Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Nadia Hashimi


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Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter

Nadia Hashimi is a pediatrician, women’s empowerment advocate, and the author of the novel The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, an international bestseller chronicling the lives of an Afghan girl and her great-great grandmother who overcome gender inequalities and human rights violations in Afghanistan. She will also publish the novel When The Moon Is Low in July 2015which follows the journey of an Afghan family as they flee Taliban-controlled Kabul and live as undocumented immigrants in Europe.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Nadia Hashimi: I’m an Afghan-American. My parents immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan in the early 1970s. Growing up, I was fortunate to have a large extended family around me. In all of our homes, the celebrations and traditions of Afghan cultured thrived. At the same time, we assimilated into the American culture around us. I felt like we took the best of both worlds. With the support and encouragement of my parents, I finished college and medical school and went on to become a pediatrician. In 2008, my husband convinced me to be serious about my writing aspirations and now, thanks to his wild idea, I’m also a published author.

Women LEAD: What inspired you to write The Pearl That Broke Its Shell?

Nadia Hashimi: Growing up in America, my family watched Afghanistan from afar. I was painfully aware of the vast difference in experience between me and my counterparts in Afghanistan. My cousins or other girls growing up “over there” were living in a country at war, with rockets exploding over their homes and schools being shut down. The brutal Taliban regime made a name for themselves in their remarkably cruel subjugation of women. Though the Taliban have been ousted for the most part and schools are open to girls, the situation is far from perfect. There are many crises in Afghanistan today: drug addiction, child “brides”, political corruption, education inequality, depression and suicide. I wanted to tell a story that would show how these issues affected the life of one Afghan girl because the impact of these issues is often lost in daunting statistics. The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is not the story of all Afghan girls, thankfully, but it is the story of too many.

Women LEAD: Why do you write?

Nadia Hashimi: When I first started, I wrote because I’ve had a lifelong love for the written word. (I’m never without a book!) As my first manuscript came to a close, my motives evolved. I wrote because I had stories in me that needed to be told. It’s turned into a true passion, where I wake up with words and characters in my mind. I write because I love it, which is the best reason to do anything and the only way to do anything well.

Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Nadia Hashimi: Women’s empowerment used to matter to me because I was a girl and because my parents instilled in me that women deserved equal rights. Now that I have a daughter, women’s empowerment matters even more because I want my daughter to feel she has the capability and potential to do anything her brothers can do. Thankfully, the challenges she faces will not be the same as those of girls or women in other parts of the world. In the United States, women can vote, drive and enter any kind of education program they choose. But gender inequality takes on many shapes and colors: unequal pay, a person telling her engineering is not for her, or kids teasing that someone “throws like a girl.” I want my daughter to have the voice and confidence to speak out when she sees or hears the inequality, even in its most subtle forms.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for future women writers?

Nadia Hashimi: Consider what you want to write about carefully. To write anything well, it’s important to be passionate about the subject matter. It doesn’t have to be a social issue. It could be a well-developed character or new energy technologies. Whatever it is, you must feel a strong draw to write about it or you won’t be able to compel anyone to read it. Second, read extensively. Think about what you liked or disliked about what you’ve read. You will be picking up tricks on clarity, description and plot development. These are skills all writers need to hone. Third, begin by writing a paragraph or a page. It is daunting to think about writing 300 pages of prose but if you start with one page, the second will follow and the third after that. Afghans have a saying: “Drop by drop flows the river.” That’s definitely true for writing.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Nadia Hashimi: This is an easy question to answer. My mother’s been an inspiration to me all my life. She grew up in Afghanistan and was one of only a handful of women enrolled in the engineering program at Kabul University. She was awarded a scholarship and travelled alone to Holland where she obtained a master’s degree in civil engineering. She and my father taught me to work hard, set my goals high and believe in myself. They taught me that my voice mattered. If every girl could grow up with that experience, we wouldn’t have to be talking about women’s empowerment.

Women LEAD: Are there books, films, websites that are currently inspiring you about gender equality and women’s empowerment?

Nadia Hashimi: The good news is there are a lot of motivating resources out there. I’m a big fan of the Mighty Girl website. They have a fantastic collection of resources for parents of young girls from Halloween costume ideas to books and spotlights on girls making an impact on their world. I loved Margaret Atwood’s book, The Handmaid’s Tale, because in it she created a shocking world where women are reduced to vessels of child bearing. They are barely people. When we look at what’s happening in some corners of the world, Atwood’s Gilead becomes less far-fetched. In the movie world, I watch films with a more critical eye now. I enjoy films that don’t portray all females as weak, bikini-clad maidens waiting for a knight in shining armor to save them. I like bold, three dimensional women since that’s a better reflection of our reality. I love advocates like Amy Poehler because she shows us, with a funny and accessible voice, that women can be successful, should speak up for themselves and should not think of feminism as a dirty word. I loved when she said about women who renounce feminism: “That’s like someone being like, ‘I don’t really believe in cars, but I drive one every day and I love that it gets me places and makes life so much easier and faster and I don’t know what I would do without it.’”

