ROME: Seventeen women from six Arab countries discussed challenges and new trends in diplomacy during a weeklong seminar organized by the Italian Foreign Affairs Ministry in association with leading research center The Italian Society for International Organization (SIOI).
Women aged between 25 and 40 from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia – hailing from various backgrounds including lawmakers, diplomats, civil servants, entrepreneurs as well as women’s rights and civil society activists – gathered in Rome between Feb. 25 and March 1 for the Women in Diplomacy course.
The program included interactive panel discussions with Italian and international policymakers, diplomats, and representatives of the civil society and international organizations.
Italy’s Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Marta Dassu, the brain behind the initiative, told The Daily Star that the Women in Diplomacy course was the first operational follow-up to an international conference on the topic organized by her ministry in July.
She explained that last year’s conference, which followed the “Women in Public Service Project” launched by former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, looked to promote and strengthen the role and leadership of women in public administration and international careers.
“[For this conference] we decided to focus on the Mediterranean and the Middle East, a region with which Italy has deep historical and geographical links, to build the first core of a network of outstanding young women, which we hope will be part of a wider net in the future,” Dassu said.
Speakers at the seminar included veteran diplomat Staffan de Mistura, who spoke about his work with the United Nations and more recently his job as the Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs in Italy.
Italy’s former ambassador to New Delhi and Tehran, Roberto Toscano, argued that the job of anyone working in foreign policy was increasingly challenging as the world moves toward what he dubbed as “multipolarity.”
“More than any time before, international as well as local elements impinge upon how things are dealt with in [diplomatic work],” he added.
Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Program, delivered an inspirational speech about the challenges facing women in the workforce
She also gave participants leadership tips and highlighted the importance of building networks for professional purposes.
Cousin maintained that women make exceptional diplomats due to their abilities to “listen, reach out, and communicate.”
The 17 participants also got the chance to meet celebrated Italian politician and human rights activist Emma Bonino during a panel debate that explored the role of women as political and economic agents and discussed the controversial issue of women quotas.
Dassu said she was “positively surprised” by the interest the group showed in the Women in Diplomacy initiative, adding that the high level of participation in the various discussions was a clear indicator of their interest.
“I am really happy about what I could see over these last few days: a lively group of brilliant and motivated young Arab women who immediately connected and interacted, both with the teachers and even more importantly, among themselves,” she added.
Head of the International Relations Unit at Libya’s Ministry of Martyrs and the Disappeared Mervet Mhanni said the course enabled her to meet a group of influential women who were able to instigate change in their respective countries.
“Women empowerment and democracy are both new concepts in Libya,” added Mhanni, who is a dentist turned diplomat.
“It’s an enriching program because it’ll allow us to draw from the experiences of women who went through struggles we might face in the future.”
Dassu said that the title “Women in Diplomacy” was not chosen haphazardly, as the course was also an initiation to international careers.
“This is why we wanted to have a heterogeneous group of women, each of them having her own work experience to bring to the fore, and looking to strengthen her skills toward the pursuit of an international career,” Dassu continued.
Lina Khoury, a mental health counselor in Lebanon who works with drug addicts, prisoners and refugees, said the course allowed participants to exchange experiences in the field of women’s issues in the Arab world.
“We learned more about the experiences of Arab women and the difficulties they have been through,” Khoury added.
“The mere fact that the majority of those women succeeded in making things change – even if the change is minor – means that we can all do it if we put our mind to it.”