited Ziauddin Yousafzai, an educator and community activist, to join. “When I first started the club, I was the only woman among 30 men. This was unheard of in Swat,” she remembers.

In 2012, Yousafzai’s teen-aged daughter, Malala, was shot in the head for defying the Taliban and speaking out for girls’ education. Last week, Malala Yousafzai was announced as one of the two winners of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, the first Pakistani and youngest person ever to win the renowned prize.

Champion for women’s empowerment in Africa

Evelyn Karungari Mungai, one of Kenya’s leading business women, has also achieved many firsts in her life. Mungai is the founder of the Evelyn College of Design and a serial entrepreneur. She was the first African girl to study in Kianda College in 1962, the first woman to join the African Development Bank’s private sector Africa Business Roundtable, and the first elected president of the All African Business Women’s Association.

For many years, Mungai has been a champion of women’s economic empowerment. When she started her business, she says, there were a lot of people who didn’t know that a woman in Kenya could even own a business. She published Presence, a magazine for professional women, and authored a book celebrating the contributions of Kenyan women in the fight for independence.

In 1992, Mungai became the first female member of the Rotary Club of Nairobi, the oldest in Sub-Sahara Africa, and nine years later its first female president. As elsewhere in the world there was great resistance in most African clubs to accepting women members.

“Those that held out for the longest professed not to be against the principle, while suggesting they just couldn’t find suitable candidates,” recalls Mike Eldon, a fellow Rotary club member and Mungai’s husband. “That all seems like so long ago, as now having women members integrated into our clubs is completely normal.”

Many female members, Eldon says, have become presidents, not a few have risen to be district governors, and everywhere they are active in everything from community projects to club administration and stimulating fellowship.

A Kenyan village where hope has a place to grow

Dedicated to using the skills and talents that have earned her success in the business world, Mungai aims to improve the lives of Kenyans in rural areas. In her role as president of the Rotary Club of Nairobi, she spearheaded a major empowerment program which adopted the village of Cura in Kikuyu. It established an orphanage to provide care for 50 AIDS orphans and educational support for primary school children.

Over the years the project has expanded to the building of a secondary school, a library and a clinic and the launch of income generating tissue culture banana and bee-keeping business ventures.

Ode to African Queens and women’s empowerment

One of Mungai’s granddaughters is 20-year old Karungari Mungai, also known as Miss Karun. The former lead singer and first lady of Kenya’s popular hip hop band Camp Mulla, who was named after her grandmother, is now an arts student at CalArts in California. Last year, Miss Karun released her first solo album and participated in the first season of CokeStudio Africa, a youth centric music platform that connects artists from across Africa to create new sounds through a fusion of genres, styles and songs.

Collaborating with Ugandan musician Joel Sebunjo, Miss Karun turned West Africa’s folk song Miniyamba into a beautiful ode to African queens and women’s empowerment. In a CokeStudio background interview, she talked about the story behind the song. According to the legend, Miniyamba is a giant snake that one day wrapped itself around the village trapping everyone inside. Then a woman from the village talked to the snake and convinced it to release the village it was holding hostage. After much convincing, the snake finally agreed.

“So what I think the song was portraying is the influence of women in a society,” Miss Karun concluded.

Watch the Miniyamba song fusion on YouTube to celebrate gender equality in Africa and elsewhere and today’s 2014#BlogActionDay.

There are many more women Rotarians, all over the world, who have shown great leadership in service. Rotary has empowered them to touch the lives of the communities around them, and in turn they have significantly strengthened the Rotary clubs to which they belong.

About the Author

From 2006 to 2011, I was employed by Rotary International as a media relations specialist for Europe and Africa. Today, I work as freelance journalist and media consultant based in Bonn, Germany. I’m a contributing writer of AfricaNewsAnalysis and a honorary member of Rotary Club Dorfen in Bavaria.