To learn more about Nadia Hashimi, her passion for women’s and girls’ empowerment and The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, read this blog post on Girls’ Globe.

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Humaira Bachal


(Photo Credit: Wajih&Shirani)

Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter

Humaira Bachal is an advocate for women’s education who strives to change the attitude of people who are against women’s education. She is the Founder of the Dream Foundation Trust, an organization that aims to facilitate personal development and the enhancement of health, social living and working conditions in Pakistan. For her pioneering efforts in girls’ education advocacy, Humaira has been recognized as one of five “Bravest Women on Earth” by the Women in the World Foundation, and was awarded the 2013 Women of Impact Award at the 4th annual Women in the World Summit. She was recently featured in TIME and on CNN for her work founding the Dream Foundation Trust.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Humaira Bachal: As a 1st grader, my sister and I were the only ones from our slum settlement in Karachi to go to school while all other friends played in the streets. I used to think school was a punishment.

That is until I turned six and saw my infant cousin die, coughing blood and wheezing for a breath of air – all because she was administered an expired fever medicine. Medicine the child’s own illiterate mother had fed her. The agony of losing my baby cousin, the heart-wrenching screams of the mother… and that day I decided – I have to stop this!

It wasn’t just my cousin who was illiterate; when I moved to my hometown, I saw injustice with women and girls, obstacles for their education and chaotic situations with them. The house-arrested women were deprived to get an education. My friends and I moved forward to redress these immoral mind set.

I had the full support of my mother, Zainab Bibi, who endured social boycotts, verbal and physical abuse to make sure her daughters got an education, enabling us to break the cycle of disempowerment she herself has suffered. Backed by my mother, I overcame resistance from my father and brothers at home, as well as the conservative attitudes and reluctance of community members.

Women LEAD: You are the Founder and CEO of the Dream Foundation Trust, an organization that aims to facilitate personal development and the enhancement of health, social living and working conditions in Pakistan. Can you tell us more about the Dream Foundation Trust, what inspired you to found it, and its impact so far?

Humaira Bachal: Yes, I’m founder and the president of Dream Foundation Trust (DFT), is a non-profit non-governmental organization registered under Trust Act 1882 (# 955) of Pakistan in 2009. We have been working since 5 years in Karachi, Pakistan. DFT works on quality education for under privileged children, women’s skills development, relief for victims by natural calamities, small business grants support, awareness and advocacy campaigns, End Fistula Challenge from Pakistan and mentoring of other community based organizations in addition to enhancing their capabilities and structure.

Attending school regularly, I soon came to see that I was the lucky one and my friends were the ones missing out. I remained troubled by this until, at aged 12, I had a brainwave on how to redress this injustice: I would teach children at home the lessons that I myself had learnt in school. That’s why I founded the Dream Foundation Trust.

I have been struggling for creating an unbiased and impartial community. Despite facing innumerable adversities for the family and the community, I dream and strenuously work towards my goal. After 13 years of devotion, the community where I live is boosterish – they accept and support the initiative. Parents now agree to educate their daughters.

Women LEAD: Can you tell us about some of the Dream Foundation Trust’s programs that empower women and girls?

Humaira Bachal: Yes, we have an entrepreneurship program for women and girls in which they are trained and taught with the basics of sewing clothes and embroidery. This program not only enhances their skills but also gives them an opportunity to be independent and to be a part of our empowerment program. In this empowerment program, we raise awareness on women’s rights, especially the right to educate young girls.

We have a Youth Network which has 100 members formally associated, both 50 Girls and 50 Boys. Through this network we provide trainings on different topics i.e. Leadership skills, Advocacy and Campaigning, Social Media and its influencing, and on good citizenship. Such training not only improves girls’ leadership skills but also empowers girls to live fearlessly among men.

Why do girls’ education and women’s empowerment matter to you?

Humaira Bachal: I would consider this fact: If a woman is educated the whole family is educated. If the whole family is educated, the whole community is educated. If the whole community is educated, the whole society is educated and this outbreak can make the entire world educated. Women are very responsible citizens of our society.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Humaira Bachal: My mother Zainab Bibi has been my Role Model and Mentor because my mother was the only one who took a stand to educate me. She chopped woods and sold them, sewed clothes and this is how she taught me. She tolerated insults, reviles from my family and was even beaten by my father but though she did not get back, she stood by me and supported my education.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for future advocates of girls’ education?

Humaira Bachal: I have advice for the advocates of girls’ education: they should strive to work with full passion, dedication and determination within the limits of their religious or cultural consciences and conducts. Immorality on Right to Education of girls is not merely Pakistan’s problem but exists in other countries as well. Its diminishment is only possible when all activists and women get together to battle against these immoralities against girls’ education and empowerment.

I believe that education is a basic need of any human being – We need fresh air to breathe, similarly the approach of living in this world easily is possible when we have basic education. When a woman is educated, it will be easier for them to achieve their rights. Women around the world should speak up for their rights and find resources for it. Only speaking up is not the solution.

