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Striking Back

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As a New York state senator in 1975, Carol Bellamy helped write legislation creating shelters for battered women and their children, so she was all too familiar with the specter of domestic violence and the dearth of services available to its victims. Still, nothing prepared her for what she saw in Bangladesh three years ago when she met with a support group for women who had spurned the attentions of young men. In retaliation the men had splashed battery acid in their faces. “When I think of a scar, I think of a cut,” says Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF. “But this is where parts of the face have been eaten away or part of the mouth is gone.”

Visiting at least 20 nations a year since she assumed her post in 1995, Bellamy was reminded firsthand how little protection women around the world have against even the most brutal abuses—”everything from honor killings to dowry deaths to female genital mutilation to beatings to child labor,” she says. By linking violence against women to the quality of children’s lives, she hopes to place UNICEF, ostensibly a children’s advocacy group, at the center of a global drive for women’s rights. This summer Bellamy, 58, who oversees offices in 161 countries, unveiled a UNICEF report itemizing the harrowing conditions women endure. Among the more disturbing statistics:

•From country to country, between 20 and 50 percent of women have experienced physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner or family member.

•Approximately 2 million women undergo genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision, every year.

•Only 44 countries have adopted legislation specifically addressing domestic violence.

“The report is going to have consequences,” promises Widney Brown, advocacy director of the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, an international organization that often works with UNICEF. “There’s still a sense that domestic violence isn’t such a bad thing.” Emphasizing literacy and employment opportunities, UNICEF members involved in the study have pressed local officials to implement domestic-abuse legislation, held workshops for local judges on violence issues and even urged police forces to hire more women. “You try to get your messages out in whatever way you can,” says Bellamy.

A lifelong activist, Bellamy worked to elect John F. Kennedy President while she was a student at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. She then went on to Guatemala for two years as a volunteer for the Peace Corps—an organization she headed from 1990 to 1995. “I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed liberal-arts graduate ready to save the world,” she says, laughing. “I was absolutely unqualified to do anything.” During her stint in Guatemala, Bellamy’s duties included raising chickens, working with CARE to improve children’s health and nutrition and hosting a how-to radio program called The Housewife Hour. “This was 500 ways to use a banana, boil your water and build a latrine,” she recalls.

On her return to New York City, Bellamy took a more conventional route to public service. After graduating from New York University Law School, she joined and later led what is now known as the Lawyers Alliance for New York, one of the biggest pro bono legal groups in New York City. She then served as Mayor John Lindsay’s assistant commissioner of mental health, won two terms in the state senate and then became the city’s first female City Council president. “She really is the pathmaker for the Hillary Clintons—the women who will now be able to win bigger offices,” says Ellen Chesler, her former chief of staff.

A staunch Democrat, Bellamy grew up with brother Robert, now 56 and an education administrator in Georgia, in a “good rib-rock Republican family” in Scotch Plains, N.J. Her father, Lou, was a telephone installer and her mother, Frances, a nurse in obstetrics. “She’s the nurse who was there when you woke up and had your baby in her arms,” says Bellamy, who found her mother inspiring because of both her drive and her sense that everyone should do what he or she can to help the less fortunate. “Everyone has a contribution to make,” says Bellamy, who is single and, when not taking a long walk to unwind, can be found deep in her work. As for her own contribution, she says, “It’s not just about waving your finger and pointing. I’ve tried to encourage us to take on things that may make people a little uncomfortable.”

Nick Charles

Liza Hamm in New York City