Dr. Patricia T. Morris is the President of Women Thrive Worldwide and an internationally known leader in women’s empowerment and development. She will be a featured speaker and panelist at the fourth annual GWL leadership conference, Access to a Healthier World: Sustaining Women, Communities, and our Future.
What made you decide to work in women’s rights and women’s issues?
I was a women’s rights activist since I was young. When I was four, I got a doll for a gift instead of a toy truck with sounds and light that I really wanted. I had a temper tantrum and was so inconsolable that my mother finally had my godfather go find me a toy truck. So I was determined at four, and I realized that raising my voice is important.
When I went to graduate school, I also had the wonderful opportunity to go to a session when they were launching Sisterhood is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology edited by Robin Morgan. I was really enthralled by the book, and I wanted to find a way to focus on global women’s issues and global women’s movement in the future. I have been fortunate enough to be able to have that as a career over the past twenty-five years. I am doing the work that is important to me and also important to women and girls around the world–you can’t ask for anything better than that.
What does Women Thrive Worldwide do?
Women Thrive is an advocacy organization founded 18 years ago that works to bring voices, priorities and solutions for women and girls living in poverty to decision makers. We work on a wide array of issues such as ending poverty, promoting women’s economic empowerment, fighting against gender-based violence, improving health and education, and increasing women’s participation in the public and private sector. We started out working on leveraging the power that women and men in the US have and to push Congress to make sure that there are policies and funding that benefit women and girls around the world. It is important that international development policies and programs should be grounded in the reality of the women and girls living in poverty, and the best way to make it happen is to bring women and girls directly to local decision makers, engage them, and let them know their issues, priorities and recommendations for solutions.
Could you share a success story of including women and girls in the decision making processes?
I would like to share two examples of how women’s collective voice and their engagement with decision makers bring about effective policies and the implementation and enforcement of them on local and global levels. When Ghana passed a new fishing law, one of our partners, Development Action Association, got the women’s fishing cooperatives together and talked about ways to engage local decision makers to address some of the problems that they had. One of the issues that they identified is that the law was not being enforced to regulate commercial fishing that was threatening the livelihood of small-scale, artisanal fisheries. They also proposed that the regulations, which were only available in English, should be translated into local languages so that more people would be informed about different rules and regulations. Another example is our advocacy work, in collaboration with the civil society organizations such as Forum for Africa Women Educationalists (FAWE), to bring grassroots recommendations for education to the global level. We worked in the past three years advocating for Sustainable Development Goals focused on quality, equitable, and life-long education. We were very pleased that out of the SDGs, which were adopted last September, the Goal 4 “Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning” includes the language that we have been advocating for. Last week, we also launched a report on collective advocacy for women’s rights at the UN commission on the status of women.
Tell me about a time when you faced challenges and took action.
One challenge happened a while ago when I was doing programming with women survivors of conflict, advocating for their rights and providing training for them to be able to earn a living on their own. When we had a meeting with a group of women who showed up with their husbands, I found that one of the European donors hardly made eye contact with the women, while addressing all her comments to their husbands and partners. When we took a break, I felt that it was absolutely critical to raise my voice and directly said to her, “I have real concerns here.” I felt that the women needed to get respect and dignity that they deserve, and we should treat them as entrepreneurs and not treat them as invisible. The donor got very upset at first and even mentioned the possibility of discontinuing the program. However, at the moment, I really felt that it’s about principles–if we want to promote women’s rights and empowerment, we can’t do it half way, we have to go all the way. She eventually acknowledged that I was correct, and the remainder of the meeting was completely different from the first part of the meeting.
What has been the most rewarding moment of your career?
For me, it was going to the Fourth World Congress on Women in Beijing in 1995. Meeting women from all over the world who all came together to promote women’s rights and gender equality was a physical manifestation of “Sisterhood is Global.” For me, it continues to be the most rewarding moment in my life and of my career.
Advice for young leaders?
Go change the world because you can! A lot of the time we think we can’t, but I will tell you: Women Thrive has an alliance of over 200 organizations in 50 countries, and many of these organizations have been founded by or being run by youth. Young people in their countries, working on gender-based violence, education, and women’s economic empowerment, are truly making a difference. Both young men and women are very engaged around the world, and I think we are at a time where we can really grow a global movement for women’s rights and gender equality. We can all do it together and bring the change.
See the agenda for 2016 SAIS Global Women in Leadership Conference