Women Urged to Be “the Power for Change”

Panelists at the Women in Public Service Project Institute opening ceremony (Left to right) Farah Pandith, Bushra Hyder, Erin Ennis ’92, Marufa Akter, Sochua Mu, and moderator Eva Paus

Mount Holyoke College President Lynn Pasquerella opened the Women in Public Service Project Institute on May 26 by asking the audience to “imagine a world where every girl grows up to be a woman whose talents are respected and used.”

From May 26 to June 6 at Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Simmons Colleges, 50 multinational Institute delegates will focus on creating a world where that is true.

Welcoming the delegates—and urging them to continue the work of healing and rebuilding conflict-ravaged societies—were ten female leaders who shared lessons learned in their own struggles and traded ideas about the role of women’s leadership in post-conflict societies.

Mona Sutphen (MHC’89), former deputy chief of staff for President Obama, noted commonalities in efforts to stabilize life in very different places: Myanmar and Sarajevo. “What you need is a vision for a post-conflict society, personal strength, and pragmatism,” she said. With a “recognition that justice, accountability, and rebuilding go hand in hand,” people can “slowly stitch their society back together.”

Ambassador Melanne Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, noted that “not one of the global challenges confronting us can be solved without the full participation of women, and we know from a mountain of data that investing in women is not only the right thing to do but also the smart and strategic thing to do.” She acknowledged that women have largely been shut out of discussions that shape post-conflict societies, and said, “Where women are denied rights, marginalized and shut out, societies have instability that gets worse.” She also said she was moved by a woman in Kabul who asked her to “stop looking at us as victims; start looking at us as the leaders that we are.”

Radhika Coomaraswamy, an NYU law professor who was formerly the special rapporteur on violence against women and the UN undersecretary general, shared stories of women who fit that description precisely. For example, Alice, a Rwandan woman who had been gang raped and saw her family killed, is now a member of parliament. “Many women, through their suffering, gain strength and do extraordinary things,” Coomaraswamy said.

Rangita de Silva de Alwis, director of the Women in Public Service Project, said delegates are now part of “the premier global network of leaders” and that they must finish the unfinished business of winning the full and equal participation of women. “Globally, women are conspicuously underrepresented in leadership positions in all segments of public service,” she said. “At this sluggish rate of change, women won’t reach parity for one and a half centuries!”

She urged the delegates to connect with other women’s groups. “It’s not enough for you to get to the table. You must bring other women with you. And if you are shut out of a process, create your own parallel process. When the door is shut, women have to push their agenda through the cracks.”

Following the main speakers, a panel discussed different models of reconstruction.

Sochua Mu, a member of parliament-elect in Cambodia, discussed building an opposition voice, calling women “the power for change.”

Marufa Akter, of Pakistan’s Center for Gender and Social Transformation, talked of building gender equity in politics through a regional network of parliamentarians in South Asia.

Erin Ennis (MHC ’92), vice president of the U.S.-China Business Council, talked about economic development in post-conflict societies, saying that international trade is one of the best ways Asian countries can meet their goals.

Bushra Hyder, a school director and entrepreneur, spoke movingly about living near the Afghan/Pakistani border, where terrorist attacks are frequent. “Amidst this, I have made small efforts to help moderate extremism in Pakistan,” she said modestly. Hyder started a school to give students a safe haven and “tell them we can still live with humanity. The pains and scars women and children carry are not easily forgotten. But still the resilience, strength, and power of possibility make them move ahead.”

Farah Pandith (Smith ’90), a former special representative to Muslim communities from the U.S. Department of State, talked of creating counter-narratives to fight back against extremism. “Put likeminded thinkers together around the world,” she said. “Unleash the power of civil society and give dignity to all voices, including women’s.”

That’s precisely what the Women in Public Service Project was created to do. The delegates, inspired by these accomplished role models, will spend the next two weeks learning how best to live up to their legacy.

—By Emily Harrison Weir