Women’s success is not only possible by lectures or talks. We all should put our efforts together to solve problems related to women’s disempowerment. We all know about obstacles women face, and work along to take them women out of isolation, to make them a productive part of our society.

Spotlight on 2014 LEADer Aagya

Aagya Khanal is a 2014 LEADer who is currently studying management in grade twelve at Caribbean College. She wants to study fashion design in the future and aspires to become a fashion designer one day. She recalls her childhood memories that fueled her interest in fashion: ‘when I was in grade nine, I was a member of the arts club and we had to design clothes. We had to do dummy sketches, make patterns and design sketches of clothes. That was what sparked my interest in fashion design.
I got goose bumps when I got selected for the Women LEAD course. Our society still holds a negative stereotypical view regarding the arts. My parents were not very supportive of the idea of me studying humanities based on the good scores that I held in grade ten. Although I took up management, I was always drawn towards arts. At Women LEAD, I learned to be who I am. I learned to speak up and share my thoughts. Before, I used to worry about what others might think about my thoughts. But now, I pay little attention to what others think and have become able to freely voice my thoughts. One of the biggest lessons that I have learned from Women LEAD is that if you want to reach your goals, you need to have passion and give it 100%  of your hard work. There’s really no shortcut!” exclaims Aagya with a beaming smile.
Aagya deeply cares for homeless children. She says, ‘I can wear good clothes and get good food. But those children do not have anything. They are children like us too and they should get a chance to fulfill their dreams.’ In the future, Aagya wants to see herself as a renowned fashion designer and wants to open up her own boutique. Aagya says she also wants to contribute some of her future earnings to an orphanage home that uplifts homeless children.

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Yasmin Belo-Osagie

Yasmin Belo-Osagie

Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter

Yasmin Belo-Osagie is a Co-Founder of She Leads Africa, a Nigeria-based social enterprise that equips female entrepreneurs in Africa with the knowledge, network, and financing needed to build and scale strong businesses. She is a management consultant focusing primarily on developing growth strategies for a number of local and international corporates. In 2011, she spent a year attending culinary school and working as a sous-chef in the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong. Yasmin is a graduate of Princeton University with degrees in history and finance.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Yasmin Belo-Osagie: My name is Yasmin Belo-Osagie. I’m half Nigerian half Ghanaian. I grew up in Nigeria until I was ten and then went to boarding school in England for 8 years. After this I went to Princeton University where I majored in history and minored in finance. Following this I took a year off and spent 6 months at culinary school (Cordon Bleu in London and Paris). During this time I spent 2 months in Hong Kong working in the pastry kitchen at the Mandarin Oriental. After this I moved back to Nigeria where I started working with McKinsey and Co, a management consulting firm.

Women LEAD: You are a Co-Founder of She Leads Africa, a Nigeria-based social enterprise that equips female entrepreneurs in Africa with the knowledge, network, and financing needed to build and scale strong businesses. Can you tell us more about She Leads Africa and its impact?

Yasmin Belo-Osagie: Entrepreneurship is going to be the broad based driver of economic growth in Africa. And whilst development organisations and institutions have been focused on empowering low income African female entrepreneurs, very little attention has been paid to the dearth of female business leaders across the continent. She Leads Africa aims to empower the women who have the ambition to be the business leaders of tomorrow, creating organisations that will hire millions of young Africans and promote development across the continent.

To date, we have hosted the first even all female pan-Africa pitch contest, sponsored eight entrepreneurs attending an Investor Demo Day in Washington, D.C., established a partnership with Intel to conduct workshops for tech entrepreneurs, begun negotiations with Nigeria’s largest bank to create a low-interest lending program for female entrepreneurs, and started work on an online education platform that will feature African case studies taught by business experts.

After attending our pitch competition, Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, was impressed by the quality of entrepreneurs trained in our 6-week mentorship and has earmarked $1m in low-cost loans for us to give out. We have been featured in a number of reputable publications including ForbesBlack EnterpriseFox Small Business , Fast Company, and Ventures Africa.

My co-founder and I were recently selected as 2 of Forbes’ 20 youngest power women in Africa. That said we both acknowledge that we have much further to go.

Women LEAD: What have you learned about the state of women’s entrepreneurship through your work founding and leading She Leads Africa?

Yasmin Belo-Osagie: There’s a generational mindset shift occurring amongst African female entrepreneurs that African women have always been entrepreneurial. Indeed of all the regions in the world, Africa has the highest rate of female entrepreneurship in the world. My family is a good example of this, both my grandmothers as well as my mother were entrepreneurs. That said I’ve found that in the older generation most African women had aspirations to be small and medium business owners. Whereas today women believe that they can become titans of industry and create large multi-million dollar.

Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Yasmin Belo-Osagie: Investing in women reaps significant dividends for families and societies. Women tend to be investment multipliers: investing the majority of their income back into their families and communities. This results in better educated, healthier children who go on to be more productive, more prosperous citizens

More generally female consumers are a whoefully underserved market in Africa with very few businesses catering to their needs. I find that entrepreneurs tend to create products for people they understand. More female entrepreneurs will mean more services for female consumers which means more consumption and ultimately higher rates of economic growth

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?

