March 10, 2009

Alumna who works to improve lives of Afghan women saluted at International Women's Day reception

"When you see something that needs to be done, start doing it. Don't wait for your coalition," stressed Rosemary Stasek '85, the keynote speaker March 8 at Cornell's Recognition Reception for Outstanding Work for the Advancement of Women. The event was part of the campus celebration for International Women's Day.

Stasek knows the activist mentality as founder of the nongovernmental organization "a little help," which focuses on improving the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan and educating Americans on issues they face. Its projects include work in women's prisons, maternity hospitals and girls' education.

Stasek was one of 25 Cornell women recognized at the event for their efforts "to better the lives of women locally and who embody the richness of internationalism" as role models, educators, activists and scholars. Their work shows how far women's rights efforts extend into the international realm of education, maternal health and advocacy, said President David Skorton, who attended the event.

But, he added, "we have a very long way to go to achieve the appropriate place of women in our society. Even in the cloistered realms of the university." To show "how we are doing as a university in the realm of gender equity," Skorton noted that while 49 percent of the student body is female, only about 26 percent of Cornell's full-time faculty and 25 percent of its administration is made up of women.

As a Cornell student, Stasek said she dreamed of making Javanese puppets but graduated as "an unwilling economics major." Eventually, she pursued a career in computer science, which led her to Silicon Valley, and then she entered local politics. As mayor of Mountain View, Calif., Stasek discovered after Sept. 11 that her district "had the largest Afghan diaspora in the world."

Stasek began working with Afghan Americans in her district to improve understanding in a time when the media, in her view, took a "private community [and] thrust [it] into the international spotlight." Then, in 2002, Stasek joined a reconstruction delegation to Afghanistan, where she became "completely and utterly captivated" by the country.

When Stasek returned to the United States, she continued to follow reconstruction efforts and found that large organizations were moving too slowly. Following her own advice, she chose not to wait for a coalition and started "a little hope" to begin grassroots efforts toward improving women's health care, education and advocacy in Afghanistan. Stasek moved to Kabul in 2005 and continues to provide women with knowledge and materials to improve their lives.

Established in 1911, International Women's Day originated with a historic march in 1908, when 15,000 New York women demanded shorter working hours, better pay and voting rights. The march inspired Americans across the country to celebrate National Women's Day annually. Three years later in Copenhagen, the holiday became international and is now officially celebrated in more than 950 events in 62 countries.

The reception was sponsored by the Cornell International Students and Scholars Office and the Women's Resource Center.

Sarah Palmer '10 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.