50 women learn to lead in the face of strife, mostly from each other

This year's Women in Public Service Project, winding down Thursday, hosts 50 women from around the world to teach them to lead local efforts to recover and rebuild. But the women learn the most from one another, organizers say.

John Gillooly/PEI Photography
Delegates of the Women in Public Service Project, in the US for a two-week leadership training program, assemble on the steps of the Massachusetts State House on May 29, in a show of solidarity with families of the missing Nigerian girls abducted by Boko Haram.

Achol Amoi never expected to become speaker of the South Sudanese parliament. After all, women fill only one-quarter of seats in the National Legislative Assembly, the minimum required in the fledgling nation’s constitution.

When her fellow lawmakers selected her as speaker, she saw the appointment as a test, not of her abilities as an individual but of the leadership capabilities of all women.

“It is not easy for a woman like me to lead men,” Ms. Amoi said, at a two-week gathering of women leaders sponsored by the Women in Public Service Project (WPSP), which ends Thursday evening. “Everywhere ahead of you and behind you, you are being criticized. But don’t look back. Just keep going straight.” 

The 50 WPSP delegates return to their home nations armed with new leadership tools to help rebuild communities and promote sustainable livelihoods in places battered by political oppression and civil strife. They'll also have a support network of women like themselves who have lived with the ravages of war.

The WPSP was founded in 2011 by five top US women's colleges, in partnership with the US Department of State and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. Then-Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, who led the drive to create this training program for women in public service, dubbed gender equality the “the great unfinished business of the 21st century.”

The faculties of three Massachusetts women's colleges, Simmons College in Boston, Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, and Smith College, in Northampton, welcomed delegates from 21 countries to the third annual WPSP institute on the theme "Reconstructing Societies in the Wake of Conflict: Transitional Justice and Economic Development." 

Before the women arrived in late May, they were surveyed to find out what they needed to become more effective in their nations, and their responses were used to shape the institute. Organizers also lined up influential American female leaders, from Massachusetts state Rep. Ellen Story (D) to Gloria Steinem, a pioneer of the American feminist movement.

The aim of the institute, however, is not to bring delegates to the US to learn the “proper” way to become a strong female leader, but rather to create a forum for women to meet others like themselves, to see that they are not alone in their struggles, and to cultivate a network to which they can later turn for support.

As Representative Story told the delegates during their visit to Boston, “The women in the State House sometimes feel like we have a hard time, but looking at all of you, I realize that we have no idea.”

Conference organizers have established several online forums for the delegates to continue to interact long after they part ways. One forum is hosted by the Wilson Center, another by Smith College, and a third by Simmons College. The Simmons-hosted website is password protected to provide delegates an arena to share documents, photos, and ideas without fear of retribution from their home governments, says Greg White, a professor of government at Smith and one of the many co-organizers of this year’s WPSP institute.

Many delegates come from nations where women are denied what Americans consider to be basic human rights. In Amoi’s South Sudan, for example, only 16 percent of women over age 15 are literate, compared with 40 percent of men, according to Oxfam.

Amoi says she was forced to leave school when she married at age 14. She gave birth to the first of seven daughters a year later, but she never gave up on her dream of getting an education.

At age 25, she decided to go back to school, but says she first had to convince her husband to grant permission. Today, she routinely visits local villages on behalf of female compatriots seeking permission from their husbands to learn to read and write.

“I am living in a culture where a woman is not recognized as a human being,” she says. “She’s somebody that’s to give birth and that is all.”

That concern drew international attention after the abduction of more than 250 Nigerian schoolgirls by a radical Islamist group, reportedly as part of a protest against educating girls. While the incident has sparked outrage in the Western world, it has resonated particularly deeply with the WPSP delegates.

In a show of solidarity with the families of the missing girls, the delegates posed under the golden dome of the Massachusetts State House on May 29 holding signs demanding the return of the Nigerian girls.

One delegate, Shabnam Baloch, a program manager for Oxfam based in Hyderabad, Pakistan, helped organize the protest.

“These are our sisters and our daughters," she says. "When I say that, my eyes are filled with tears and my heart bleeds.”

Ms. Baloch works with Oxfam to expand access to education for girls in her native Pakistan, where she says only half of the nation’s girls attend school. For many girls in Pakistan, especially in rural areas, attending school is a dangerous proposition.

On Oct. 9, 2012, Taliban insurgents hunted down 15-year-old education activist Malala Yousafzai on a school bus in Pakistan’s Swat Valley and shot her in the head three times at point-blank range. Malala survived the attack and has used it to amplify her message that all girls have a right to education.

Malala's story “has highlighted the issue [of girls’ education] at the international level,” Baloch says. “But the challenge is so huge, I think it will take a long time reach the destination, which is every girl in school.”

Baloch attributes her own education to the brave work of her mother, who grew up in a Pakistan where “there was absolutely no possibility to go to school.” Baloch says her mother, forced to marry at a young age, educated herself at home. She later became a district education officer.

Thanks to her mother's leadership, today “almost every woman is educated [in the district]. Almost every woman is working,” she says.

Rebuilding societies post-conflict has been a recurring theme during all three of the WPSP institutes, because war is part of so many of the delegates’ “lived reality,” says Professor White.

The institute is focused on the challenges that women in leadership positions face, says Simmons business professor Mary Shapiro, who helped design the curriculum along with White. The program aims to train a new generation of women leaders to enter the public sector with strategic leadership skills, she adds.

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