A Holistic Approach to Women's Rights

On December 6, 2018, following Malala Yousafzai’s highly-anticipated event at the Harvard Kennedy School's JFK Jr. Forum, guests gathered in Wexner Commons to celebrate Yousafzai as the recipient of the 2018 Gleitsman International Activist Award. The event opened with remarks from faculty director David Gergen, Yousafzai and her father Ziauddin, and an original poem written in honor of Malala and delivered by inaugural U.S. youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman. Yousafzai's call carried through the evening, as incoming CPL director and former undersecretary of state for political affairs Wendy R. Sherman took the stage to moderate a panel discussion on the status and future of women’s rights and education.

Ambassador Sherman was joined by panelists Sushma Rahman, executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy; Jacqueline Bhabha, adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and professor of the practice of human rights at the Chan School of Public Health; and Martha Chen, lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and senior advisor, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).

Malala panelPhotos: Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman, Jacqueline Bhabha, Martha Chen, and Sushma Rahman (left); Martha Chen and Sushma Rahman (right) Credit: Tom Fitzsimmons

The panel continued the rich conversation that began during Yousafzai’s conversation with Samantha Power earlier focused on the intersectionality of women’s rights. Considering the complexity of the challenges facing women around the world, Ambassador Sherman began by asking each panelist to share what challenges (and solutions) they were coming across in their own work. Together, the panelists represented a diverse array of women’s rights issues, from public health to literacy.

The entire panel stressed the importance of including local groups and activists in problem-solving. “Wherever I’ve seen change, it’s been led by women from the community. It doesn’t happen without them,” Professor Chen said. This ethos is a key part of Yousafzai’s Gulmakai Network initiative, which empowers people to improve their own communities. “We should listen to young people, to young girls and to young boys,” emphasized Professor Bhabha. “Malala is exceptional in that she broke through that barrier and managed to really catch the attention of the world by her bravery and by the extreme circumstance that she was thrown into.”

Professor Chen stressed the importance of representation in statistics as a source of empowerment for workers with few legal protections, like the 61 percent of workers globally who are informally employed. “Statistics in the hands of workers, if they’re organized, are powerful,” Chen said.

Malala panel 2
Photos: Malala Yousafzai with Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman, Sushma Rahman, Jacqueline Bhabha, and Martha Chen (left); Ambassador Wendy Sherman and Jacqueline Bhabha (right) Credit: Tom Fitzsimmons

A major theme of the night was the connectedness of the challenges women face globally. “It’s very tempting for us to put all of these issues into very specific buckets,” Raman explained, “but the reality is that all of these are interlinked.” For many women and girls in developing countries, for example, lack of access to clean water and sanitation systems adds to their workload at home and prevents them from attending school. “I think it is incumbent on all of us, whether it’s government, civil society, [or] social movements, to think about rights in a holistic way,” Raman said. Professor Bhabha focused on  the impact of addressing issues through the lens of public health. “Violence against girls, violence against children, gun violence, these are not just cruel issues, these are public health issues, human rights issues,” she explained, “Having this perspective changes the way in which we address these problems.”

In closing, Ambassador Sherman asked each panelist for a call to action. Professor Bhabha reiterated the importance of research and access to knowledge: “We don’t know the answers unless we investigate [the problems].” Raman implored guests to keep a healthy perspective on aid to foreign countries. “It’s tempting to say, while we sit in comfortable Cambridge, ‘Oh, let’s look at the plight of girls in Pakistan.’ We also have to look at U.S. foreign policy, we have to look at the role of global philanthropies that have become technocratic and outcomes-based as opposed to focusing on supporting the voices and aspirations of those most affected by injustice,” Raman explained.

Professor Chen’s call to action exemplified the evening’s theme of hope and empowerment. “There’s such resilience, there’s such leadership, there’s such knowledge at the grassroots level, what we need to do is listen to, support, and join hands with the organizations and leaders from the community and from the grassroots,” she said, “Nothing for us, without us.”

The Dove in the Garden
-Amanda Gorman

It was her 16th birthday.
I knew she was named Malala,
This girl almost my age
At the United Nation stage
Saying one page, one student could change the world.
She was named after Malalai of Maiwand,
The heroine who was shot and killed
After rallying troops with her words.

But Malala’s words weren’t like words at all;
I heard them like birds as they’d rise and fall,
As her voice raised like doves above the air.=
I made a pact to act right then and there.
I gave myself one year to find any way
To get from L.A. to the UN so I could
join in fighting for Malala’s dream.
As wild as it might seem,
Less than a year later,
Exactly on my 16thbirthday,
I walked into the UN for the first time
As a delegate. Yet I get

Ahead of myself.
Who is Malala?
The girl with a full bookshelf?
A sister who teases
Her brothers as she pleases
Because as the eldest it is her right?
Who is Malala the leader?
And who is Malala the light?

She is the daughter of a woman
Who often goes unseen,
Yet is the seam between the family.
Toor Pekai, the humble, the wise
Mother with deep eyes of green.

And of course there’s her father Ziauddin,
An activist, teacher, and leader, who,
Though you may not know it, is also a poet.

Malala is from the most beautiful place in the world,
Pakistan’s Swat Valley, spotted next to ice-dotted
Mountains, those great giver of blue rivers,
Where the green hush of plush fields like gardens
That yield a fresh flush of wheat, rice, and maize,
Where temple bells on a new dawn for Pakistan. 

But banned by the Taliban from going to school,
Malala used her voice—her most powerful tool.

Her father didn’t choose this for her,
Because he knows the worst thing to loose
Is the choice to share your voice. 

Ziauddin despite a stammer,
Always speaks his heart’s clamor
For change. And he set ample examples
For girls like me. You see,
Ziauddin story isn’t remote.
Growing up, I had a speech impediment too,
So I just wrote to have a pen to speak through.

Ziauddin shows that your voice
Isn’t a sound; it’s your spirit,
And how you empower other
Vices when they hear it.

So Ziauddin encouraged Malala to be strong inside when life was bleak,
But it was Malala who had the courage all along to decide to speak.
And speak she did, dangerously, unfavorably.
In 2012 she was shot, and was saved from the grave
Because her work had just begun and was far from done. 

She was given a second life,
Her voice lifted and lyrical.
People say it’s a miracle Malala survived.
I believe that Malala is the miracle.
Because if one schoolgirl is such a threat,
Imagine what we can do tomorrow,
When there’s more of us yet.

Five years after I went to the U.N.,
Inspired by Malala’s sage voice,
I find myself on this stage,
Marveling at what one uncaged girl
Can do when her father doesn’t clip her wings.
There’s a poem Malala’s mom likes to sing:
“Don’t kill doves in the garden/
You kill one and the others won’t come.”

The Taliban tried to kill this rare bird,
But they just prepared love above
All to keep coming for this caring dove
With fire in her beak who speaks of hope
With winds of change humming in her throat.

Malala, congratulations for how high your wings have soared,
And congratulations for your Gleitsman Activist Award.