9 March 2015

Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: My Stroll with Melissa Fleming


International Women’s Day, celebrated globally on 8 March, will highlight the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a historic road-map signed by 189 governments 20 years ago that sets the agenda for realizing women’s rights. While there have been many achievements since then, many serious gaps remain.

This is the time to uphold women’s achievements, recognize challenges, and focus greater attention on women’s rights and gender equality to mobilize all people to do their part. The Beijing Platform for Action focuses on 12 critical areas of concern, and envisions a world where each woman and girl can exercise her choices, such as participating in politics, getting an education, having an income, and living in societies free from violence and discrimination. [1]

Today's guest, Melissa Fleming, is Head of Communications and Chief Spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Everyday her enormous task is to speak for the millions of displaced and dispossessed people in refugee camps all over the world. 

A Veteran communications strategist who keeps striving for the good of humanity; Melissa started her career at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich, Germany, and then moved on to the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) in Vienna. After 6 years at OSCE she moved to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)--which she recorded a lot of success, including IAEA's 2005 Nobel Peace Prize; working alongside Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei.

In course of this Stroll Melissa and I discuss the plight of women in refugee camps; the work of UNHCR around the world; TEDxPlaceDesNations which she organized, and much more. Here's our conversation, I hope you enjoy it.

Ebenezar: It's a pleasure having you on the Stroll, Ma, and happy Women's Day to you an all women around the world.

Melissa: Thank you very much Ebenezar.

Ebenezar: Over the years, Individuals and organizations across the world have led the conversation for gender equality—arguing that men and women are equal. Also another school of thought claims the fight should be for gender equity not gender equality because, according to them, men and women are not the same and can never be equal. What side of this argument are you on?

Melissa: Women and men are very different, but should be equal in treatment and opportunity. 

Ebenezar: Okay, UN Women launched a campaign last year tagged #HeforShe, and the emphasis is on how men can lead the women rights cause. What are some ways you think men and boys can lead this cause?

Melissa: I agree that if men embrace, and even in certain instances, lead women's rights campaigns, change will come about more quickly. This is especially true where cultural practices such as female genital mutilation is considered a requirement for marriage or flirtation a justification for honor killing. I was inspired by the reaction of some Turkish men to the horrific rape and murder of a young female student by the driver of a public bus. They joined the protests and wore skirts. 

The media took notice of that! But it is also true in the workplace – ensuring women have the chance to reach the top in organizations and corporate boards and making it socially acceptable to have men sharing the burden of home life.

Ebenezar: Still talking women rights, the rights of women and girls in refugee camps has been in the spotlight for a while now. Recently, I saw a documentary that highlighted the sexual abuse women in a particular refugee camp go through, and it literally brought me to tears. Is there anything UNHCR can do about this situation? Perhaps help them get justice?

Melissa: UNHCR is deeply concerned about the safety and security of women and girl refugees. It is unacceptable that fear of sexual assault is a factor of refugee life. But unfortunately, sexual and gender based violence is one of the most widespread protection risks faced by forcibly displaced women and girls, and even for some men and boys. Conflict and displacement make refugees and the displaced more vulnerable to abuse, including domestic violence, sexual exploitation, survival sex and forced marriage.

UNHCR is grateful for funding from the United States for a three-year initiative called "Safe from the Start" to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian emergencies around the world. This allows us to dedicate staff at the start of an emergency to ensure our camp design and our education and health care programs are aimed to prevent sexual violence.

Melissa meets with a child refugee during a visit to Iraq in 2011
Ebenezar: That's good to know. Moving on, you're currently Chief Spokesperson for UNHCR and in an interview you granted sometime ago, you explained how your predecessor, Mr Ron Redmond, encouraged you to apply for this position because, he believed he was, and I quote, "…doing God's work". More than just a job, do you also see your work at UNHCR as God's work? Do you believe in God?

Melissa: I recall a recent visit to Ethiopia on the border with South Sudan where fighting had erupted and was forcing people to flee. They trekked for days to get there facing grave threats along the way and with little food and water. The people I encountered were skin and bones – 25% malnourished – and visibly traumatized. 

Our teams were there to greet and assist them. And it was then I realized that if it weren't for UNHCR and its humanitarian partners at that border, these people might not have made it through another day.

Ebenezar: Wow... that's something.

