Lailuma Faheem is no stranger to adversity. A child-protection officer in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, she works to expand the rights of women in an environment that can be challenging, to say the least.
“Women’s rights are dismissed as a Western concept by many Afghan men,” she says. “Involving them is a key element to sustaining the gains women have made. In Afghanistan I was able to influence local leaders by using Islamic articles to educate them about women’s rights under Islam.”
Driven by her passion for activism, Faheem traveled to Massachusetts this May to join approximately 50 other reform-minded women delegates from more than 20 post-conflict societies around the world. They are attending the two-week Women in Public Service Project Institute “Reconstructing Societies in the Wake of Conflict: Transitional Justice and Economic Development.” The delegates were selected from more than 600 applicants.
Smith hosts the delegates on Monday, June 2. Among the featured speakers for the public portion of the event is leading activist and author Gloria Steinem ’56, who will be introduced by President Kathleen McCartney. Other Smith speakers, participating in delegate-only events, include Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy ’02, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker; Jane Harman ’66, director, president and CEO of The Wilson Center; Carol Rodley ’76, director of Resolution to Act, Institute for Inclusive Security, and former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia; and Congresswoman Niki Tsongas ’68.
The Institute—sponsored by Smith, Mount Holyoke and Simmons colleges, and the Women in Public Service Project, housed at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.—is part of an effort launched in 2011 by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in partnership with the Seven Sisters colleges. The project aims to foster a world in which leadership in political and public office is 50-percent female by 2050. The two-week Institute opened at Mount Holyoke on Monday, May 26. A number of speakers, including Smith alumna Farah Pandith ’90, former U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities, spoke at that event.
The Institute brings together emerging global leaders like Faheem to share their expertise with one another and learn from invited scholars, policymakers and representatives from governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Delegates have spent time at the Mount Holyoke and Simmons campuses as well as at Smith.
According to Greg White, Mary Huggins Gamble Professor of Government and faculty director of Smith’s Lewis Global Studies Center, the Institute is geared toward women who are early- and mid-career professionals working in the public sector—government agencies, NGOs, media and civil organizations.
“The key theme at the heart of the Women in Public Service Project is, quite obviously, public service: how the numbers of women in public service can be increased, how the content of their work and its efficacy can be enhanced, how women can network and support each other, build bridges and ties, and how they can learn from each other in different contexts,” says White, who led a team in developing curriculum for the Institute at Smith.
The Institute is a major undertaking involving many staff and faculty members from all three colleges. It is also made possible through the generous support of several co-sponsors, including the Lewis Global Studies Center and the Project on Women and Social Change at Smith. In addition, four Smith students—Junmanee Cadenhead ’16, Marie Jones ’14, Katie Paulson-Smith ’14 and Chelsea Villareal ’14—will participate as student ambassadors, traveling to all three campuses during the two weeks.
Delegates at this year’s Institute include Wai Wai Nu, who spent 7 of her 27 years as a political prisoner and now fights for the rights of marginalized women in Myanmar; Achol William Amoi, speaker of the State Legislative Assembly in South Sudan; Radha Paudel of Nepal, founder of the nonprofit Action Works Nepal, whose mission is to empower poor and excluded people and to promote peace; Samah Mansur, a leader of Egyptian democracy and women’s rights programs; and Marcelline Mukakarangwa, who works to get women involved in Rwanda’s socioeconomic development.
For the delegates, participating in the Institute is a step toward helping their societies heal from the experience of conflict.
“When I return to Afghanistan,” Faheem says, “I hope to establish a women leaders’ network, and to include women in other countries, particularly in post-conflict areas, to share common experiences and strategies to work on rights issues. At the Institute, I hope to learn new techniques for networking, to learn the best project implementation, [and to acquire] tools for economic development and leadership skills.”
Smith also hosted a smaller institute in 2012 in Paris on the topic of public service and global health.