Last week, I had the great privilege to participate in the panel “From Higher Education to Women’s Leadership” convened by the Open a Door Foundation during the 58th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations. Before an attentive, vocal, and positive audience, I joined Barbara Bylenga from Open a Door and Leo Motiuk from the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund to discuss the impact of higher education for women on solving problems such as poverty and disease and the need to integrate higher education into the next round of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Our moderator was Ruthie Taylor from the Orchid Project, a London-based NGO that is pioneering a highly effective, community-based approach to ending the practice of female genital cutting.
But the real star of the show was Simin Wahdat, the very first alumna of Open a Door. Five years ago, the foundation brought her to Bucknell through their unique program that identifies women in post-conflict countries and secures scholarships for undergraduate study at leading institutions in the United States. In an innovative model, each woman is surrounded by up to eight mentors, who help with the college application and scholarship and, once the woman is set to arrive in the United States, with everything from bedding and toiletries for the dorm room to setting goals and achieving them during four years of university.
With poise and authority, Simin told the story of her journey from Afghanistan to the United States, relating the key point in her freshman year when one mentor asked her to set annual goals and a plan for achieving them. Now in graduate school at East Mennonite Peace University and working as a legislative fellow in the office of Congresswoman Betty McCollum, Simin is leading an effort to lobby for the political rights of women in Afghanistan beyond 2015, when the United States is set to withdraw all troops.
Most importantly, Simin talked about preparing for return to Afghanistan. She has one simple goal: a voice at the policy table for Afghan women by Afghan women. In an earlier trip home, she found herself literally the only woman at the table as a group of men from government and the community discussed policies towards women. In a culturally appropriate way, she found and asserted her voice and, eventually, won over the group. One man told her as their work was complete, “I would like my sister to be just like you.”
The power of women’s leadership is what drives several key initiatives at the Institute of International Education, including IIE’s Higher Education Readiness (HER) program, being piloted in Ethiopia, and We-Tech, an IIE-led initiative being piloted in Africa and India. With goals to give girls access to higher education, technology training, and leadership skills, these innovative programs are investing in a resource essential to our future: the education of women and girls.