Melissa: So it is work with a much higher purpose. It is satisfying to communicate and advocate on their behalf. And it puts my own privileged and peaceful life into perspective. But it is also unsettling because there is too much suffering and loss and unmet needs that weigh on my conscience all the time.

Melissa speaking at TEDGlobal 2014 
Ebenezar: In your 2014 TED talk, which has over 700k views worldwide, you also narrated your encounter with different refugees, and made a plea for the world to help displaced people thrive and not just survive. What are some ways ordinary people, like me, can assist the global efforts of UNHCR?

Melissa: I have always been shocked at the lack of investment in refugee education, especially when the average time a refugee will spend in exile is 17 years. And these are refugee populations from countries where the world has a strategic interest in building peaceful futures. Building awareness by sharing stories of the education dreams of refugees in exile is a start. We need a movement to drive support for investment in refugees during their time in waiting as a way to prepare for a peaceful and prosperous future of their war-torn countries and the stability of the region. 

Ebenezar: What was your experience at TED Global 2014 like? And what does it feel like to speak on that stage with the whole world listening?

Melissa: The stakes were really high and I was quite nervous. I had one of the most powerful stages in the world to make a case for refugees. If I succeeded, not only would I have moved and convinced an influential TED audience, but I would get my talk published on TED.com, an online powerhouse with massive global reach. The response I got was overwhelming – offers to contribute in so many innovative and thoughtful ways. 

Ebenezar: That's just incredible. I'm sure that experience prepared you to be organizer for TEDxPlaceDesNations, and by the way, I wasn't there in person but I followed online and it was really an inspiring event, Well done. 

Melissa: Thank you.

Ebenezar: Do you plan to have a sequel of TEDxPlaceDesNations in 2015?

Melissa: I was so inspired by the TED community I met at TEDGlobal in Rio. A group of successful, brilliant and socially engaged people who would rather spend their vacation listening to live TED talks, than at a holiday resort. And there I also met about 100 mutually-supportive TEDx organizers from all over the world who had great open minds and huge curiosity. I was hooked. Yes, there will be another TEDxPlaceDesNations in Geneva – probably not until early 2016 as we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the UN with several events this year.

Ebenezar: So, back to you. You started your career at Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty in Munich, Germany, and then moved on to the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) in Vienna. After 6 years at OSCE you moved to the International Atomic Energy Agency—which you recorded a lot of success, including IAEA's 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. From IAEA you moved on to UNHCR and you've been there for a while. Have you finally anchored your ship? Or you just might be moving on to bigger things soon?

Melissa: The refugee cause has captured my heart. Should I ever move on, I would continue to work for human rights and a more humane world. 

Ebenezar: What's your advice to women and girls out there who wish to attain the height you've reached so far in your career?

Melissa: Consider picking a profession that helps people. This is hugely satisfying! And there is a huge spectrum for public good in the most traditional professions. And ask for help and advice and seek mentors along the way. As a woman, it is important to be acutely aware of the cultural environment you are in, particularly if it is in an international setting. It takes grit and insight and emotional intelligence to navigate your way along and up the ladder.

Ebenezar: On a final note, you have a very active twitter handle and you often encourage your colleagues to share their work with the rest of the word via social media. What's your advice to young people out there on the use of social media for good causes?

Melissa: We have a tremendous opportunity to reach out to people directly through social media. It wasn't long ago when the only avenue to communicate with large public audiences was through the traditional news media. But it also takes personal engagement. Social media followers do not like institutional broadcasts, or formulaic messages. They want connections with real people. I have found there is real interest in humanitarian workers, and encouraging them to engage personally is a powerful way to build bridges to connect people to what we do and what we stand for and to build a community of engaged supporters. 

Ebenezar: Thank you so much once again for having this stroll with me, Mrs Fleming, I wish you all the best in your work.

Melissa: You're welcome, Ebenezar.

Thought to Remember: "Charm can be deceiving, and beauty fades away, but a woman who honours the Lord deserves to be praised" (Proverbs 31v30, CEV)

(Images Credit: Melissa Fleming, UN News Center, TED, UNHCR) 


1-- UN Women, International Women's Day. http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/international-womens-day

My next stroll is with Stephen Sackur, the host of BBC's News and Current Affairs interview show, HARDtalk. That stroll will be published on March 20th to #Observe, International Day of Happiness.

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