Site of PM’s power speech

Low Library was, as the youth say, “lit” last evening, as Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, spoke to members of the Columbia community. Staff writer Megan Fillion was there to soak in Hasina’s words, and comment wittily on PrezBo’s fumbling introductions.

“I am going to speak to you about a topic that is close to my heart: girls’ and women’s empowerment.”

Thus opened “Girls Lead the Way,” a powerful speech on the intersection of female empowerment and national development, given by one of the few women in world leadership, Sheikh Hasina. Hasina,the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, has overseen economic growth in country that has been praised worldwide, which she credits to programs designed to better incorporate women and other historically excluded groups into the workplace. Speaking at the invitation of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and as part of the year-round World Leaders Forum, Hasina described her accomplishments particularly in women’s education and in environmental preservation. She further revealed her hopes for a fully developed Bangladesh in 25 years.

A major focus of both Hasina’s speech and her time as Prime Minister was education. In 2010, one year into her second term, Hasina instituted universal education. Before, though primary and secondary school was free for boys, education was free for girls only through the second grade. Pairing this greater access to education with the support necessary to pursue it, Hasina worked to create two programs: the “Education Trust Fund,” 75% of whose beneficiaries were ultimately girls; and another program to help impoverished families send their kids to school, which sends a small stipend to underprivileged families who enroll their children in school, fostering the idea of educating children and combatting child labor.

Hasina also spoke about her role in advancing women’s welfare in other domains. Since she took office, she said, the percentage of women in the workforce has risen from 24% to 36%, and there are more opportunities for women in government jobs, the army, and other armed forces of Bangladesh.

This more equitable access to education and opportunity appear to be fueling significant economic growth. Bangladesh has received widespread praise for the large rise in its GDP since 2009—about 50%. Hasina credited this especially to her education programs.

Towards the end of her speech, Hasina looked towards the future, paying special attention to the dangers of climate change and the importance of sustainable development. She said she prides herself on her country’s efforts to use reusable energy, despite heavy pollution from neighboring countries. When challenged on this during the Q&A, Hasina said: “I have received many promises but have seen no significant change.” She continued by saying that she plans to “shift focus from quantity to quality” – meaning that her previous campaigns were based on numbers (lowering poverty rates, raising education rates), and she is now trying to improve infrastructures already in place in education and the economy. She plans to increase technology research and place a greater importance on sustainable development. The prime minister stated her ambitious goal to transform Bangladesh into a middle-income country by 2021 and a developed country by 2041.

Although English isn’t her native language, Hasina spoke clearly and eloquently. She radiated a smile when surveying the audience for Bangladeshi students, and spent time laughing and taking pictures with the audience after the event. She spoke proudly of her country, praising Bangladesh’s prosperity despite the world financial crisis, but did not attempt to hide its nuances and complexities, acknowledging, for example, religious conflicts still brewing in her country.

In contrast, Columbia’s President Bollinger, for his part, came off as elitist and even rude at times. When introducing Hasina, Bollinger focused more on Bangladesh’s dire poverty rate, which has dropped from 57% to 25%, and less on the prime minister’s accomplishments or the cause at hand—women’s education. Strangely, he enforced a “three questions at a time” Q&A policy, apparently smirking when Hasina decided to answer every question individually.

Fortunately, Bollinger’s smarm could not overwhelm the charisma or the message of the day’s speaker. Although Hasina did base most of her speech on her laurels, the Prime Minister still strove to portray the importance of gender equality in the world and to inspire a new generation to join her in her work. Having begun her speech with her passion, Sheikh Hasina finished by calling on us to pursue our own.

“I challenge the leaders of tomorrow to rise to the occasion and help the world become a better place.”

Low at night courtesy Bwog