As powerful women from around the world gathered in a Charleston meeting room, accents mingled and experiences intertwined. The voices were different, but their concern was the same: issues affecting women.
Female United Nations permanent representatives from Romania, Turkmenistan, Bangladesh and Africa joined female South Carolina lawmakers last week to discuss the status of women in their countries.
After hearing the U.S. hasn't passed its Equal Rights Amendment and learning statistics on South Carolina women — that they earn 72 cents to every man's dollar, that almost 60 percent are uninsured or underinsured, etc. — one representative stood and said, "I'm stunned."
"I was used ... to looking up at United States as the model for perfection in absolutely every sense, including the emancipation of women," said Ambassador Simona Mirela Miculescu of Romania. "So I still cannot believe that such statistics exist in a developed and civilized state, one of the most wonderful states that I've visited in your country."
The panel discussion was part of a three-day trip to the Lowcountry for the U.N. representatives. It was organized by The Humpty Dumpty Institute, a nonprofit whose mission includes enhancing the relationship between the U.N. and the United States. Through its U.N. Across America program, it takes members to various U.S. cities outside the Northeast and introduces them to Americans from various walks of life.
The institute wants to show the representatives that "America is not New York City," said President Ralph Cwerma.
During their stay, the ambassadors toured the Clemson Coastal Research and Education Center and learned about the role rice has played in the development of the Lowcountry, attended a reception in a home on The Battery and visited St. Helena Island, where they learned about the Gullah culture.
The discussion was held at the Francis Marion Hotel and was facilitated by Jennet Robinson Alterman, executive director of the Center for Women, who shared the statistics on South Carolina women.
Miculescu said that women in her country have equal rights, but the country is still struggling with the stereotype that women are weaker.
Puseletso Adelinah Molato, economic and social affairs officer and representative of the African Union, said violence against women is an enormous problem in Sudan, while in her native Lesoto, parents choose to educate their daughters instead of their sons.
Through an interpreter, Aksoltan T. Ataeva praised the fact that in Turkmenistan, women or men can take up to three years unpaid leave after the birth of a child and come back to their jobs without affecting their salaries or retirement.
Bangladesh's Ismat Jahan shared her country's success with microcredit loans, which have increased female recipients' confidence and given them more influence in their families, and with giving girls who are the only children in families free education.
The rates of women in the world's parliaments were shared by Ambassador Anda Filip, the U.N. permanent observer to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
The world average of female members in parliaments is 18.3 percent, and the U.N. has set a goal of 30 percent. It even has considered quotas.
Some people may ask how democratic a quota is, she said. Filip's response: "How democratic is it that 51 percent of the population is represented (in a parliament) at 8 or 9 percent?"
The South Carolina legislators shared their experiences running for political office, including obstacles such as finances and the mind-set of some voters that they should stay home to raise their children.
Those in attendance included state Reps. Shannon Erickson, Anne Peterson Hutto, Jenny Horne and Vida Miller, who called the meeting "enlightening."