Yasmin Belo-Osagie: My mother, who moved to Nigeria after marrying my father and started her own law firm, has always been a big impact in my life. She instilled in me the critical values of hardword and dedication.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for current and future women entrepreneurs?

Yasmin Belo-Osagie: Turn every moment into an opportunity and get out there and hustle. No one will fight for your success if you don’t.

8 months ago I was working at McKinsey, I’d just broken up with my boyfriend of 4 years and frankly I was really depressed. I was looking for something to do and She Leads Africa was borne after a chance encounter with my cofounder. We’d known each other for a year whilst at McKinsey but I randomly ran into her at a conference and we came up with SLA whilst having a drink at the bar. The next few months were a whirlwind as we raced towards the pitch competition (our launch event). I was a Mckinsey consultant by day, an entrepreneur by night with 2/3 hours of sleep in between. It was a constant hustle with problems coming at every opportunity but that’s what being an entrepreneur is about. You’re creating something that doesn’t exist; that often times the world often doesn’t think is needed. You need to fight for relevance every day.

Women LEAD: Are there websites, books, or films that are inspiring you right now about gender equality and women’s empowerment?

Yasmin Belo-Osagie: Not really – real life is. I look around me and see the dearth of African female business leaders, the need for development and the lack of jobs for young people like myself. That inspires me to get out and fight every day.

Projects & Successes in Educating Girls in Developing Countries

Originally posted on 60 million girls:

It is project selection time at the 60 million girls Foundation. Choosing new projects for the upcoming year is always exciting, and we work hard to ensure that our investment will have the most meaningful possible impact with the resources that you ­­­– our supporters – so generously donate.

Our mission is to support girls’ education in developing countries by investing in two major educational projects annually in places wit the greatest gender disparity in school enrollment. Our goal is to raise at least $200,000 a year.

The successes of the 60 million girls Foundation show the important impact we’ve had on children around the world, especially girls. Over the years, we have chosen projects to support some of the world’s most vulnerable children: poor, rural girls, children caught up in conflict situations, handicapped children, and AIDS orphans.

Since 2006, we have invested a total of $1.9 million in…

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Spotlight on 2014 LEADer Reeti KC


“Ever since I was a child, I was really interested in writing. I wanted to inspire people through my writing. I love writing about women’s issues such as women’s empowerment, women’s independence and I want to raise awareness to eradicate women’s problems”, says Reeti. 2014 LEADer Reeti KC is currently studying humanities in grade twelve at St. Mary’s High School. Reeti is also the Social Action Rep of the Media Misrepresentation Project and frequently writes articles, poems and blogs for them. Reeti plans to open up a media house in the future which will attempt to eradicate media misrepresentation. 

When asked about her learning experiences from Women LEAD, Reeti happily remarks, “We have a very friendly environment at Women LEAD. I have now started to speak up and I now feel comfortable while meeting new people. Women LEAD has taught me to be professional and how to deal with business associates in a professional manner. It has helped me build networks with inspiring projects like Media Misrepresentation. I did not know how to open up a blog but thanks to the blog workshop, I now have opened up my own blog”. She is grateful towards Women LEAD for equipping her with all the necessary elements that has helped her become a better LEADer. Reeti continues to write compelling stories, which you can read on her blog here.

Reeti has been also been doing her internship at a literary magazine called La.Lit since November 2014. Reeti works on research and attends and writes about events related to literature and art in Kathmandu for the blog. She also assists with administrative tasks such as monitoring emails, producing, distributing and preparing meeting minutes as well as delivering publications. ‘I have learned some important communication skills such as creating a pitch and ways to communicate professionally with clients’, she shares.

Some of the highlights of her internship include attending the Sarah Lundberg workshop where she learned interesting facts about children’s books and their illustrations. Reeti also got a chance to become involved with the only slam poetry group in Nepal, ‘The Word Warriors’. Reeti eventually plans on opening up a mediahouse. She adds, ‘Getting an opportunity to work at La.Lit really gave me a clear idea and hands-on experience with how media houses function”. Overall, she believes her internship has been extremely rewarding.

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Liz Fortier

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Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter

Liz Fortier earned a Master’s of Public Health degree from New York University in 2012, during which she researched harm reduction measures for intravenous drug users, and worked for a diabetes prevention research study in East Harlem. Passionate about the intersections between health, poverty, and gender equality, Liz has consistently undertaken initiatives relating to the health of marginalized populations and improving access to healthcare for those living in poverty. Recently, she has also undertaken a volunteer role as a mentor at the Women’s Prison Association. She is eager to share what she has learned about health and poverty and how those issues relate to gender equity.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Liz Fortier: I have a Master’s degree in Public Health. I have been fortunate enough to study community health in South Africa, Mexico, and New York City.  Studying public health led me to realize how serious gender inequity is globally, and how poverty and a lack of access to health care sustain some of this inequity.

