The long journey of gender students from darkness to light

Six months after their arrival in Iceland an international group of 20 students finished their Postgraduate Diploma in International Gender Equality at the University of Iceland under the auspices of UNESCO.

They arrived in Iceland in January during the darkest period of the year and were supposed to stay until the brightest part of the year at the beginning of June.

COVID-19, however, almost derailed their studies and the 20 graduates are struggling to find flights to their respective home countries on three different continents.

“This semester has been very unusual for the students,” says programme director Dr Irma Erlingsdóttir.  “After two months of adjusting to a very different environment, the students had to prove their resilience and determination once again, as the University of Iceland closed mid-March due to the Covid-19 restrictions.”

The GEST gender study fellows with the Universtiy of Iceland staff and former President Vigdís Finnbogardóttir.

“I don´t know if I will fly tomorrow, the day after tomorrow or not at all for the time being,” Fathuma Faleela Nadhiya Najab told UNRIC. Instead of 30 daily flights to destinations in Europe and North-America due to the coronavirus pandemic, flights to only three destinations remain. She would then need to find a connecting flight to Colombo in Sri Lanka.

Her fellow graduate Brenda Apeta from Uganda faces the same problem. “I still don´t know when I will leave,” she said in an interview with UNRIC. Meanwhile she enjoys showing her family in the landlocked African country the daylight at midnight in Reykjavík the capital of Iceland.

“When I first arrived I was so excited to see the country, but the strong cold wind almost swept me of my feet so I had to run towards the waiting car,” she remembers on her arrival on 8 January when the reflection of the moonlight in the snow is sometimes the only thing brightening up the day.

Sri Lankan Nadiya says that one of her major achievements was to fall only once on snow and ice during the first few months of winter. And now when she is about to leave she says she misses the snow.

6 men and 14 women graduated from the gender studies Few of the other graduates had experience of ice and snow, although there was one student from Yakutia in Siberia who was the exception. The students have quite different backgrounds with some coming from predominantly Muslim countries such as Palestine and Afghanistan, others from African countries with mixed religious and ethnic groups such as Ghana, Cameroon South-Africa, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda.

Brenda says that the different backgrounds and different levels of development were a source of a lot of discussion. “It was interesting to hear about the challenges and different solutions, and also to learn about the experience of Iceland.”

Indeed there may be some lessons to be learnt from the host country since Iceland has been a frontrunner in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index for over a decade.

While the University had to close, the students continued their studies using online platforms, until the University of Iceland reopened at the beginning of May.

Nadhiya says she missed the lively discussions when the entire group could not meet, adding that the staff and students adapted incredibly well to the situation.

“In addition to the courses, it was interesting to learn from the other students and compare the situations in different countries,” she says. “While my country Sri Lanka scores better in social and economic indicators than for instance some of the African countries, we have only 2 female members of parliament out of 122, while Nigeria has 11% women MPs. On the other hand, we have had both a female president and Prime Minister. We may have regressed but this shows we have potential”, Nadyia added.

Nadiyha and Brenda with the former President and rector Jón Atli Benediktsson

Brenda Apeta and Fathuma Faleela Nadhiya Najab were this year´s winners of an award named after Vigdís Finnbogadóttir who in 1980 was elected President of Iceland, the first woman to be elected as head of state by popular vote.

GEST, the Gender Equality Studies and Training Programme now forms a part of the Gró – Center for Capacity Development, Sustainable Utilization of Natural Resources and Societal Change, which operates under the auspices of UNESCO.

The twenty students now join the GEST alumni network of 132 gender equality graduates from 24 countries, and the first after the programme moved, after more than a decade, from the auspices of the United Nations University to UNESCO.

Former President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir joined the graduates and the winners of the award in her name, at the ceremony which continued until well into the sun lit Icelandic summer evening.

“As a woman my country is the whole world,” director Erlingsdóttir said in her speech quoting the writer Virginia Wolf. “And this is what the study programme is about: to create a venue for students to become agents of change.”


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Photo credits © Kristinn Ingvarsson/University of Iceland

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