Samantha Power is the youngest person ever to fill the role of American ambassador to the U.N. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. She's a former Harvard professor, a law-school grad, and a journalist. She's a wife and mother. And she's also one of the most articulate, inspiring, no-BS women we've ever met. Power is on a mission to fearlessly advocate for the rights of women — and people — everywhere. She speaks up in favor of responsibility and action where she sees injustice. And at her very core, she's an outspoken humanitarian (even a casual glance at her book, A Problem From Hell: America And The Age Of Genocide, makes that readily apparent). As further proof of that fact, on September 1, 2015, she launched #FreeThe20, in partnership with the U.S. government, to highlight the plight of powerful women who are being silenced around the world and held as political prisoners. Power told Refinery29, "This year, which is the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, there’ll be a fair amount of backslapping and 'Hey, haven’t we come a long way?' And in many societies, there has been tremendous progress that can’t be belittled. But the problems that persist can feel, here at the United Nations and in institutions generally, very abstract. "Our goal in this campaign is to put a face to what remains a major problem around the world, which is that women are being silenced and girls are being silenced. They’re silenced because they’re not given a good education or they’re silenced because when they speak up in their societies, they’re judged or they’re called bossy — as Sheryl Sandberg has pointed out. Or in this much more dramatic case, and often a life-and-death case, they’re put in jail and they’re kept away from their families."
So she's highlighting 20 female political prisoners from around the world in the windows of the U.S. Mission to the U.N. and on social media.
The faces of these 20 women confront every passerby (and delegate) who visits the United Nations. The images make the point, according to Power, that "when people stand up and they’re exposing corruption, or they’re arguing for freedom of speech, or they’re showing freedom of speech by being critical of a government, or they're complaining about environmental degradation, there is still a temptation in so many parts of the world to muzzle their voices." In the video above, you can see our discussion about the campaign, the women it impacts, and why they matter. But the campaign isn't contained inside the four walls of the Mission to the United Nations. It's taken on a life of its own on social media. Men and women around the world are telling the stories of women like Chinese lawyer Wang Yu, Burmese student activist Phyoe Phyoe Aung, and Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, to name just a few.
The campaign saw universal, bipartisan support from the women in the Senate, lead by Senators Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), with a resolution to #FreeThe20.
And as the co-host of tomorrow's Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: A Commitment to Action, Chinese president Xi Jinping is under the greatest scrutiny — and many advocates, government officials, and global citizens have noted this fact. When we asked Power whether she or her office had any apprehensions about so publicly calling out visiting countries, she said, "I think it’s part of a long, and the best, tradition in American diplomacy. Human rights are central to what we stand for as a country — and if you’re really serious about human rights, it’s about real individuals. "So yeah, we’ve gotten a little feedback, needless to say, from certain delegations who aren’t finding this the best way to establish a constructive climate, to use the bureaucratic language. But this is part of what’s so great about being at the United Nations. You have a chance to speak frankly, and in this case to speak visually, about your issues of concern. And there’s a very easy way for us to pull down a portrait from any particular country — that’s for them to release the individual."
It's a powerful idea: to galvanize the world in support of women who have no voice, who work fearlessly and tirelessly to advocate for human rights and freedoms, and then are silenced and imprisoned with no due process, trial, or means of recourse. But what can a few thousand hashtagged tweets and a handful of pictures in a window really accomplish? A lot, as it turns out. On Sunday, September 20, Vietnamese prisoner Ta Phong Tan (a former police officer and anti-state blogger) was released. She was meant to be featured in the windows of the U.S. Mission to the U.N. just five days later, on Friday, September 25. Below are Ambassador Power's remarks about the importance of this moment. And the distance we still need to travel.
Later in the week, on September 23, Egypt released 100 prisoners, including Sanaa Seif, who was arrested in October 2014 for peacefully demonstrating without permission. She had been featured two days earlier.
That leaves 18 more women among the 20 in prison, plus hundreds more like them being unjustly detained around the world. So this campaign may "end" with the announcement of the twentieth woman on Ambassador Power's list, but the work ahead is just beginning.
As she points out, "Maybe [the release of these women] happens down the road, because we don’t lose sight of them, and because maybe your viewers or other people get fired up about this issue. This is just the beginning of humanizing a phenomenon. Which is that women who should be part of political debates are being silenced around the world."
In adding your own voice to this campaign, with as little as a tweet or an Instagram post, you have incredible power — and it's something we should all continue to use, vocally and frequently, for more than just selfies, #OOTDs, and #TBTs (which we love and appreciate as much as the next person — but it's nice to think about a larger value to all of those hours we log on social media, too).