TIME Opinion

Company-Paid Egg Freezing Will Be the Great Equalizer

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Egg storage Science Photo Library—Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF

From Facebook to Citigroup, more companies are covering the cost of elective egg freezing for women who want to delay child-bearing. Is this the key to real gender equality?

Updated on October 16 at 11:25 am.

I spent last Thursday on the 15th floor of a fertility clinic with a dozen women. It was a free seminar on egg freezing, and I listened, wide-eyed, as a female physician described how, by the time a woman reaches puberty, her egg count will already be reduced by half. The women in the room had presumably come for the same reason as I had – we were single, in our 30s and 40s, and wanted to know our options – and yet we might as well have been entering a brothel. We didn’t make eye contact. We looked straight ahead. It was as if each of us now knew the other’s big secret: the fertility elephant in the room.

Women talk about sex, their vibrators, their orgasms – but a woman’s fertility, and wanting to preserve it, seems to be the last taboo. There’s something about the mere idea of a healthy single female freezing her eggs that seems to play into every last trope: the desperate woman, on the prowl for a baby daddy. The woman who has failed the one true test of her femininity: her ability to reproduce. The hard-headed careerist who is wiling to pay to put off the ticking of her biological clock. That or – god forbid – the women who ends up single, childless and alone.

But that may be changing, in part thanks to an unlikely patron saint: the Man.

This week, Facebook and Apple acknowledged publicly for the first time that they are or will pay for elective egg freezing for female employees, a process by which women surgically preserve healthy eggs on ice until they’re ready to become parents, at which point they begin the process of in vitro fertilization. Facebook, which told NBC News it has had the policy in place since the start of the year, will cover up to $20,000 under its “lifetime surrogacy reimbursement” program under Aetna (a typical cost of the procedure is around $10,000 fee, plus annual storage fees.) Apple will begin coverage in 2015.

There are other companies who cover the procedure, too: Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase tell TIME that their coverage includes preventative freezing. According to interviews with employees, Microsoft includes some preventative coverage, too. And sources say Google is weighing the coverage option for 2015.

The revelations appeared to unleash more immediate questions than they answered: Were these companies simply putting even more pressure on women to keep working and put their personal lives on the back burner? Was it a narrow effort by prosperous tech companies to recruit , or retain, female talent in an industry whose gender breakdown remains dismal? Or was it a step toward actually legitimizing the procedure, and leveling the playing field for women? Could the move – and the public nature of it — destigmatize the practice for good?

It’s been two years since the American Society of Reproductive Medicine lifted the “experimental” label from egg freezing -- a procedure initially created to help patients undergoing chemotherapy — leading to a surge in demand. Yet because the non-experimental technology is so new, researchers say it’s too soon to give real qualitative efficacy data. (While doctors typically recommend women freeze at least 18 eggs — which often requires two rounds of the procedure – there’s no guarantee that the eggs will lead to successful pregnancy when they are implanted via IVF years later.)

Nonetheless, the very idea that there might be a way for women to build their careers and their personal lives on a timetable of their own choice — not dictated by their biology — is so intriguing that single women are filling informational seasions at clinics and holding egg freezing “parties” to hear about it. They are flocking to financing services like Eggbanxx, which reports it is fielding more than 60 inquiries a week. And on email lists and at dinner parties, women trade egg freezing tips like recipe binders: which insurers cover what, the right terminology to use when asking for it, side effects of hormone injections that stimulate egg production and the outpatient procedure one most go through to retrieve the eggs.

Sometimes, they’re talking about careers: the relief of knowing that – with your eggs on ice – there is simply more flexibility around when to make the decision to give birth. But more often, they’re talking about dating: the “huge weight lifted off your shoulders,” as one single 32-year-old friend described it, knowing that you no longer have assess every potential prospect as a future husband and father.

For women of a certain age, reared with the reliability of birth control, this could, as the technology improves, be our generation’s Pill — a way to circumvent a biological glass ceiling that, even as we make social and professional progress, does not budge. Women today have autonomy – and choice – over virtually every aspect of their lives: marriage, birth control, income, work. And yet our biology is the one thing we can’t control.

“It’s almost as if evolution hasn’t kept up with feminism,” says a friend, a 34-year-old Facebook employee who underwent the procedure using the new policy this year. “But I think that, like with anything, the culture takes a while to catch up. And sometimes it takes a few big people to come out and say, ‘We’re doing this’ to really change things.”