Women LEAD: You are a volunteer at the Women’s Prison Association, an advocacy group in the US that helps women with criminal justice histories see new possibilities for themselves and their families. Can you tell us more about your role with the Women’s Prison Association?

Liz Fortier: I just started volunteering as a mentor for the Women’s Prison Association (WPA). The mentors for WPA support women who are transitioning out of prison. Mentoring has proven to reduce the recidivism rate among incarcerated individuals. My role involves letter writing, phone calls, one-on-one meetings, and group events with my mentee. Some of the women who are in the mentor program have been incarcerated for lengthy periods of time, and they may not have experience using computers, Internet, or other things that most of us rely on on a daily basis. The mentors act as a support for these women who need resources while transitioning their lives out of prison. The Women’s Prison Association works to empower women. The mentors are not meant to provide for or do things for the mentees, but to guide them to the resources they need to empower themselves.

I got involved with the Women’s Prison Association because this population of women is usually forgotten and extremely vulnerable, vulnerable to poor health outcomes, re-incarceration, substance abuse, and sexual violence to name a few. Many of these women have experienced trauma and faced serious obstacles in their lives. They need extra support, and usually receive none. I felt that my time would be best used serving this population.

Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Liz Fortier: Women’s empowerment matters to me for numerous reasons. The scale of gender inequity may differ by location in the world or culture in which one lives, however, to some degree all over the world, women are affected more seriously by poverty, experience sexual assault, violence and harassment at a higher rate, are more often negatively confined by gender roles, earn less money, fail to have educational opportunities or economic opportunities, and often do not receive appropriate health care and reproductive health rights in comparison to men. To me it is obvious that we need to work toward women’s empowerment because the current situation tells us so.

Women LEAD: Why is learning about the intersection between global health, poverty, and gender equality important to you?

Liz Fortier: Much of my public health background involved studying vulnerable populations. Learning about and spreading awareness of the intersection between global health, poverty, and gender equality is important to me because I think understanding these issues could help break down racial, class, and gender barriers globally that lead to inequality and sustain the status quo. We know that gender inequity is a problem, but if we understand its roots we can eradicate it more effectively.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Liz Fortier: My mom has been a big impact on why I chose to pursue a career working to help people and advocating for gender equity. She always taught me that service was an important part of life, as well as always standing up for what is right.  My mother is an extremely confident and strong woman. She attained her law degree after while raising 3 children. She and my father also raised three of their nieces whose parents couldn’t care for them. My mom recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a political leader in my hometown by winning a position on the city council. I definitely wouldn’t be the person I am without her influence.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for future advocates for women and girls?

Liz Fortier: My advice to future advocates for women and girls is to keep it up! Since becoming a blogger for Girls’ Globe almost 2 years ago, the organization has grown exponentially, and I have become linked to some highly inspiring girls and women. I think we are on the right track. Women are showing everyday that we will stand up for what we want, need, and will work to make the world a better place to live if given the opportunity.

Women LEAD: Are there books inspiring you right now about gender equality and women’s empowerment?

Liz Fortier: Since Maya Angelou passed last year, I decided to re-read a collection of her poetry. It could go without saying, but her life story is just so inspiring. How she overcame so much in her childhood including sexual violence, and used her experiences for good is a reminder to me of how powerful and beautiful we all are. I couldn’t do justice trying to explain some of my favorite poems, so I suggest picking up a copy!

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Ruchira Gupta


                          Photo Credit: David Goldman (

Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter

Ruchira Gupta is the Founder of Indian anti-sex trafficking organization, Apne Aap, which has helped more than 20,000 at-risk and prostituted girls, women and their family members in red-light areas and slums across India to save themselves. In 2009 she won the Clinton Global Citizen Award for her work to end sex trafficking, 15 years after she won an Emmy for outstanding investigative journalism for exposing sex trafficking in the documentary, The Selling of Innocents. Ruchira helped create the first UN Protocol to End Sex Trafficking as well as the Trafficking Fund for Survivors at the United Nations by addressing the UN General Assembly on behalf of survivors and taking a panel of survivors to speak at the UN General Assembly in New York alongside Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. She has opened groundbreaking avenues within India for survivors to communicate their ideas by rallying their voices for the successful passage of Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code – India’s first law on trafficking after the infamous bus rape in Dec, 2012.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Ruchira Gupta: I was a journalist when I stumbled upon rows of villages with missing girls in Nepal nearly twenty years ago. As I investigated the reason for this I found that like 19th century slavery, a sex trafficking chain existed from the villages of Nepal to the brothels of Mumbai – from the local village procurer, to the corrupt border guard, to the lodge keeper, transporter, pimp, brothel manager, landlord, money lender, and organized criminal networks. I ended up making a documentary called The Selling of Innocents on this. I spent a lot of time talking to the women, sharing their anguish and their dreams. At one point during filming, they saved me when a client/pimp pulled a knife to stop me.

This was a life-changing experience for me. I went on to win an Emmy for outstanding investigative journalism but decided to quit mainstream journalism. I still love writing and story-telling, but now I try to do it from the point of view of the last girl – who is poor, female, low-caste and a teenager.

