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Freshman Hannah Godefa takes part in World Economic Forum

Godefa founded her own nonprofit and is a UNICEF ambassador

<p>Freshman Hannah Godefa (middle), who founded her own nonprofit, attended the World Economic Forum last week in Switzerland and met actresses Emma Watson and Freida Pinto (also pictured).</p>

Freshman Hannah Godefa (middle), who founded her own nonprofit, attended the World Economic Forum last week in Switzerland and met actresses Emma Watson and Freida Pinto (also pictured).

Freshman Hannah Godefa is a Robertson scholar and plans to pursue a double major in International Comparative Studies and Economics. She founded the Hannah Godefa Project, which funds nonprofits in Ethiopia and South Sudan and helps distribute school supplies in partnership with Ethiopia Airlines. Last week, Godefa took part in the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss issues of gender equality along with influential figures such as Melinda Gates, Trinity ‘86, Fuqua ‘87 and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and actresses Emma Watson and Freida Pinto. The Chronicle’s Stephanie Wu spoke with Godefa about the experience.

The Chronicle: How did you get started with the humanitarian work that you do?

Hannah Godefa: When my project took flight—literally and also figuratively—a lot of people were like, this is really cool. In Ethiopia, there aren’t a lot of people, or role models, for kids to look up to and say, “Oh she did that. I want to do that.” So because of the media attention, UNICEF and I started working together and then I became an ambassador.

I’ve been working as a UNICEF ambassador since I was 15, so I usually travel to different conferences to work with different people, usually not celebrities, but politicians, presidents, prime ministers and business leaders to talk about how to integrate youth into decision-making and also how to reduce gender inequality structurally and in practice and also education.

TC: Is your work specific to issues pertaining to Ethiopia?

HG: I’m from Ethiopia, so I know a lot about the issues there, and that’s why I advocate for the girls there. But I also work for South Sudan, which borders Ethiopia. They have a lot of the same issues. In other major conflict centers around the world, where there are displaced people and refugees, the issues that are present in Ethiopia are very present there as well, so I feel like it’s normal for me to advocate for those issues because they are happening wherever there’s major conflict. The more conflict there is, the greater the inequality there is.

But they [inequalities] have always existed there, it’s just more of the question of who is paying attention. Obviously the news is not covering the issue of women in these countries not having access to health services in conflict zones, and that’s because people are more focused on who’s dying and who’s being affected immediately as opposed to the long-term ramifications of the conflict that’s occurring.

TC: Can you tell me more about your role in hosting the World Economic Forum?

HG: The World Economic Forum is a conference that happens every year in Davos, Switzerland. It’s very isolated, very high security, and that’s because of the types of people that are there. And it’s really a business conference, so most of the events are focused on entrepreneurship.

I helped with the private dinner with Melinda Gates, which was called Global Goals, and the dinner was for talking about the sustainable development goals that [Secretary General] Ban Ki-Moon had introduced earlier in the day. Now that a millennium has passed since 2000, for the next 15 years they’re trying to put forth new goals for every country according to how the world has done in the past 15 years.

They’ve made a lot of progress—a lot of countries have achieved primary education for everyone in the country. Now they are trying to put forth another new 17 Millennium Development Goals, which vary from water and sanitation to reducing inequality to quality education. The point of the dinner was to talk about how girls and women fit into that, and how we can make the goals focus on girls and women, as opposed to seeing them as a side issue on top of that.

TC: What are some of the insights you’ve gained from working with powerful women leaders?

HG: What I learned from Melinda Gates and Sheryl Sandberg is that you can be a powerful woman. You can be powerful in your respected industry and still prioritize gender equality, and people will listen. That’s the beautiful thing. I think the most valuable thing that I’ve learned is the power of women in business and entrepreneurship sectors. When they stand up and talk, the conversation changes, so I would like to see more women in those positions.

TC: Is this focus on girls and women something new that we’re seeing for the MDGs?

HG: Definitely. Over the past 15 years, I honestly don’t think the MDGs have had as much of a focus on girls and women as they do now. Those were things that were not talked about but now with incredible people in the celebrity world coming forward and saying “I stand up for this” or “I am a feminist” and bringing these ideas into the light, there’s a lot more emphasis on those things.

TC: Was the dinner something that you initiated?

HG: There was a group called Project Everyone which is trying to incorporate everybody from all walks of life into this dinner and the process as a whole, so it’s not a purely political or business incentive. Melinda Gates is doing a lot of work with women and girls, so she’s another person that stepped up to the plate. Prime Minister Erna Solberg from Norway was really involved. [Hailemariam Desalegn], the prime minister of Ethiopia, my country, was also there to talk about the issues.

I believe over 30 prime ministers and presidents were there, and they each had their own panel. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from Canada had a whole panel about feminism and about how men need to step up to the plate and get involved. Sheryl Sandberg, [chief operating officer of Facebook], was on that panel as well.

It’s a conference in which people can attend public and private events, and most of the events are broadcast to the public and you can watch them on the website. They’ve just recently introduced something called Open Forum Davos, which allows citizens who want to hear what the secretary-general [Ban Ki-Moon] has to say to go and listen to him speak.

TC: How has working with UNICEF influenced your work?

HG: There were a lot of issues that I was not aware of before I started working with UNICEF. My focus was education and to some extent health, but really education was my passion. I didn’t realize there were so many other issues that girls go through, like child marriage, which is a really common tradition in our culture. Female genital mutilation is something that is huge there as well, especially in Eastern Africa, Western Africa and even in the Middle East.

I wasn’t passionately advocating against [those practices], just because I didn’t really know that much about them. When I started working with UNICEF, that all changed. I got to go and visit many different centers and girls who have gone through that and have conversations with them. It’s cool because I get to do conferences, but at the same time I travel with UNICEF to remote parts of the world and get to talk to kids about their life stories.

TC: How have your own experiences with higher education informed your vision for educating girls?

HG: I would definitely say that now it is definitely better than it was 10 years ago for girls in Ethiopia. There are still issues in terms of women getting involved in STEM areas and paths that are not “traditional,” but it is incredibly humbling to know that I am a student here and I have these opportunities at Duke where the majority of the girls back home don’t even get to graduate high school, or drop out and find traditional work, and it’s because of child marriage.

To me, the fact that still exists, is motivation for me to want to try and change that situation. Because how can I be here at Duke and have this incredible education, while knowing others don’t and living with that. It’s about what I have learned from Duke that I can apply to my foundation or my work with UNICEF.

TC: What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced in the humanitarian work you do?

HG: I have a board of directors, so working with them and wanting to help a lot of people and solve a lot of problems but not having the funding or resources to do so. There’s just too many causes you want to solve and not enough human resource, and finding people who will commit.

TC: What gives you the most pride in the work you do?

HG: The idea that even a small part of my efforts might contribute to more effective policies and opportunities for marginalized young women and girls.

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