From a practical standpoint, covering elective egg freezing makes sense. It’s an economic issue that could help companies, especially tech companies, attract women and correct a notorious gender imbalance. “Personally – and confidentially – this made me immediately look at Facebook jobs again,” a 37-year-old marketing executive who worked at both Facebook and Google tells me. “I’m looking to control my career and choices around motherhood on my terms, and a company that would allow me to do so — and provide financial support for those choices — is one I’d willingly return to.”

It’s a social issue, against a backdrop that men and women are waiting longer than ever to tie the knot, and there are now more single people in this country than at any other moment in history. (No, you’re not some kind of failure because you haven’t met someone and reproduced by 35. You’re just…. well, normal.)

And for businesses, of course, it’s a financial issue too. As the Lancet put it in a medical paper earlier this month, covering egg freezing as a preventative measure could save businesses from having to pay for more expensive infertility treatments down the line – a benefit that is already mandated in 15 states. As Dr. Elizabeth Fino, a fertility specialist at New York University, explains it: with all the money we spend on IVF each year, and multiple cycles of it, why wouldn’t healthcare companies jump on this as a way to save? And while success rates for IVF procedures vary significantly by individual, and are often low, using younger eggs can increase the chances of pregnancy.

“Companies with good insurance packages have been paying for IVF for a long time. Why should egg freezing be any different?” says Ruthie Ackerman, a 37-year-old digital strategist who had her egg freezing procedure covered through her husband’s insurance.

Egg freezing is also, of course, an issue of equality: a potential solution to the so-called myth of opting out. An equalizer among both gender – men don’t usually worry about their sperm going bad, or at least not with quite the same intensity or cost – and class (the procedure has typically only been available for those who could afford it). The way egg freezing has worked so far, many women don’t necessarily return to retrieve their eggs. Still others get pregnant naturally. And so, even though it’s too soon to say how successful the procedure down the line will be — for women who return, thaw, and begin the process of IVF — it’s almost like an insurance policy. An egalitarian “peace of mind.”

“I have insurance policies in every other area of my life: my condo, my car, work insurance,” says another friend, another employee of one of these firms, another woman who doesn’t want to be named, but for whom hopefully this will soon no longer be an issue. She points to a recent survey, published in the in the journal Fertility and Sterility, which found that a majority of patients who froze their eggs reported feeling “empowered.” “This is my body, and arguably the most important thing that you could ever have in your life,” she continues. “Why wouldn’t I at least protect that asset?”

And if your boss is offering it up to you for free, what do you have to lose?

Jessica Bennett is a contributing columnist at Time.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. She writes regularly for the New York Times and is a contributing editor for special projects for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s nonprofit, Lean In. You can follow her @jess7bennett.

Read next: Perk Up: Facebook and Apple Now Pay for Women to Freeze Eggs

TIME Iceland

Iceland Is Running a Gender-Equality Conference Without Any Women

Iceland's Foreign Minister Sveinsson addresses the 68th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York
Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, minister for foreign affairs of Iceland, addresses the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York Sept. 30, 2013. Adrees Latif—Reuters

The "Barbershop" conference aims to encourage men to talk about gender equality among themselves

Iceland is organizing a gender-equality conference that won’t have any female attendees.

In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Monday, Icelandic Minister for Foreign Affairs and External Trade Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson said the “Barbershop” conference aims to bring together a group of men discussing gender equality among themselves, focusing particularly on violence against women.

“For our part, we want to bring men and boys to the table on gender equality in a positive way,” he said, describing the first-of-its-kind conference as an “exceptional contribution to the Beijing+20 and #HeforShe campaigns.”

The event will take place in January and will be co-hosted by the South American nation of Suriname, according to Sveinsson.

TIME Opinion

How to Reclaim the F-Word? Just Call Beyoncé

Beyonce performs onstage at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, Calif.
Beyonce performs onstage at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, Calif. Jason LaVeris—FilmMagic/Getty Images

Beyonce’s brand of empowerment isn’t perfect, but her VMA performance on Sunday accomplished what activists could not: She took feminism to the masses.

Militant. Radical. Man-hating. If you study word patterns in media over the past two decades, you’ll find that these are among the most common terms used to talk about the word “feminist.” Yes, I did this — with the help of a linguist and a tool called the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which is the world’s largest database of language.

