Interview with International Federation of University Women President Catherine A. Bell
Born in the RSA (Republic of South Africa), Miss Catherine Bell manifests herself as a true leader. Thanks to her unique organizational skills she held the office of the IFUW president in February 2013. By that time she already had impressive career achievements behind her. She had managed to work within several different industries, holding offices in different large companies with staff counting over 10 000 employees and engaged in developing financial strategies for entire states.
Ms Bell has tested herself in very different situations and working conditions, always attempting to do something important to help promote women’s interests. For her that was in the line with her family tradition. A year ago, when started with her position of the president at IFUW, she expressed the need in carrying out radical changes in the organization and declared her willingness to make IFUW even more efficient and useful.
In the interview with the Youth Time, Catherine Bell talked about her life story and explained why the educated women will save the world.
In 2012 IFUW (International Federation of University Women) got into the top seven most influential women’s organizations in the world of the prestigious Forbes magazine. At the same time IFUW is one of the oldest organizations of its kind.
The idea to support interests of women with high education came to minds of a group of activists in the USA and Great Britain: among them were Virginia Gildersleeve, Caroline Spurgeon and Rose Sidgwick. When in 1919 they noted with disappointment that many contemporary women could not join the movement simply because they were illiterate and could not read. The organization that they created came as a response to the challenges of the time and gradually gained a reputation of an eminent international association and of an important player on the highest political level.
The activities of IFUW are still relevant nowadays, as the world has not coped with all the issues preventing women to get their education. Currently the organization is offering grants for studying at high schools and universities, as well as various internships all over the world. More details on the history of IFUW and its current activities please see on their official web page: www.ifuw.org.
The IFUW logo was developed by the movement’s activists in 1924 at the conference is Oslo. It contains an outline drawing of an antique lamp, which is symbolizing the light of knowledge. Later this lamp got famous as the lamp of friendship.
Women’s organizations have made great advances in women’s rights in recent years. But you have probably heard about negative perspectives on the women of today, who allegedly have lost their femininity. What do you think about it?
There has been resistance in many places to women’s rights, as equal rights for women are in some places considered socially, culturally or morally inappropriate. Furthermore, women are sometimes viewed as not capable of managing such freedoms.
There is a diversity of practice and law around the world. I recognise that advances in human rights are fragile and incomplete. IFUW represents the voices of tens of thousands of educated women in 61 countries and has done so for 94 years. We must be vigilant in protecting and promoting secondary, tertiary, continuing and non-conventional education, so that girls and women can be empowered.
IFUW places great hope in the next generation, which is aware of social issues and willing to engage when it believes the cause is right.
Your organization carries out numerous projects around the world. Where and in what sphere of your activity have you achieved significant success, and where do women still face serious challenges with access to quality education? You’ve worked to advocate education for years. What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned?
Human rights and education are indivisible. Girls and women cannot enjoy education without enjoying other human rights. For example, many girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan run a risk of violence for attempting to attend or for attending school. Another example is sanitation. Where there are no girls’ toilets in schools there are few girls at school. A third example is discrimination. When a family cannot afford to educate all of its children, the boys are often sent to school and the girls work at home to enable the boys to be educated or to enable the parents to work for pay. The girls may also be married off.
That is why IFUW has been active, at the international level, in ensuring that girls and women have a place. This is further promoted through its national federations and associations, at the national and local level. IFUW was instrumental in getting the girl child included in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and also in the creation of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
IFUW has also seen success in its fellowships and grants programme. Since it began in 1924, it has funded over 550 women from 76 countries through its international programme, and thousands more through its member federations and associations. I am also proud of our Hegg Hoffet Fund for Displaced Graduate Women, which supports educated women who are displaced by war and violence to find a place in the new countries where they settle.
Education is important for realising human rights. In order for a country, a community or a family to respect human rights, people need to learn what human rights are. In an ideal world, all young people would be cognisant of their human rights and promote them actively.
Ms. Bell, what in your case induced you to be active in women’s advocacy? When did you first realize education was important?
My membership of IFUW is a legacy from my mother, who was herself a very active member of IFUW. I grew up in apartheid South Africa and believe that girls and women should suffer NO discrimination, for gender, colour, religious or any other reasons. This is even more true today. As countries develop, there is a loss of manual jobs to the knowledge and service economies. We see that women without secondary and tertiary education are the poorest and most vulnerable in society.
The advent of the internet reinforces the need for minimum literacy skills. For example, women at home can run internet-based microbusinesses that support families. In order to manage this kind of project, girls and women must have access to education. Educate a girl or a woman and you educate a community and a country!
It is standard question that still doesn’t have an answer: how the woman of today can combine her active social life with family and domestic responsibilities? What is your opinion about the stereotypes about women?
There is no one answer as different communities have different realities. Many women do not enjoy an ‘active social life’ as you say, because it is not socially acceptable, or because their husbands do not permit it, or because the burden of unpaid work takes all of their time, or for many other reasons.
What is most important is that a woman be able to make life’s fundamental decisions for herself. In order for her to be able to do this, secondary, tertiary, continuing and non-conventional education are essential. Without education her options will be limited and she is unable to choose her own destiny.
Ms. Bell, what image of woman could really inspire you?
I admire women who commit themselves to making the way a bit easier for others and who engage in making the world a better place. Malala particularly inspires me, as she has had the courage to stand up for girls’ education, at great personal risk.
In IFUW, I respect and admire the energy and engagement of our members and affiliates who advocate for secondary, tertiary, continuing and non-conventional education for girls and women.
IFUW hopes to garner the attention of many more young women, who bring energy, enthusiasm and skills to the table, at the same time working with their male peers to make the world a better place.
Are there things in modern schools that you think should be required learning?
Secondary school education should be required for all girls and boys in all countries. Secondary and tertiary education are necessary building blocks for families and communities to enable economic development for all.
All educational institutions should incorporate human rights education in their curricula. This includes all places of learning, among which are teacher training schools, police academies, law schools, medical schools and military training institutions.
Girls and women should be engaged in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) from early childhood. Science and technology are the twin pillars of progress, improve a state’s productivity and competitiveness, create decent work opportunities and contribute to people’s well-being. When girls and women participate in innovation, they shape its direction to benefit humanity as a whole.
Photo: From the archive of Catherine A. Bell
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