Women LEAD: You are the Founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an organization dedicated to ending sex trafficking by increasing choices for at-risk women and girls. What inspired you to found Apne Aap, and what has its impact been so far?

Ruchira Gupta: When I want back to the brothels to show the selling of innocents, after the Emmy, the 22 women in prostitution who had told their stories in the documentary said they wanted my help to change their lives. They had four dreams: 1. A school for their daughters to save them from the same fate as themselves 2. A job in a office, where they could work fixed hours, nobody would beat them, where there was old age pension and 3. A room of their own: where nobody could walk in when they wanted, where they could sleep as long as they liked and where their children could play safely and 4. Justice -severe punishment of those who had brokered away their dreams by selling and buying them and those who failed to protect them from being trafficked or when they tried to escape.

I said they could save themselves if they organized to speak up and resist the violence just as they had saved me from the knife when I was filming. They said they did not have money, education or networks. We together decided to form Apne Aap, which means “self-empowerment and self-achievement” in Hindi. Our aim was to create a world in which no woman is bought or sold. We decided to hire a teacher and in a small room in the red-light area, we started preparing the children for school. When they were ready, the women went as a group of mothers to the local school principle and cried and begged till he became his prejudice and admitted them. That was the first victory for the women and the Apne Aap teacher. Emboldened, the women then wanted to do something for themselves.We realized that to access anything they needed citizenship documents, like birth certificates or passports or other government-issued IDs. We helped them fill forms and then campaign with local authorities to get the documents.  The women wrote slogans, made posters, signed petitions to put pressure on authorities to give them the IDs. If that failed, they spoke to the media. That helped them get both the IDs and the linked government subsidies like low cost food rations, low-cost health care, low interest loans, slowly reducing their expenses and desperation. Of course their was pushback from the pimps and brothelkeepers as their dependency on the brothels came down. They were beaten. We helped with legal support to go file a case in a police station or testify in court. At the same time we started linking with livelihood promotion organizations and helping women open bank accounts to save some money safely. The whole process created everlasting friendships between the women; we called this the self empowerment group. Over the years, the program grew and we took this approach to other red-light areas in Bhiwandi, Delhi, Bihar and Kolkata. We called it the “ten asset approach” and defined each step as an asset – a safe space, to school, to self-confidence, to political campaign skills, to government IDs, to government subsidies, to bank accounts and loans, to legal support, to livelihood skills and finally nine friends or membership of a group and a network.

More than 21,000 girls, women and their family members became members of this network and reduced their risk or dependency on prostitution. The first generation of daughters of these women are in college now. Over another 1200 are in schools for the first time in their families. They have put 66 traffickers in jail.

In 2013, this network was vocal and strong enough to get trafficking made a penal offense as part of the anti-rape law passed after the Delhi Bus rape on December 16, 2012. And this year they won a comprehensive judgment at the Patna High Court forcing the Bihar government to launch a holistic anti-trafficking program.

Women LEAD: You are also on the board of Coalition against Trafficking in Women. Can you tell us more about your experiences?

Ruchira Gupta: The Coalition has promoted the Nordic model against trafficking. These are laws in Norway and Sweden which punish the purchase of sex – that is clients and traffickers (pimps, brothel-keepers etc.) and de-criminalize the girls and women, recognizing even their choices as based on gender and other inequalities. This has at last shifted the blame from victims to perpetrators. I have seen the Coalition promote this among NGOs, governments, universities and foundations. I have also been part of the Coalition’s efforts to influence the United Nations to create a victim-friendly anti-trafficking framework. It was successful in influencing the passage of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, and ensuring that the framework shifted the blame to the johns and traffickers and de-criminalized the women. Most importantly, it introduced the concept of vulnerability making choice irrelevant in a trafficked person being defined as a victim. This led to an understanding of the context of trafficking as the intersection of gender, class, race, ethnicity, age and caste inequalities.

The Coalition also gave me a group of allies to campaign for laws in my own country and expert opinions and ideas when I needed them. It gave me a global platform to promote my own ideas and of the survivor leaders of Apne Aap.

Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Ruchira Gupta: I have always longed for equality and justice. I have joined any campaign or movement for social and political justice. I slowly began to see that sex was a kind of class or caste; that of any group, females were the largest group that were universally unequal. So I began to campaign for women’s empowerment to  to create a world which respected the full social, political and economic equality of women.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Ruchira Gupta: I am deeply and fundamentally impacted by Gloria Steinem. With her I have experienced how movements grow and how immense our movement is. Walking through the red-light areas of Sonagachi or lobbying in Albany with New York state Assemblymen, our lives have interwoven into shared writing sessions, rallies, meetings, dinners, books, conversations, late night phone calls across continents, brainstorming and sometimes movies. A desk in her living room, across from where she writes is my writing desk in New York, just as my desk in New Delhi has her notes written on yellow paper, left behind from her last visit.

