Barnard hosted its own World Leaders Forum of sorts on Monday, as three current and former female heads of state encouraged students at women’s colleges to become involved in public service.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand, President Atifete Jahjaga of the Republic of Kosovo, and former President of Finland Tarja Halonen joined more than 300 students, professors, and guests in the Diana Center in a panel discussion to emphasize the Women in Public Service Project’s long-term goal—to have 50 percent of the world’s political and civic leadership be female by 2050—within the framework of United Nations efforts. Shinawatra, Jahjaga, and Halonen are in Manhattan this week for the 67th U.N. General Assembly.
For U.N. Special Representative Marta Santos Pais, the U.N.’s Monday discussion on the rule of law is one such conduit for women’s progress. Wellesley senior Melda Salhab asked how countries such as her native Lebanon can make progress for women, despite religious laws that control family law.
“One of the key principles that is being put forward is that the rule of law is inherently linked with democracy, but also with respect for human rights,” Santos Pais told Salhab. “I am confident that as a result of the discussion in the GA, there will be greater recommendations for states to find sources of inspiration to overcome the challenges.”
Santos Pais, Barnard President Debora Spar, and other leaders made a point of equating women’s rights with universal human rights, which has been a central tenet of the project—a partnership between five of the Seven Sisters schools and the State Department—since its inception in December 2011.
After the leaders spoke, Livy Low, BC ’13, joined a panel of students from women’s colleges around the country to discuss their work on women’s issues. Low’s area of focus is global health, which she has pursued as former co-president of GlobeMed, a student club that addresses grassroots health crises.
Low talked about her experience working with a girl named Beatrice, an HIV patient in Uganda whose recovery inspired her to become a community health worker. Such women, Low said, “have a right to become visible.”
Yashaswini Singh, a senior at Bryn Mawr College, shared her experience working on the Millennium Development Goals in Nairobi, Kenya. When she asked a villager how humanitarian efforts had improved the lives of the area’s women, he replied that “the girls have better haircuts now.” The unintentionally flippant comment made her realize that, as far as the village had come, it still had a ways to go in advancing the status of women.
The event provided an opportunity for undergraduate women to ask experienced leaders about the very issues on which they are working. Ava Anderson, a senior at Mills College in Oakland, asked Jane Harman, a former congresswoman from California, about prison reform in the state. Harman called for revisions to the state’s “three strikes” law, which mandates life sentences for people convicted of three or more felonies.
Although most of the speakers were political leaders, Halonen, the former Finnish president, emphasized that one does not have to enter politics to affect change. When she became president, thousands of girls wrote her to say they were abandoning whatever other careers they had considered to become the president or a member of parliament. “Do not study to become that,” Halonen said. “Start with what you know and you will go further if you are interested and useful” in that other profession.
Low said she hopes to maintain contact among the network of students from the other schools in order to get more public service projects off the ground. “It’s easy to talk amongst ourselves,” she said. “In order to be effective, we need to broaden our community.”
The Women in Public Service Project began last December, when Barnard and several other schools sent a delegation of students to the State Department to hear Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others encourage young women to enter careers in public service and politics. Monday’s event was the mentorship program’s first event on Barnard’s campus.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the event's attendance was 200. Spectator regrets the error.