I did a similar search on Twitter, with the help of Twitter’s data team, looking at language trends over the past 48 hours. There, the word patterns were more simple. Search “feminist,” and you’ll likely come up with just one word association: Beyoncé.

That’s a product of Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards, of course, in which the 33-year-old closed out the show with an epic declaration of the F-Word, a giant “FEMINIST” sign blazing from behind her silhouette.

As far as feminist endorsements are concerned, this was the holy grail: A word with a complicated history reclaimed by the most powerful celebrity in the world. And then she projected it — along with its definition, by the Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — into the homes of 12 million unassuming Americans. Beyoncé would become the subject of two-thirds of all tweets about feminism in the 24 hours after her appearance, according to a data analysis by Twitter, making Sunday the sixth-highest day for volume of conversation about feminism since Twitter began tracking this year (the top three were days during #YesAllWomen).

“What Bey just did for feminism, on national television, look, for better or worse, that reach is WAY more than anything we’ve seen,” the writer Roxane Gay, author of the new book, Bad Feminist, declared (on Twitter, naturally).

“HELL YES!” messaged Jennifer Pozner, a writer and media critic.

“It would have been unthinkable during my era,” said Barbara Berg, a historian and the author of Sexism in America.

Feminism may be enjoying a particular celebrity moment, but let’s just remember that this wasn’t always the case. Feminism’s definition may be simple — it is the social, political and economic equality of the sexes, as Adichie put it — and yet its interpretation is anything but. “There was only about two seconds in the history of the world in which women really welcomed [feminism],” Gail Collins, The New York Times columnist and author of America’s Women once told me in 2010, for an article I was writing about young women and feminism. “There’s something about the word that just drives people nuts.”

Over the past 40 years in particular, as Berg explains it, the word has seen it all: exultation, neutrality, uncertainty, animosity. “Feminazi” has become a perennial (and favorite) insult of the religious right (and of Rush Limbaugh). In 1992, in a public letter decrying a proposal for an equal rights amendment (the horror!) television evangelist Pat Robertson hilariously proclaimed that feminism would cause women to “leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.”

Even the leaders of the movement have debated whether the word should be abandoned (or rebranded). From feminist has evolved the words womanist, humanist, and a host of other options — including, at one point, the suggestion from Queen Bey herself for something a little bit more catchy, “like ‘bootylicious.'” (Thank God that didn’t stick.)

It wasn’t that the people behind these efforts (well, most of them anyway) didn’t believe in the tenets of feminism — to the contrary, they did. But there was just something about identifying with that word. For some, it was pure naiveté: We were raised post-Title IX, and there were moments here and there where we thought maybe we didn’t need it. (We could be whatever we wanted, right? That was the gift of the feminists who came before us.) But for others, it was a notion of what the word had come to represent: angry, extreme, unlikeable. As recently as last year, a poll by the Huffington Post/YouGov found that while 82 percent of Americans stated that they indeed believe women and men should be equals, only 20 percent of them were willing to identify as feminists.

Enter… Beyoncé. The new enlightened Beyoncé, that is. Universally loved, virtually unquestioned, and flawless, the 33-year-old entertainer seems to debunk every feminist stereotype you’ve ever heard. Beyoncé can’t be a man-hater – she’s got a man (right?). Her relationship – whatever you believe about the divorce rumors – has been elevated as a kind of model for egalitarian bliss: dual earners, adventurous sex life, supportive husband and an adorable child held up on stage by daddy while mommy worked. Beyoncé’s got the confidence of a superstar but the feminine touch of a mother. And, as a woman of color, she’s speaking to the masses – a powerful voice amid a movement that has a complicated history when it comes to inclusion.

No, you don’t have to like the way Beyoncé writhes around in that leotard – or the slickness with which her image is controlled – but whether you like it or not, she’s accomplished what feminists have long struggled to do: She’s reached the masses. She has, literally, brought feminism into the living rooms of 12.4 million Americans. “Sure, it’s just the VMAs,” says Pozner. “She’s not marching in Ferguson or staffing a battered woman’s shelter, but through her performance millions of mainstream music fans are being challenged to think about feminism as something powerful, important, and yes, attractive. And let’s head off at the pass any of the usual hand-wringing about her sexuality — Madonna never put the word FEMINIST in glowing lights during a national awards show performance. This is, as we say… a major moment.”

It’s what’s behind the word that matters, of course. Empty branding won’t change policy (and, yes, we need policy change). But there is power in language, too.