She has taught me that there are always more than two choices, and that there is a third way of proceeding that is familiar to human experience; that small acts have a big impact and when you do something you should not worry about how big its outcome will be; that only time will show, you have to do it as if it matters. Her feminism is rooted in the deep truth of our own experiences and if we do not challenge inequality at home, we will normalize and accept inequality everywhere. If we accept that one sex can be unequal, then why not one class or one race? She has influenced me to measure my actions in its value to the least powerful.

In my own work, I have gone on to call her “The Last Girl.” She is weaker than the poor man, because she female, but she is weaker than the poor man’s wife because she is a teenager and on top of that she could be the “last” because she is black, low-cast , first nation or native American. I have learned from her that we have to be open to listening to identify the weakest. I have seen her listen all the time.

And most importantly, I have the courage derived from watching her, from talking to her, to stick to the Truth when I talk to my sisters. It has been painful but rewarding. We have been able to collaborate across boundaries and cultures to stand up to Big Money and Big Power that promote a culture of masculinity harming us all.

Such an adventure of experience happens all too rarely, where the sense of being an Indian or American is lifted off the mind and where the profoundly political is the simplest truth.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for future champions of anti-trafficking?

Ruchira Gupta: Join other movements for social, political and economic justice; after all, trafficking is an outcome of multiple inequalities and all will have to be rooted out together.

Women LEAD: Are there books inspiring you right now about gender equality and women’s empowerment?

Ruchira Gupta: The Birth of the Maitreya by Bani Basu, about a woman living during the Buddha’s time in Bihar. The Round House by Louise Erdrich, about a Native American Woman rape survivor and Sharmila Rege’s Against the Madness of Manu and Janice Raymond’s Not a Choice, Not A Job.

16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence


From the 25th of November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to  the 10th of December, Human Rights Day, the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign is a time to galvanize action to end violence against women and girls around the world (UN Women). The theme for this year’s global campaign Violence Against Women (VAW) is “Let’s challenge militarism and end violence against women”. As part of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, Women LEAD organized several events to raise awareness and public engagement regarding violence faced by women. As an organization that believes in women and girls leading alongside men through full participation at all decision-making levels, we believe it is important for our organization to support social movements like these.

As part of our events for 16 days, on December 3rd, we hosted a video conference call with the students from St. Michael School in Barbados. The event was co-facilitated by one of our US Board members, Kaara Martinez. Four LEADers from Women LEAD interacted with the Barbados students about how they are personally affected by street harassment. It was a cross cultural exchange where both the parties got to know about each other’s countries. The participants discussed their views regarding street harassment, their personal experiences with it and how they tackled it. They also shared their ideas as to how the street harassment can be dealt on a policy level. One of our LEADers Aakriti said, “It was a good learning experience for us as we got to learn about the Barbados scenario and the diverse cross cultural setting in which harassment can take place.”

On December 5th, Women LEAD, in collaboration with Hollaback Kathmandu conducted a Self Defense session for 30 female refugees for UNHCR Nepal. The session was provided to the refugees from diverse nations such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Nigeria and Vietnam.The primary goal of our self defense sessions was to provide the participants with basic tips on how to defend themselves should they ever come across harassment in public spaces. We aim to equip the most vulnerable groups with the necessary tips so that they can defend themselves. Ayesha, a twenty- three year old refugee from Pakistan said, “It was a very new experience for us. Earlier, we did not know that we could use our body as weapons. But after the session, we learned to use our body as a weapon to protect ourselves.”

Keeping in mind the media’s power when it comes to generating public interest in such social issues, we will be participating as guest speakers in talk shows at our local radio station. Additionally, our LEADers will be writing Op-eds for newspapers to highlight the issues related to violence against Women (VAW) during the 16 days of activism.

We also worked alongside Hollaback Kathmandu, (a global campaign powered by local activists across 29 countries to end street harassment) to create awareness among the young population of Kathmandu about Violence against Women. We hosted workshops across eight different schools in Kathmandu valley. The sessions were provided to students of grade nine as this is the most formative time phase in a person’s life. We also screened a documentary related to VAW such as ‘Girl Rising’ and had a post documentary discussion after that. Our goal is to provide them with the necessary knowledge to tackle these issues in their homes and their communities.

Women LEAD team also had an interactive session with the Women Police from the Women and Children Service Center. The session was very insightful as the staff were very interactive and also showed us their work module from the grass root level. We learned about the current crime rate, the types of crime that are reported and the severity of the crime related to women violence. We also got an insight about the punishments that are associated with the different types of crime related to women violence. The statistics depicted an increment in the reporting of crime due to increased awareness. The Police Center also has separate female constables to deal with the female victims of violence. Inspector Khadka said, “We try to solve the situation in a non-violent manner. If there is violence in a marriage, we give the husband a warning and try to settle the issue in a cohesive manner. We also provide counseling classes for men to sensitize them about gender issues.” LEADer Aakriti shares her experience of her visit saying, “Some of the new things that really amazed me was the fact that the police officials are not so cold natured as we have heard about through other people. They were in fact very supportive when it came to issues regarding the safety of women and children.”

