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Ireland Fellows Programme marks International Women's Day

The Ireland Fellows Programme’s celebration of International Women’s Day was held online on 11 March focusing on the themes of Women in Leadership and achieving equality in a post-COVID-19 world. The event was chaired by ICOS' Executive Director, Laura Harmon, while the panel featured current fellow Hilina Getachew Ayalow, who is the Chief of Staff to the Commissioner of the Ethiopian Investment Commission and currently studying for an MA in Public Policy at DCU; Nuala O’Brien, the Ambassador of Ireland to Mozambique; Sibungle Mtungwa, who is the Director for Women’s Leadership and Training Programme in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa and an Ireland Fellows Programme Alumna from 2005-6; and Dr. Siobhan Mullally, the Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway and the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children.

Minister for State for Overseas Development Aid and Diaspora, Colm Brophy, T.D., opened the event by thanking the HEI’s of Ireland for their care and support of the fellows currently undertaking fellowships and expressed his optimism at the improvement that would hopefully be seen soon as COVID-19 restrictions lift. The Minister emphasised the importance of the links created and maintained by the Ireland Fellows Programme and how, as the fellows complete their studies in Ireland in the coming months, they head out into the world as an important part of the greater Irish family. The fellowships are fundamental to the national strategy to support the roles of women and girls in leadership at all levels. The Minister emphasised that, amongst the sustainable development goals, education is a key priority and undoubtedly contributes to opportunities for women in leadership, globally.

Each of the speakers spoke of their own personal leadership journeys, touching on the importance of role models, of not taking progress for granted, of recognising the barriers to women in order to overcome them, of friendships and networks, and how it is never too late begin anything – especially your own education. Each of these stories was inspirational in different ways.

As part of a panel discussion that followed, the speakers discussed how they have seen women affected by COVID-19 in many ways. From inequitable distribution of vaccines globally, the lack of female expert representation in media reports, and the imbalance in expectations of women to provide caring roles for the vulnerable, elderly and children at a time when people are encouraged to work from home, and how these roles could be more equitably distributed. Potential positives were also highlighted, with reflections on how working from home could challenge the value of presenteeism and would allow more opportunity for people with disabilities or who might appreciate the flexibility that working from home would allow. There was also discussion about the potential for the COVID-19 crisis to support the idea that a social safety net should be put in place and built into the social and political fabric of developing nations. 

A recurring theme was that female education should be a priority issue for governments globally, especially as COVID-19 threatens female engagement and attendance. So too was the idea that staying authentic to yourself and your cause was important, with advice provided to attendees about some tricks to push themselves forward that should help quash the voices of doubt.

Supporting women in leadership was also a strong theme to emerge from the panel discussion, with panellists urging that we be ambitious for women and provide support and encouragement where we can. We must all be part of the solution to the question of how to increase the representation and value of women in leadership.