6 Weeks at WONDER: Womanhood, Empathy and Advocacy

Reflections on my leadership-in-action project at WONDER Foundation. Read on for the questions I gained, experiences I had, and the clarity that was shared with me through the love and wisdom of the women around me.

This summer, I conducted my Leadership-in-Action (LiA) project as a Research and Programmes intern at the WONDER Foundation, contributing to their mission of empowering women and girls worldwide. My experience included providing briefs on relevant topics, assisting the Chief Programmes Officer in advocacy efforts, conducting culture-sensitive research on disability in Kenya, Nigeria, Guatemala, and the Philippines, and collecting data to enhance the capacities of WONDER’s international partners.

Of all my tasks, my research on disabilities was the one that stuck with me the most.  It was a complex blend of emotions – being surrounded by women at work and having discussions that ranged from banter about Barbie to heavier reflections on the disregard of women’s lives left me wondering if womanhood was more joy or sorrow. Which women had access to warmth and safety, who decided which women were worthy? 

Living in cities like Singapore and London allow you to indulge in the illusion of progressing gender equity, but data has a way of forcing you to confront the truth. Each country I researched had unique societal contexts, yet a common thread wove through them all – women had to fight to be treated with dignity. The worst part was reading quotes from women themselves as they justified gendered violence. Perhaps due to their societal conditioning or as a coping mechanism to grapple with the reality of their lives. Most of us are no strangers to the notion of internalised misogyny and the treatment of women worldwide, but putting a name to these experiences and beliefs made it all the more tangible.

This proximity to the research I was doing transformed the experience of my LiA. Initially, I was confused by WONDER's approach to aid. I wondered what the purpose of collecting data to enhance the capacities of other organisations was when we could provide direct aid ourselves. This was until a pipeline meeting with Kumulisa, a partner organisation in Uganda. They explained how the employment opportunity list we provided helped them recruit girls into their upskill program. Seeing the direct impact of my work lent gravitas to my research. So much of my previous research was rooted in an academic value but this time, research had the capacity to truly catalyse change.

Moreover, I recognized that WONDER's approach allowed for greater sustainability of the project’s impacts by avoiding the partner’s dependency on aid. By focusing on building the capacity of local organisations, we ensured better alignment with the actual needs of beneficiary communities. Such an endeavour relies on trust fostered through personal relationships, transparency, and a shared commitment to improving women's lives. I'm not naive enough to believe such alchemy will exist in every workplace, but it is something I will aspire to in my own future. I at least know that it is possible.

On a personal level, it felt wrong to clock out at 4.30 pm, as if the issues I researched could be confined to a report. It felt selfish, but I also knew that it would be unsustainable mentally if there was no boundary between work and home. I realised then that the women I worked with grappled with this dichotomy daily - who better to seek advice from than them? 

My supervisor, Faith Mwangi, gently guided me through the necessity of balancing work and personal life. (I say "gently" deliberately, as I had previously believed that corporate leadership was the antithesis of empathy.) This allowed me to approach my work with renewed clarity, acknowledging that while the line between work and personal life is blurred when your work transcends profit, that boundary still exists. Our responsibility to the world and ourselves can and must harmoniously coexist. Balance is the only way.

Faith's leadership also provided a safe space for me to step out of my comfort zone. There was always room for me to question things and learn safely. I remember negotiating my working hours when I realised that a 9-5 would not be productive or conducive for me, and vocalising my discomfort with a funding call we were meant to put out. These were things I never had the confidence to do before, but my six weeks at WONDER has shown me that a human approach to leadership inspires confidence and brings out the best of those around you.  I feel this confidence spill into my own life now – having a chat with a stranger seems easier, and the human-ness of connection doesn’t feel as fleeting anymore.

They say knowledge only reaches its full potential with experience, and my time at WONDER is a testament to that. What will you give your life to, who will you spend your days with? Above all, what power do you have to sit down with another person and trust that love is not a finite source? Things feel very cold now, because we’re so afraid of having that vulnerability. I will never forget the care that was offered to me, the guidance I was given, and the realisation that advocacy is rooted in love. I have clarity on what my life will be dedicated to – and that’s a lot to gain from six weeks. Would it be awful of me to say I had a wondrous time at WONDER? Well, I’ll say it anyway.

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Go to the profile of Princess Agina
5 months ago

Tasneem, your reflections on your time at WONDER are profoundly moving. It's evident that this experience wasn't just about the work, but also about personal growth and understanding the deeper complexities of global women's issues. Kudos for embracing the challenges, and for seeking out lessons in every moment. Your commitment to advocacy and genuine heart shines through! Cheers to many more wondrous experiences.