We have also shown our support to the UN Women’s #orangeurhood campaign. Since social media has become an integral part of people’s lives, the campaign’s theme was to wear something orange and showed a message ‘End Violence Against Women’. Violence Against Women’. You can check our photos from the event here. One of our LEADers Reeti says, “The 16 day campaign is an important platform to sensitize the people regarding the issues of women violence. By showcasing different exhibits related to women violence, we can bring awareness amongst the youth and equip them with a positive mindset from an early age and cater to minimise and eventually end violence against women.”

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Holly Curtis

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Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter

Holly Curtis is the Outreach Associate at Girls’ Globe, a global network of bloggers and organizations working to raise awareness about the rights, health and empowerment of women and girls around the world. Passionate about girls education, access to healthcare and gender equality, Holly has traveled across four continents learning from and working with empowering female local leaders. Holly holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Political Economy and International Humanitarian Affairs from Fordham University. With Fordham University, Holly traveled to Spain to teach English at the pre-school level; South Africa to learn about HIV/AIDS treatment and women’s economic empowerment; and to Nicaragua to learn about disaster management procedures in place by the governments and local NGOs.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Holly Curtis: Up until today, my life has been filled with supportive family and friends, opportunities to travel and learn and lots of coffee.  I am from the United States and went to school at Fordham University in New York City where I studied International Political Economy and International Humanitarian Affairs.

Women LEAD: You formerly interned at Pencils of Promise, an organization that builds schools, trains teachers, and funds scholarships. Can you tell us more about your experiences with Pencils of Promise?

Holly Curtis: I first interned in Pencils of Promise’s (PoP) New York City office and then moved to Laos, one of PoP’s operating countries.  The experience was unique because I spent a year advocating for PoP’s work here in NYC and then was able to actually see the schools and programming in Laos.  The Laos office is almost entirely locally staffed and I was there as a support staff member to the Management and Coordinators.

I think PoP’s website does an honest and beautiful job representing their work so to speak to my experience specifically – it was an honor to work with such caring, dedicated and sincere co-workers.  While in Laos, I certainly learned about the inner workings of an NGO and the political and cultural challenges that come with working abroad.  But it was an experience that ultimately solidified my passion for quality education as an agent of change.

Women LEAD: You are also the Outreach Associate at Girls’ Globe, a global network of bloggers and organizations with the goal to raise awareness about the rights, health and empowerment of women and girls worldwide. Can you share with us your experiences with Girls’ Globe?

Holly Curtis: I started blogging for Girls’ Globe while living in Laos.  Listening to the stories of my female friends and co-workers was such a growing experience.  The empowerment I saw in Laos directly aligns with the mission of Girls’ Globe and so the partnership was a natural fit.

I am now the Outreach Associate and lead in the recruitment of our Featured Organizations and Bloggers.  My favorite part of this role is speaking to female leaders around the world and hearing about what they are doing in their communities to empower women.  All of our bloggers and organizations have such unique backgrounds and creative mindsets.  It’s wonderful to hear how they are channeling this energy to promote the rights and health of women and girls.

Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Holly Curtis: I’ve met many women who overcame great challenges to be leaders and change makers in their communities.  Women’s empowerment matters to me because I’ve seen how a woman who has agency over her own decisions and is confident to share her opinions commands the attention of her community.  I’m certainly in agreement with the research and opinions surrounding the effects girls’ education, maternal health and reproductive rights, however I think empowerment is a sum of these areas and more.  A woman who is free to make decisions and feels confident in her role in society has a different glow in her eye.  That’s what leads to the real trickle effects.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Holly Curtis: I can talk about many women who have impacted my life.  But the strongest, most supportive and loving woman I know is without a doubt my mother. She has had an immeasurable impact on my life.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for future women leaders?

Holly Curtis: Pay attention to the unplanned events and opportunities that come about in your life.  I’ve spent hours talking with my female friends about our passions and where we feel like we can have an impact that aligns with our values – only to be left more confused at the end of the conversation.

However the answer started to come to fruition after looking back at past jobs, clubs, academic interests, etc. and noticing the trends.  We’re all drawn to different activities for reasons beyond the title, whether it is the teamwork, mentorship, or creative freedom involved (or many other things!). For me, I liked how these three components came together in the education space.

Then, talk to other women in that field. Successful leaders have strong support networks and are great at building relationships.  This means that current leaders will likely be very open about their experiences and you’ll be taking the lead by initiating that conversation.  All you need to do is ask.

Finally, the other piece of advice I have is to engage men.  If you already have a supportive male figure in your life, speak openly with him.  Leaders are successful because all types of people support them.

Women LEAD: Are there books inspiring you right now about gender equality and women’s empowerment?

Holly Curtis: With a little digging, there are tons of inspiring books about gender equality and women’s empowerment.  I guess what is more inspiring to me is reading books across genres and geographies that are written by female authors.  There is a shortage of media and literature created by women and therefore a disparity in the stories being told.  My recommendation is to make the next book you read within your favorite genre one written by a female.

But to give a quick list of inspiring books I’ve read recently (not explicitly about gender equality) I’d say Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay; The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison; The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan; and White Teeth by Zadie Smith.