In August of 2015, I decided to put myself into a public health-related role. I was thinking, “My platform, that I have—which is showing up on TV shows and magazines, and on social media, and so forth—I want to use it for a greater good.” That meant not just communicating with people all over the world about my work but also raising awareness about a particular issue that affected women and girls in the United States.
One day, I stumbled across Soraya Jan in an article about the 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. Chibok is a very remote part of Borno State. Dr. Jan is the chair of Women, Security and Democracy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in the Doha campus. I noticed a line in the article that read, “How women survive in the crisis-torn country of Nigeria,” and I was blown away. What struck me immediately was the number of girls kidnapped and the fact that they never got to graduate high school. I thought, “I want to help these girls.” I volunteered to be part of the campaign to petition Congress and bring attention to the issue. We helped write two pieces of legislation and started a campaign to get Secretary of State John Kerry to visit Nigeria. I also wanted to help motivate women to make their voices heard on a bigger scale. To that end, I joined Soraya’s nonprofit (which I have since shut down, legally speaking).
Soraya Jan, center, with Soraya Jan Foundation founder Amanda Nair, Jessica Haids, Gillian Shapiro, and O’Neil Dingle.
Soraya is a powerful advocate for a women’s movement in Nigeria. Just a few months ago, she made some amazing remarks at a new conference I attended: “Gender inequality does not exist in the United States.” I’m trying to give her the same degree of power—but based on my experiences of being an advocate for women worldwide—I want her to realize that the level of injustice she sees and knows, she can’t do anything until the American public starts taking a stand. This organization works closely with women in Afghanistan and Pakistan—exactly the same situations I have seen the results of women being left behind. I am really proud of our connections with Soraya in Pakistan and Afghanistan and with Women’s Action Forum in Nigeria. It’s important to me that you’re rooting for these women!
Jessica Haids: “I’m really proud of our connections with Soraya in Pakistan and Afghanistan and with Women’s Action Forum in Nigeria. It’s important to me that you’re rooting for these women!”
Soraya Jan: “Women from Afghanistan to Pakistan come to the conference to get information and look at different stories. Soraya has an amazing ability to get these powerful women to see the connections and help facilitate one another’s careers and lives.”
Jessica Haids: “I have heard stories from women who left their homes and came to this conference. They wanted to come and hear what was happening to women in other countries.”
O’Neil Dingle: “What I enjoy about our conference are these connections. We feel a sense of community and are talking to people from different backgrounds. We believe that what we’re doing can have an impact.”
O’Neil Dingle: “When people come to speak, we know they’re coming from a different country with different viewpoints, so I hope they think of us as just being from the U.S.”
Dr. Jane Kennedy: “This is the first and last stop of the trip. It is important that all the people in attendance in Washington understand that women’s concerns take a variety of forms. Women in various countries are more likely to have a strong sense of who they are when they feel they are part of a unified voice. They’re not going to come up with an idea or a promise that they will continue to advocate in the same way after they leave—they have to ensure that these issues are passed on.”
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