“Looking back on those early days of feminism, you can see that the word worked as a rallying cry,” says Deborah Tannen, aa linguist at Georgetown University and the author of You Just Don’t Understand, about men and women in conversation. “It gave women who embraced [it] a sense of identity and community — a feeling that they were part of something, and a connection to others who were a part of it too. Beyoncé’s taking back this word and identifying with it is huge.”

Bennett is a contributing columnist at TIME.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. A former Newsweek senior writer and executive editor of Tumblr, she is a contributing editor for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s foundation, Lean In. You can follow her @jess7bennett.

TIME gender equality

France Eases Abortion Restrictions in Sweeping Equality Law

France's Women, Youth and Sports Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem arrives to attend a dinner at the Elysee Palace in Paris May 5, 2014.
France's Women, Youth and Sports Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem arrives to attend a dinner at the Elysee Palace in Paris May 5, 2014. Gonzalo Fuentes—Reuters

Called "historic" step in gender equality push

France passed legislation this week allowing women to get abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy with no questions asked, lifting previous restrictions as part of a sweeping and historic law meant to increase gender equality in the country.

Previously, a French woman could only get an abortion if her condition put “her in a situation of distress.” The new law, signed Tuesday by French President François Hollande, also ensures women can access information about obtaining abortions, Reuters reports. The legislation provides protections for domestic abuse victims and supports more equal division of childcare and representation in politics. And it strives to creates a more equal job environment by encouraging men to take paternity leaves.

“At a time when women in many parts of the world, including in the United States and Spain, are seeing their rights restricted, violated, and disrespected, France has set an important example for the rest of the globe with its progressive stance toward reproductive health care,” Lilian Sepúlveda, director of the Global Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. “Ensuring a woman’s right to control her fertility is fundamental to achieving gender equality. But passing today’s law is just the first step—we now look to French policymakers to ensure women see the benefits of this historic law implemented this year.”

When the law was initially introduced, France’s minister for women’s rights Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told the Guardian: “I don’t believe that history is going to spontaneously take us forward, so going towards more equality needs us to be politically proactive.”

[Reuters]

TIME career

It Will Take 75 Years for Women to Achieve Equal Pay, Says Oxfam

Poverty, discrimination and unpaid labor are among the barriers facing women

Women still have a ways to go until they’re paid the same as men. According to a new report released today by Oxfam, the gender pay gap will likely close in 75 years, as long as it continues to melt away at its current rate.

The agency is encouraging G20 countries to asses their agendas on gender inequality when they summit in Australia later this year. Oxfam asks member countries to extend their commitment to tackling barriers to women’s social and economic participation set in the 2012 Los Cabos Declaration.

Long-standing gender discrimination and poverty prevent women from realizing their full economic potential, which can suppress a country’s economic growth. The report works to address the systematic issues present in member countries by incorporating gender equality measures in fiscal economic policy and social infrastructure and governance—one measure suggests redistributing taxes to compensate for wage gaps.

With the worlds largest economies, G20 members have a lot to gain from a gender-equitable economy. Oxfam’s Executive Director Winnie Byanyima explained the shortcomings. “Meanwhile, if women’s paid employment rates were the same as men’s, the USA’s GDP would increase by nine per cent, the Eurozone’s by 13 per cent and Japan’s by 16 per cent,” said Byanyima.

The 2014 Australian G20 Summit will be held in Brisbane this coming November.

TIME

Paid Paternity Leave Saved My Family

"Paternity leave is not only good for families, it’s good for business."
"Paternity leave is not only good for families, it’s good for business." Chad Springer—Getty Images/Image Source

Before we talk (some more) about equal parenting, we need to enable dads to spend time at home

“So, how was your vacation?”

I can’t tell you how many people asked me that question when I returned from paternity leave following the births of my sons. Despite the sleepless nights, constant uncertainty, feedings every 90 minutes, and the avalanche of meconium-filled diapers, that’s how my paternity leave was seen by many. A vacation. Some time off to relax and recharge. Because what earthly purpose can men serve in the aftermath of childbirth? And what could businesses possibly have to gain by investing in paternity leave?

The answer, in both cases, is “more than you know.” Dads both want and need to be home in those early days, but it’s not so easy—an issue addressed yesterday at the White House Summit on Working Dads.

