Head of Policy and Advocacy | Women for Women International
What do you do at Women for Women International and why?
As the Head of Policy and Advocacy for Women for Women International, my role is to oversee policy and advocacy for the whole global organisation. This includes setting a strategic direction for the organisation, supporting colleagues and partners to deliver advocacy projects on the ground, and sharing our evidence with key influencers, such as the UK Government, to amplify the voices of the women we work with.
I’m passionate about women’s rights and I see advocacy as the way to affect change in a sustained way. Women for Women International takes a rights-based approach and works to empower the most marginalised women — I love what we do as an organisation and how we do it.
Tell me about a typical day at Women for Women International.
There isn’t such a thing as a typical day for me. Yesterday I had back-to-back meetings with colleagues in the UK and the US, and I spoke with our Afghanistan, Nigeria and Rwanda offices. At the moment Women for Women International is having a lot of internal discussions about what we want our advocacy strategy to be - what kind of model do we want to follow, what our values are, etc.
Other days I’ll revise a curriculum for our programs in Afghanistan, travel to places like Iraq, or Nepal, or Washington DC to meet with civil society partners or government representatives. A lot of advocacy work is about relationship building, and maintaining those relationships as a way of growing influence, which requires a fair bit of time.
Women for Women International has plans, but the outside world is always changing so we have to review our analysis and adapt our plans to make sure we’re still affecting the changes we want to see. For example, last year (2017), there was a snap election in the UK and that scuppered a lot of our plans, but we used it as an opportunity to write to Members of Parliament to tell them what we wanted and expected of a new UK Government. This also gave us an opportunity to build relationships with new parliamentarians and the new Government. Advocacy Plans have to be living documents, especially in the current political climate.
Women for Women International takes a gender sensitive approach to conflict – why is that important?
This is going to sound a bit flippant, but I don’t understand why you wouldn’t take that approach! I’m constantly in meetings having to justify women’s rights and why we need those rights to be fulfilled. But what’s the business case for not doing women’s rights? Why would you not take a gender sensitive approach to conflict? Conflict affects women, men, and minorities differently. If our objective is to build peace in the world then we have to address the needs of everyone.
If you think about the traditional view of conflict, it’s very masculinised – it’s about men with guns and power. During the Bosnian conflict, for example, the Dayton Peace Agreement focused on stopping fighting but it didn’t address the need for long term peace, development and stability, and there’s been no real opportunity for change. It’s been about ending conflict, not about building peace.
Women’s voices shouldn’t be marginalised to so-called “women’s issues”. There’s evidence to show peace agreements are more likely to work if women are included in the peace-building process. That’s because women’s experience of conflict is gendered, meaning it is shaped by their status as women - and I don’t only mean by violence. Women perspectives need to be represented to ensure that the consequences of conflict are addressed. Ensuring the whole population is represented is also fundamental to an effective democracy (state-building). If you include women in the peace-building process, they don’t only talk about women’s issues, they also give different perspectives on what their communities need.
Not to sound geeky, but I read that you did a secondment period in Kenya – what were your experiences of working abroad and working at a grassroots level?
First of all, never apologise for being geeky! There’s no shame in it -- being geeky is amazing!
I was working for Amnesty International in London, but I felt quite disconnected from what we were advocating for. I wanted to take advantage of the organisation's global scope and set up a secondment in Kenya for three months. It was awesome, but also was a very different side to Amnesty than I’d seen working in the UK. We worked with local communities to deliver human rights education and did a lot of work on women’s rights. One issue we tried to address was forced slum evictions. We built community groups to help people empower themselves by educating them on their human rights. Knowledge is power and learning about your human rights can be very empowering, so we really helped people advocate for themselves.
It was also in Kenya that I really heard my feminist calling. I supported members of the community to become the “Gender Defenders”, who are case workers that help women who have been abused, run self-defense classes, and lessons about women’s rights in schools.
There are lots of awesome grassroots activities which, ultimately, is how change happens. As an advocate you can spend a lot of time and effort trying to get governments to act, but that’s just a starting point. You really have to push for implementation.
The community-based approach you mentioned isn’t the same approach as working as part of an international NGO that goes into the country without understanding its culture, right?
I think assuming you know better and then going into countries and telling them what to do is a very arrogant and colonial approach. It’s probably how international development ‘worked’ a generation ago, and maybe even more recently than that. My perspective is supporting my colleagues to do their jobs by passing on the knowledge I’ve been lucky enough to gain. It’s also important to remember that there’s no single way to do advocacy and that I don’t have all the answers, so I also need to learn from the people I work with.
Women for Women International is an adult training organisation and we try and use our core principles to train people in local communities and also to support each other. Prior to my Masters I taught in China for a bit... I’m not sure how well you stalked me on LinkedIn?
Pretty well – I did see that actually!
I taught English in China which was a mixture of teaching adults and children. This actually really helped me with my advocacy work. It’s odd how the things you do can come back to later in your career. I enjoyed teaching, but I didn’t realise how much it would help my communication skills. I have a very academic background, but I realised none of that matters if you’re trying to teach four-year olds.
When I moved back to London, I took a temp job while looking for a “real job”. Looking back, that job really gave me project management experience, which I use every day because I’m multi-tasking. I keep coming back to skills and experiences I gained from university and from this temp job.
When I started working I assumed I knew which skills I’d need but it’s totally different from an employer’s perspective. If you’re writing a cover letter it’s not an opportunity to show how much you know about a subject, rather it’s a chance to show that you have the skills they need. It’s interesting to connect the dots between where I was and where I am now and realising how much I gained from jobs when I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time.
Do you have any advice for young women who want to go into foreign policy?
The first thing I advise is don’t expect your path to be linear. I’ve always had a vague idea of where I want to go, but now I think about it in terms of the skills and experience I need to get there. I don’t really think of it as a trajectory but more of a toolkit. You have to think of the skills, knowledge and experience you need to pick up along the way and where that can take you. You might not get your dream job tomorrow, or maybe you will, but it’s important to think about how you can build up your toolkit and think about what each job will give you.
Every time I apply for a job I try and think about what I’ll get from it and what it means for me as a step in my career. Every time you take a step in your career you close some doors and you open others, which you have to be mindful of. When I started working for Women for Women International I knew I was closing the door to a career in research for good, which is what I always assumed I’d go into. Not everyone has a clear vision for their career and I think it’s rare that anyone has a single or straight career path. There will be forks in the road and you have to be conscious of where each path will take you.
Also, you really need to be kind to yourself. Don't beat yourself up because you don’t have “the dream job” straight out of university. Any job can be valuable as long as it’s a job you’re getting something out of!