Mavis and Jay Leno hosted an event Tuesday night in Beverly Hills to recognize the courage of people fighting on the front lines for women’s rights worldwide.
The seventh annual Eleanor Roosevelt Awards for Global Women’s Rights presented by the Feminist Majority Foundation were held at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Mavis Leno has been a member of the Feminist Majority Foundation since 1997 and is chair of the organization’s Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls.
“I’ve been a feminist all my life and I just felt like I wanted to give back,” Mavis Leno said. “I felt there were some things that feminists in the U.S. weren’t addressing, like helping our sisters in other countries, so the Feminist Majority Foundation was exactly what I was looking for, because it helps women in the U.S. and globally.”
The Lenos host the awards ceremony every year because it is an effort they both support, Jay Leno said.
“It’s a great cause—and there are a lot of great causes out there, so you try to do them all—but this is a very special one for us,” he said.
The event brings awareness to how women are treated in other countries such as Afghanistan, Jay Leno said.
“When you talk to people, they think Afghanistan has always been that way, but it hasn’t. Women used to be doctors and lawyers,” Jay Leno said. “The Taliban is like modern day slavery and it’s happening right in front of people’s eyes and they don’t see it.”
This year’s awards honored four women who have worked to make the world a better place for women and girls, often at great personal risk to themselves. The honorees were Yolette Jeanty, a leader of one of Haiti’s most powerful feminist organizations; Renee Montagne, correspondent and co-host of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition; Sunita Viswanath, founder of Women for Afghan Women; and Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and leader of the democracy movement in Myanmar.
“People need to know what these women are doing. We need to get money to these grass-roots organizations, and that’s one of the things the Feminist Majority Foundation does,” said Katherine Spillar, executive editor of Ms. magazine and one of the evening’s presenters. “We try to make sure that humanitarian assistance money is earmarked for women and girls in areas where it is going.”
In Haiti, Jeanty leads Kay Fanm in its efforts to eradicate rape and violence against women in the aftermath of last year's earthquake.
“I feel very honored, not just for myself, but for my entire country, and for the organization that I am representing,” Jeanty said, speaking in French through a translator. “This is an opportunity to let people know about the situation in Haiti. Women were already living in a precarious situation, and it has deteriorated since the earthquake.”
Montagne has traveled to Afghanistan five times for NPR, reporting on the hardships and triumphs of women and girls in that war-torn country.
“It was an inspiring place to go,” Montagne said. “You start caring about the women there—and they are very strong women.”
Viswanath founded Women for Afghan Women 10 years ago in New York City. The organization establishes centers for women in Afghanistan whose lives are threatened by domestic violence.
“Over the years we have grown by leaps and bounds in Afghanistan. We have lawyers who help women who experience human rights violations,” Viswanath said. “Our methods are very community-based. We solve the problems using the traditions of the community.”
Suu Kyi has remained a tireless advocate for human rights in Myanmar, despite serving 15 years under house arrest. Suu Kyi was not present to receive her award because, while she has been released from house arrest, she cannot leave the country.
“If she leaves, they won’t let her back in,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. “She has led the democracy movement in Burma [now known as Myanmar] with great personal sacrifice.”
The awards were preceded by a silent auction and then a live auction with Jay Leno serving as auctioneer. A panel discussion was held after the awards to discuss the work of the honorees and how the work of the Feminist Majority Foundation intertwines with what they are doing.
“I don’t think people are aware of how many women’s organizations are fighting for women’s rights around the world—and in some of the most dangerous places,” Smeal said.