Offering stories and statistics illustrating the widely divergent situations of women around the globe, Dr. Rangita de Silva de Alwis made her case clear: local communities and the world at large would benefit from the transformative power of women’s leadership. As the first director of the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, Dr. de Alwis spoke to the School on September 18 about the need to involve equal numbers of women and men in the leadership of countries, corporations, and institutions, bringing issues of health, education, and security to the forefront.
“In India and Nepal,” she noted, “when women have been involved in forest management, conservation outcomes are improved. In Pakistan, mothers who have even one year more of education have children with higher test scores.” Conversely, when women are not educated or present at the decision-making table, she said, research shows that issues concerning child care, health care, and education are often not considered. And though women may comprise 50 percent of the population, they are not represented at this level in most countries, including the U.S., where women comprise only 17 percent of Congress. “We need to re-imagine power and rights in the image of both men and women,” she stressed.
A well-known human rights lawyer and scholar with a doctorate in law from Harvard Law School, Dr. de Alwis has worked with a vast network of institutions and government organizations to develop innovative human rights initiatives around the world, also serving as a consultant to UN agencies and offices committed to children, human rights, and social advancement. Prior to her current appointment, she directed the Women in Public Service Project’s 2012 Institute at Wellesley College and was also the director of International Human Rights Policy at the Wellesley Centers for Women, where she is now the inaugural Susan Bailey McGee Scholar.
Key to creating more transformative women leaders is networking, Dr. de Alwis contended. “This is an age like no other for connecting, for creating networks to support and protect us,” she said. “The friends you make here at Middlesex will be your strongest network.”
Appropriately, Dr. de Alwis dedicated her Hub Lecture to the speaker series’ founder: Dr. Alan Lightman, noted physicist and author, as well as a former Middlesex trustee and parent. With his wife Jean, Dr. Lightman has tangibly supported educational and leadership opportunities for women in Cambodia through The Harpswell Foundation.
Praising the Lightmans’ example, Dr. de Alwis said in closing, “Please use your liberty to promote ours,” quoting her friend, Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has long fought for democracy in Myanmar. “I know that you, too, will embrace that tradition,” she added.