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
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.
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
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,"
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."