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Women of the World: Educating Students for Global Citizenship
--A Q&A with Latvia's Irina Liberman '06

In and Out of Africa

On a Global Mission:
Kavita Ramdas '85 Helps Girls and Women Build New Lives by Investing in Their Dreams

Strokes of Genius:
Top Women Golfers to Compete at Mount Holyoke

--Audry Longo '05 Tees Up

News

Mount Holyoke College News and Events College Street Journal Vista

SPRING 2004 VOLUME 9, NUMBER 1

Kavita Ramdas '85 Helps Girls
and Women Build New Lives
by Investing in Their Dreams

When Kavita N. Ramdas '85, president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, says that standing with women who are making peace, challenging injustice, and creating change is the organization's everyday work, she means it literally. During her eight-year tenure, Ramdas has supported South African domestic workers in their fight for minimum wage and unemployment rights, empowered teenage girls in Uganda to denounce the brutal rite of female genital mutilation, and helped inspire more than 3,000 women to run for political office in Cambodia. In 2003, the Mount Holyoke trustee visited groups of women and girls in Ghana, India, Pakistan, Turkey, and Afghanistan. This year she will meet with women from Sierra Leone, Ukraine, Cambodia, and Iran.

The San Francisco-based Global Fund (www.globalfundforwomen.org), founded in 1987, is the largest grant-making foundation in the world focusing exclusively on women's rights outside the United States. To date, it has awarded over $31 million to more than 2,200 groups in 160 countries, groups working to protect women from violence, increase girls' access to education, and improve economic opportunities.

Born in India, Ramdas was drawn to social work as a teenager and dropped out of college to volunteer at a small farm in the Indian state of Bihar. Thinking it was the best way she could help the poor, she worked, separating wheat from chaff, until an elderly farmer offered her some life-changing advice. "He told me to go use my education and compassion to make a bigger difference. He urged me to tell the world about his community's struggles," she recalled. "I suddenly understood that the advantages I'd been given could be used to help others on a much larger scale."

Soon after, Ramdas had a serendipitous meeting with Mary Jacob, Mount Holyoke's former dean of international students, who was traveling in India. She remembered being inspired by Jacob, "who made MHC feel accessible and welcoming." Only after she was accepted did Ramdas learn that her mother, a peace activist, had applied to Mount Holyoke many years earlier. "My mom did not go, because her folks would not let her live so far away," Ramdas said. "I was very grateful that my parents had always expected us to excel and be independent. My parents have three daughters, and despite gender biases in India, our minds and ambitions always mattered to them. Attending Mount Holyoke was a natural extension of my upbringing."

As a woman who spends her days demonstrating that investing in women is a strategy that works, Ramdas has the highest regard for Mount Holyoke's mission. She remains grateful for the scholarship that made it possible for her to enroll at the College. And it was the realization that alumnae and other individuals were contributing so that she could have choices and opportunities that sparked her interest in philanthropy.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations, Ramdas earned a master's degree in international development and public policy from Princeton University. She then spent eight years working as a program officer for the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. Along the way, she married Zulfiqar Ahmad, a longtime peace activist and Hampshire College graduate who works as a South Asia program officer for the University of California at Berkeley's Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development. The couple has a ten-year-old daughter, Mira.

Ramdas met Ahmad at a campus dance three weeks after her arrival at Mount Holyoke. Their unlikely relationship--Ramdas is a Hindu and the granddaughter and daughter of India's highest-ranking naval officers, while Ahmad is a Muslim from Pakistan--reflects Ramdas's commitment to bridging cultures and respecting individual choices.

At the Global Fund, that translates to never assuming what poor and disadvantaged women need. As an example, Ramdas points out that what girls in a war-torn African nation might really need is a van to transport them safely to and from school without the threat of rape. Ramdas's organization allows women and girls to speak for themselves, and accepts grant applications in any language or format. Some requests, she said, have arrived on scraps of paper after traveling for months by post. Any project promoting women's equality and human rights will be considered. Global Fund grants range from $500 to $15,000.

Ramdas is inspired by the grant recipients, girls and women who--despite being deprived of the most basic human rights and sometimes living in situations where they risk their lives daily--still dare to imagine a new world for themselves. "These women give me a huge amount of hope," Ramdas said.

As for believing in her own potential to create change, Ramdas said that that conviction became firmly rooted during her time at Mount Holyoke.

"MHC was life changing in far-reaching ways. It gave me confidence in myself at a time when I was unsure and searching for direction. It opened a whole world of strong women achievers to me, from math professors to crew members who were my dorm mates. It let me choose a wide variety of courses and to revel in learning. And it made me a more open and tolerant person as I made friends with Latina and African American women, out lesbians, and women from countries I had been taught were enemy nations," Ramdas said. "Meeting my husband at Mount Holyoke was wonderful, but it could have happened anywhere. The rest, however, was not accidental--it was a part of what makes MHC so special."

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Copyright © 2004 Mount Holyoke College. This page created by Don St. John and maintained by Office of Communications. Last modified on May 11, 2004.

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