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Conference empowers women to be their ‘own best advocate’

First Lady Maria Shriver thinks no one should feel alone. Shriver admitted, “I need this panel.”

Speakers addressed facing death, rape, enslavement, female genital mutilation, sexual trafficking, poverty and discrimination in order to give power back to victims yesterday at the 2009 Women’s Conference at the Long Beach Convention Center. The theme was “Be Who You Are … An Architect of Change. Pass It On.”

When Shriver took the main stage, she smiled solemnly and said, “I stand before all of you with a broken heart.” Shriver’s mother passed away in August and since that day, she has been struggling with grief.

“Grief can make a liar out of you. It cracks your heart into little pieces,” Shriver said. “The real truth is that I’m not fine — my mother’s death has brought me to my knees.”

Shriver went on to share an experience she had the day after her mother’s funeral. She was walking at a beach and came across a retired nun who had once worked for Mother Theresa. That day was Aug. 15, The Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The nun told Shriver that on that day, she must go into the water.

Shriver took the woman’s hand, walked into the water fully clothed and symbolically walked into the grief and pain that had been consuming her. Shriver prayed with the woman and felt her mother caring for her and communicating with her from heaven.

“No matter how tough we are, how old we are, we never outgrow the need to be cared for … to be loved,” Shriver said.

The annual conference, produced by Shriver and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a vehicle used “to transform women inside and out — and then empower them to help transform our world as architects of change,” according to a press release.

Women such as former Cambodian sex slave Somaly Mam shared stories of battling grief, self-worth and overcoming the odds. Mam moved the crowd to tears when she pleaded for help and for love. She questioned guests, “How can I survive [when] no one loves me?”

One in every 40 Cambodian women will be sold into slavery and more than $10 billion will be made worldwide from the sex trade. Almost $40 million of that will come from Cambodia.

“It’s hard to be here and see all of you, and go home and [it] be the same,” Mam said. “I need your real actions. People [are] talking and they do nothing.”

When Mam choked on her tears and struggled to speak, the crowd applauded her with encouragement and said, “Be strong.” When Mam was able to speak again, she looked across the crowd and said, “Don’t be scared or afraid to help other people, give care and confidence to the girl in the street.”

Many other speakers and moderators like David Gregory of “Meet the Press,” Chairman of the FDIC Sheila Bair, founder and president of The Virgin Group Sir Richard Branson, and CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric gave praise to the strength of women.

Schwarzennegger said he sees Shriver as “a female Terminator. With tough decisions, I ask the almighty: my wife, Maria.”

Valerie B. Jarrett, senior adviser and assistant to the president for the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, encouraged women to make a decision and own it.

“You need to be your own best advocate,” said Jarrett, who is also the chair of The White House Council on Women and Girls.

Madeline Albright also spoke on a panel with Jarrett about respect. Speakers and panelists throughout the day discussed the amount of power women have.

“Women expect respect,” Albright said. “[We] don’t want to be told what to do.”

Eve Ensler, playwright of “The Vagina Monologues,” and a performer and activist, performed a small piece from her book “I Am An Emotional Creature.” She greeted the crowd and asked, “Are there any vaginas in the house?”

Although she was in high spirits, she was very serious in discussing her experience with meeting women who have been raped, victims of FGM, and women who have been poverty stricken, discriminated against and abused. Ensler said, “dangerous times require brave, bold, passionate responses.”

A common thread through the entire conference was for women to not feel alone. Shriver touched on the fact that the conference is the “premier forum for women.” With the support of other women and the effects of globalization, people can come together and move on from anything in any place.

Shriver said “Love, life and loss never take a holiday,” and neither should people. Speakers made it clear that being an “architect of change” is a full-time, daily job in which finding a voice and helping gives power to the powerless.

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