When my older son was born in 2008, my employer was one of the 85% of American companies that offers no paid paternity leave (only 1% fewer than offer paid maternity leave). That left me cobbling together nearly two weeks of vacation and sick time to help out at home, and despite having access to 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA leave, our financial situation at the time rendered that option moot.

During those first two weeks, my wife had health issues combined with the onslaught of severe postpartum depression. When I had to go back to work, I was out of time and options, a confused and harried new dad bidding a teary-eyed farewell to a wife struggling to take care of herself as well as a new baby. The stress from not having enough time at home quickly began to impact my work, resulting in an unhappy and unproductive employee, and a new dad who felt like he was constantly drowning.

By the time my second child was born last year, I had switched companies and had access to two weeks of fully paid paternity leave in addition to vacation time — all of which I was encouraged to take if I needed it. That extra time (and positive company attitude) was invaluable to me; it gave me peace of mind.

I was able to take care of my wife. I was able to supervise my oldest’s transition from only child to big brother. But most importantly, I was free to bond with my baby. I held him, changed him, got up at night to support my wife during feedings, learned his sounds, and developed a routine. Whether it’s moms striving for perfection or dads being hesitant (or already back at work) during those first few weeks, uninvolved dads lose out on so much of that initial experience that serves as a foundation for fatherhood. But paternity leave allowed me to be an active participant in parenting, as opposed to a bystander.

If we’re ever going to do more than just talk about men being equal partners in parenting, we need to make sure both parents can afford to have paid leave. So when discussing paid paternity leave, two vital things need to happen.

First off, companies need to recognize the societal shifts underway in America. Namely, more women are entering the workforce and becoming breadwinners, while men are asking if they can “have it all” as they place a greater emphasis on balancing work and life.

Second, fathers need to feel assured they’re not putting their career at risk by taking paternity leave, and that there’s no shame in it. However, that is easier said than done when people like New York Mets infielder Daniel Murphy — who attended the White House summit — are publicly blasted for taking paternity leave instead of immediately going back to work.

Murphy, who missed the first two games of this season for the birth of his son, was lambasted by sports radio hosts Boomer Esiason, Craig Carton, and Mike Francesa. Esiason said he would’ve had his wife schedule a c-section before the start of the season, while his co-host Carton said “You get your ass back to your team and you play baseball…there’s nothing you can do, you’re not breastfeeding the kid.”

Employers who maintain this antiquated attitude are putting themselves at risk in numerous ways. And Esiason’s suggestion (which he later apologized for) to have an elective c-section is especially troubling—it’s a major surgery that significantly extends recovery time, meaning dads would be home for even longer helping their wives recover. Call me crazy, but I don’t think sidelining your wife for a couple extra weeks just so you can go back to work sooner makes you a “real man.” Real men take care of their families.

Companies that refuse to identify what employees value will fail to attract top talent, be unable to retain existing high performers, and suffer increased turnover costs. As more and more men focus on things like paternity leave, flexible scheduling, and working from home, it becomes clear that happy employees with a satisfactory work/life balance will be more productive and ultimately increase the bottom line.

Paternity leave is not only good for families, it’s good for business. Hopefully America will follow the lead of so many other countries, and start offering mandatory paid leave for mothers and fathers. But trust me – it’s not a vacation.

 

Aaron Gouveia is a husband, father of two boys, and writes for his site, The Daddy Files.

TIME career

A Letter to America’s CEOs: Gender Parity Is an Economic Imperative

Dear CEOs and business leaders,

As the size and global span of corporations have grown over the years, so too has their commitment to social change. Heightened competition coupled with a more sophisticated and demanding consumer has led to increased innovation, enhanced corporate social responsibility efforts, and in turn, greater value for both business and the communities they serve.

From poverty to education – our global corporate community has made significant inroads to drive social awareness and inspire a call to action for greater progress and prosperity. But for all the good we have accomplished together, it seems that some of the biggest challenges still left to tackle can be found within the walls of our own institutions.

When it comes to gender equality and cultivating a stronger foundation for female leadership, have we gone far enough? If we are to be candid, I am afraid I’m not so sure.

A simple Google search reveals a lot about the current thinking about women. If you type ‘women should’ into the search bar, Google’s autocomplete suggestions offer insight into what people think women shouldn’t do rather than what they should: ‘women should not vote,’ ‘women should not work,’ and ‘women should be seen and not heard.’

