SA women leaders share experiences with international visitors

Visitor program builds cross-cultural understanding

SAN ANTONIO – Women from places like Sudan, Jordan and Bahrain are spending substantial time in the Alamo City learning from leaders in the community.

But not just any leaders -- the international visitors are connecting with the women who help guide San Antonio.

“We have this bond all over the world and we’re looking to make progress for our communities, for our countries, and it’s wonderful to be there and share what’s happening here in San Antonio,” said San Antonio District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran.

The women are part of the International Visitor Leadership Program, or IVLP, through the State Department. Locally, the San Antonio Council for International Visitors coordinated the visit and arranged a variety of activities.

The theme of this year’s travel is women’s role in peace and security.

Viagran met on Monday with nearly two dozen women who hail from developed and developing countries across the Near East and North Africa. She told the program participants that San Antonio is is a strong example where women hold leadership roles. She said they include Mayor Ivy Taylor, city manager Sheryl Sculley, city clerk Leticia Vacek, and city attorney Martha Sepeda.

Cecilia Cross, executive director of the San Antonio Council for International Visitors, said the women who make the journey to the United States are hand-picked by embassies in their respective countries. They do not apply for the program.

According to the IVLP, 30 current and 314 former chiefs of state or heads of government are IVLP alumni.

“They’re here (in the U.S.) for a total of three weeks,” said Cross. “They were in D.C., then New York, then Minneapolis, then San Antonio, and then they’ll be back in D.C. to meet with 60 other women leaders from around the world. They’re divided up regionally, so we’re lucky enough to have visitors from the Middle East and North Africa. These people move on to do important work in the global community.”

Suzan Mohamed is one of the visitors touring San Antonio. Mohamed is from Sudan, but works in Saudi Arabia where her organization -- which focuses on women’s empowerment, child welfare and social security for the elderly and people with special needs -- is headquartered.

She said the diversity of women leaders in San Antonio is what stood out.

“The diversity, the acceptance of different backgrounds, the clear description and explanation of laws, and providing equal opportunities to people to participate and provide services as much as they can,” Mohamed said. “The greatest out of it is for me to meet people from all over, women from all over the region, who are taking leading roles in developing women, and edification of women policy, and eradicating violence against women and promoting peace, which is what we need today.”

Viagran said the one piece of encouragement she loves giving the most is telling women to know who they are.

“Stick by your convictions and be confident and secure in your own identity. Because you’re going to face challenges of many kinds but as long as you know who you are and you’re secure in your identity, you can handle anything coming your way,” she said.

The women arrived on Saturday and have taken part in activities like walking the Museum Reach of the Riverwalk, going to the Alamo, and seeing the San Antonio Missions and Institute of Texan Cultures. They have met with local organizations including the Center for Refugee Services, Women’s Global Connection, Martinez Street Women’s Center, the Alamo Area Coalition Against Trafficking, as well as talking with women leaders like Viagran and former Texas Sen. Leticia Van de Putte.

Cross said the women get to learn about the vast number of resources available in a global city like San Antonio.

“We have the opportunity for these visitors to meet with the community and so it’s a two-way exchange. They’re learning about other countries and other cultures and our visitors are learning from us,” Cross said.

The objectives of the State Department’s IVLP include affirming the impact of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, which promotes the role of women in peace and security; familiarizing the women with constitutional, judicial, and legislative processes that promote gender equality and protect women’s human rights; and examining the current and historical roles of women in political transitions, humanitarian efforts, and reconstruction following conflicts.

The historical event that allowed women to vote for the first time in Saudi Arabia over the weekend, which also saw the election of several women for the first time ever in that country, is something Mohamed followed from the States.

While there is still a long way to go, she believes it was a first step toward equality and a new era for women.

“It’s great and I can see the vibes over social media from all the women who participated in the elections or have run to take a position, and it’s such an edgy move for the Saudi woman that. Saudi women will be very proud of,” she said.

Occupations of the visitors to San Antonio include attorneys, program directors, nonprofit chairs, counselors and researchers.