Because humans take their subliminal cues about how to behave from whom they perceive to be the majority, this is a powerful way to reinforce negative social norms – in the home, in our communities and in our places of work.

The benefit and value of female leadership in the workplace is clear. In fact, a 2010 global survey of executives found that 72% agree there is a direct connection between gender diversity and business success. Yet only 28% say it is a top 10 priority for senior leadership.

These numbers suggest that it may not be as much about shattering the glass ceiling but rather an onus for all of us to prime the pump along the way. The best outcomes are had when change comes from within – and in the case of gender empowerment, it needs to start at the top.

Our company takes no moral high ground to lecture others. We too have much work to do when it comes to improving gender equality and reducing barriers to success throughout our own institution. But as a global organization with employees across 85 offices worldwide, it’s an issue we cannot afford to ignore.

What we have found at Ogilvy Public Relations is that by engaging both men and women on this issue, we can achieve greater gender equality across all levels of leadership.

Men have a critical role to play in advancing diversity and inclusion efforts, particularly in the realm of gender equality and bias. Yet too often, men stay firmly affixed to the sidelines – not necessarily because they don’t care, but because they don’t see it as their place or responsibility.

Last year, Ogilvy launched a Women’s Leadership Professional Network, sponsored directly by our executive team as an opportunity to facilitate mentorship, sponsorship and training programs for gender bias and empowerment within the organization.

Today the WLPN group has more than 200 participants in our New York office alone – and many of them are men. Together these men and women are helping create a new narrative to effectuate change and make meaningful improvements to our corporate culture.

To be sure, crafting a great narrative is no substitute for genuine action. But if we can couple that real work to change gender bias with stories that prove a new majority of males has arisen – we can redirect social norms.

Warren Buffett famously said that one of the reasons for his great success was that he was only competing with half the population. Today fortunately that couldn’t be farther from the case – and we are all better for it. The competitive landscape is filled with bright women and men ready to tackle our future challenges. But if we are to maximize this potential, we must reframe the gender gap – not as a women’s issue – but as a moral and economic imperative that must be solved together.

 

Christopher Graves is the Global CEO of Ogilvy Public Relations and serves on the board of its parent company, the Ogilvy & Mather Group. Mr. Graves is a member of the UN Women’s Private Sector Leadership Advisory Council (PSLAC), a CEO-level taskforce designed to advance global work in the areas of economic empowerment, violence against women, and closing the women’s funding gap.

TIME India

Gender Issues Could Be a Game Changer in India’s Elections

German President Joachim Gauck Official Visit To India
Karuna Nundy, seen here addressing German President Joachim Gauck on the role of women in India in February, is a founder of the Womanifesto campaign Getty Images

India's 'Womanifesto' movement seeks to persuade major parties to adopt its six-point plan on gender issues as part of their own platforms — and with women making up 49% of the electorate, it's having some success

As India enters its second week of nationwide polls, the issue of female safety from sexual violence is coming second only to corruption in the minds of voters — and politicians, it seems, aren’t taking them seriously. According to a joint survey by Marketing and Development Research Associates and online campaign forum Avaaz, over 90% of Indians want tackling sexual violence treated as a priority, and 75% are not satisfied with the promises made by politicians on the issue so far.

Ever since the brutal gang rape and death of a 23-year-old in Delhi in December 2012, the country has agonized over the problem of sexual violence. But despite the protest marches and nationwide campaigning, many see a dearth of meaningful content in party manifestos when it comes to tackling the problem.

To help redress this, 70 independent civil-society activists have launched the so-called Womanifesto 2014, which sets out positions on female economic empowerment, female access to education and political representation, the faster administration of justice in cases of sexual violence, and better policing.

“Laws and government policies have improved, where voyeurism, stalking harassment are now specific crimes, but we need structured changes across the board,” explains Karuna Nundy, a Supreme Court lawyer who co-authored the six-point document.

According to Nundy, the promises that have been made on women so far are condescending and paternalistic — “as a sister or a daughter you will be protected, but it comes with certain conditions and also punishments when they are not met.”

She says that instead of “promising safety,” political leaders should be “guaranteeing freedoms” without moral conditions attached.

The Womanifesto movement has been knocking on the doors of different party offices with some success. The Aam Aadmi Party was the first to endorse all six points and Congress is the latest to incorporate the document into its own platform. Given its strong lead, Bharatiya Janata Party is a crucial next target.

“There are a few vague commitments on their manifesto, very thin on the ground and ad hoc,” points out Nundy.

Because women make up 49% of the electorate, the Womanifesto group is also attempting to mobilize female voters at all levels. They contend that if Indian women across the board came together on the issue of gender rights, they would constitute an extremely powerful block — one that could hold politicians to account.

“If this [document] were to become the common minimum program for any government that came to power and for the electorate that holds them accountable, we would have achieved success,” says Nundy.

TIME feminism

Marlo Thomas: Free to Be… All These Years Later

Marlo Thomas in the Free to Be ... You and Me ABC-TV Special on March 11, 1974.
Marlo Thomas in the Free to Be ... You and Me ABC-TV Special on March 11, 1974. Getty Images

It was only a giggle and five words, but it told us our work was cut out for us.

The year was 1974, and my friend, producer Carole Hart, and I were deep into creating a TV special based on our children’s LP that celebrated gender and racial equality. Filled with songs and stories and poems, the project encouraged kids to realize that their dreams were not only boundless, but achievable. Our title for the project: Free to Be…You and Me.

For one scene in the special, we’d decided to interview children about how they envisioned their lives one day. This segment, we felt, would underscore that people had to be taught to be sexist; and that little children had not yet been socialized with gender stereotypes.

“What would you like to be when you grow up?” we asked one precious, curly-headed preschooler, the tape rolling as we waited for her answer.

“I want to be a singer or an ice skater,” she chirped.

Okay, we thought, so far so good. But we needed more.

“Would you like to be anything else?” we led the little witness. “Like a doctor, maybe?”

That’s when the giggles erupted.

“Oh, no!” the little girl said emphatically. “Mans is doctor.”

Oh, my God. She was only four, and we were already too late.

So we dug in, kept writing, and the Free to Be…You and Me special would go on to win the Emmy and the Peabody, adding to its track record as a gold record album and a New York Times bestselling book. It is the TV special that is celebrating its 40th birthday this week.

And all these years later, those of us who created the project remain proud of the impact it had. It had entered the public consciousness as an entertainment, but remained in the public conscience as a firm-footed declaration that we are all free-to-be. And, most important, it planted the seeds of gender equality in a positive, uplifting way. In story after story, song after song (“Boy Meets Girl,” “When We Grow Up,” “Glad to Have a Friend Like You”), we focused on the friendship between girls and boys. Unlike when I was growing up, when we actually had separate playgrounds, Free to Be would give all kids one glorious playground on which to run free.

For all the critical acclaim the project earned, our greatest vote of support came from librarians and educators across the country, who began to teach from the book and the record (and still do today), making it part of the education curriculum in 35 states.

The funny thing is, the project had begun for the smallest of reasons: because I couldn’t find a decent bedtime storybook for my little, four-year-old niece, Dionne — one that would not put her and her mind to sleep. I wanted a book that would celebrate who she was and all the possibilities of who she could be. So I decided I would create my own.

When we first began to work on the LP our collaborators (smart and funny people like Carl Reiner, Betty Miles, Mel Brooks, Carol Hall, Herb Gardner, Shel Silverstein, Bruce Hart and Stephen Lawrence) and I realized that we were, in effect, rewriting our own childhoods, imbuing them with the freedoms we’d often longed for as kids.

Like, it was perfectly fine for a boy to have (and love) a doll.

And that girls didn’t have to marry to feel fulfilled (and, if they did marry, they could certainly pick their own partner).

And that, yes, it was all right to cry.

We were on a mission, all of us, obsessed with changing the world one five-year-old at a time, and the reaction to the project was beyond our wildest dreams. But our gratification for the immediacy of Free to Be’s success is nothing to compared to how our message eventually took hold among ordinary people. More than 40 years later, I am still approached on the street by new moms and dads who tell me that they’re counting the days until their daughters and sons are old enough to begin listening to the record. Or the many men — straight and gay — who hold my hand and thank me for “William’s Doll,” and tell me how much it meant to them to see William, a boy who loves and cares for his doll (though it could as easily have been a teddy bear or a stuffed turtle), giving vent to emotions that are not male or female but desirable and human. Or the letters I get from people everywhere, who still have their original dog-eared edition of the book on their shelves and are now reading it to their grandchildren.

But the most rewarding comment would come just a few years ago, when I interviewed Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for a book I was working on. When I left a message at her office, I wondered if she’d even know who I was. But when she returned my call, the first thing she talked about was Free To Be, telling me she loved it.

“Really?” I said. “Did you read it to your children?”

“Oh, yes,” she replied. “And I always take it with me when I speak on feminism.” I’ve never had a better review.

There are some outliers who insist that Free to Be threw a permanent wrench into the natural order of things; that it sparked the Mommy Wars and tipped over the male-dominated corporate ladder and created an entire generation of wimpy men and bossy women who “lean in” to their ambition. And yet I have drawers full of the most moving letters from men and women who grew up on “Free To Be,” and are now sharing it with their children. So if grenades are still being tossed, and these conversations are still being had, then I would contend that Free to Be…You and Me remains as relevant as when it was made, and just as cutting-edge. The whole purpose of the project was to open little eyes and ears to a message of freedom. And, as always, it’s important that grown-ups open up their eyes and ears, too.

Happy Birthday, Free to Be. You still look great!

Actress, author and activist Marlo Thomas writes commentary and hosts video programming for AOL and The Huffington Post at marlothomas.com.

TIME Human Rights

Calling All Men: Gender Equality Isn’t Just a Female Cause

Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.
Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Javier Sirvent for TIME

For International Women's Day, Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General, urges men to make their mark by crossing the line united and joining women as a powerful force for gender equality

Dear Men and Boys of the World,

When we fought against apartheid in South Africa, which the United Nations declared a crime against humanity, the whole world took a stand. All self-respecting people—leaders of nations, religious institutions, commerce and sports—crossed the line to be on the right side of history.

The unity and purpose of the people of the world played a major role in ushering in freedom for South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela, in whose cabinet I had the honor to serve. In Mandela, a force for good was unleashed, not just for South Africa but for all of humanity. He inspired those of us who worked with him, and countless millions around the world, to stand up for a just cause.

Now it is time to marshal the same conviction, energy and cooperation on behalf of the 3.6 billion women and girls in the world. You, the men of the 21st century, can make your mark by crossing the line united and joining women as a powerful force for gender equality. It is the right thing to do. In the words of Mandela, “for every moment we remain silent, we conspire against our women.”

This isn’t just a female cause. We have rising evidence that everyone, not just women, benefits from gender equality. Did you know that if women farmers had the same tools and fertilizer as men in agriculture, we would reduce hunger by up to 150 million people? Fortune 500 companies with the most women managers were found to deliver a 34 per cent higher return to shareholders. Discriminating against women comes at a cost to humanity and nations and denies women and girls their inalienable rights.

Yes, women are strong, bold, and brave, but men and boys also have a big role to play in ending gender inequality. It is both the right thing and the smart thing to do. It’s time to influence change in society. I know many of you desire a better world for women and girls and more than a few of you are actively working on bringing about positive changes. But there is much more to do. We need your action and your voices to be louder and to help us change some of the hardships women face.

More than 60 million girls worldwide are denied access to education. One in three women in the world is a victim of physical or sexual violence, the most humiliating and dehumanizing form of discrimination. Most of this violence happens at the hand of a partner or relative within her own home. Today two-thirds of the global illiterate population is women. If trends continue in this way, poor girls in Sub-Saharan Africa will not reach universal access to primary education until 2086.

These are your sisters, mothers, wives, partners, daughters, nieces, aunts, cousins and friends. They have hopes and beautiful dreams for themselves, their families, communities and the world. If many of their dreams were to come true, the world would be a much better place for all of humanity.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th, I issue a call to men and boys and invite you to take action wherever you are and support the SHE Imperative, a new global initiative to bring women’s issues to the forefront and effectuate change through civil engagement, corporate commitment, and policy changes worldwide.

SHE has three key components: First, make sure SHE is Secure and Safe from gender-based violence. Second: Make sure SHE has her Human rights respected, including her reproductive rights. And third: Ensure that SHE has Economic Empowerment through Education, participation and leadership.

This sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet if we applied this imperative, the world would be a very different and far better place. SHE would enjoy equal opportunity, access to education and no longer be the face of poverty, and her gender will not decide her status and place in society.

I invite you to join me and the women and men of the world who have led many long struggles for the gender equality. In Africa, we have a saying that I want to leave with you: ‘If you go alone you go fast, but if we go together, we go far’. Let us go far together.

You can find more about the SHE initiative and ways to help at www.heforshe.org.

Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Executive Director of UN Women.

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