On International Women’s Day 2021, AIWF President & Founder Haifa Fahoum Al Kaylani reflects on two decades of leadership of AIWF and her commitment to fostering sustainable development with women and youth at its heart
Each year, I am proud to join the global business, development and NGO communities in celebrating International Women’s Day, and IWD for me is even more special this year because this is the year that we celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Arab International Women’s Forum (AIWF). As President & Founder of AIWF, I am proud to honour the 2021 IWD theme of ‘Choose to Challenge’, lending my full support to the global call-to-action to challenge gender bias and inequality.
Gender equality and economic inclusion are key areas for action that have always been immensely important to me, both personally and as the Founder of the Arab International Women’s Forum (AIWF). I launched AIWF in London in 2001 as a non-profit, non-governmental and non-political development organisation for women and young leaders in the MENA and internationally, at what was a very difficult time for the world and for the Arab region in particular. My vision for a much-needed international forum, one that linked Arab business and civil society leaders with each other and importantly with their counterparts in the international community to exchange knowledge, experience and develop their business and cooperation, was built on years of service to a number of voluntary Board roles supporting numerous admirable charitable organisations in the UK and the Arab region, all with a strong focus on empowering women across all sectors and spheres.
At the time that I launched AIWF in 2001, there were many misconceptions about the role of women in the Arab region. I wanted to provide a platform for action where women’s voices could be heard, challenges directly addressed and opportunities for women and young people fully leveraged. AIWF was therefore founded on two guiding principles: firstly, from my firm belief that there can be no development in any community, politically, socially, or economically, without empowering women. And secondly, that the Arab world is part of the global community, and women in the region need to connect both together in the region but importantly with their counterparts internationally to exchange experience and knowledge, to do business, and break stereotypes.
Since 2001 and under my leadership, and working with the full support and collaboration of the AIWF Board members, all outstanding leaders in business, philanthropy, and civil society, contributing on voluntary basis a wealth of expertise to the organisation, AIWF has endeavoured diligently at the heart of the Arab world and internationally to honour these principles, to move the agenda for women’s empowerment forward, to address salient development issues that directly impact economic inclusion for women and young people, to advocate for legislative and public policy change, and to remove roadblocks to women’s participation in Arab political systems and in society overall. We have set a benchmark for a top-down, bottom-up approach in our work, working directly from grassroots to the highest levels of government, and we are unique in our network for our multi-stakeholder approach to effecting change and impacting policy shifts that empower women and young people.
From its earliest days AIWF has prioritised education, sustainability, entrepreneurship, gender parity, job creation, and MENA economic growth, progress and prosperity as our priority areas for action. We have consistently addressed the job creation crisis in a region with the worst youth unemployment rates in the world. We have bridged economic and financial inclusion, societal, digital skills, and gender equality gaps which are prevalent in the MENA region, and many other regions. And we have become a truly global organisation, with a strong Arab, UK, Europe, US and Asian base of longstanding members and institutional alliances.
From the outset, I have always believed that we can only succeed by working with others. I am very proud to have created numerous successful coalitions of partners throughout AIWF’s history that have included governments, global institutions, leading multinational organisations, the private sector, civil society, universities, and most importantly, women and young people themselves.
Youth engagement has underscored AIWF’s ethos from the beginning and it has been a core principle of my leadership of AIWF. When we launched our Young Arab Women Leaders STEM-focused initiative in 2011, we did so in direct response to the Arab Spring having recognised the need to address the underrepresentation of young people in civic participation and the ongoing crisis of job creation and youth unemployment, and the persistent problem of ‘brain drain’ and economic migration that has cost the region its talented, ambitious, highly educated and driven youth.
I am most proud to have founded the Arab International Women’s Forum and am honoured to have served as Chairman for close to 20 years. I remain a Director of the AIWF holding the title President & Founder. I felt strongly that 2021, being the milestone 20th Anniversary of AIWF, was an appropriate time to hand over the role to a successor who can lead AIWF into the next chapter and the next 20 years of its story. I am delighted that Dr Afnan has agreed to take on the role of Chair, herself very well known within the MENA region as a strong and impactful woman leader.
Here I wish to reiterate my deepest appreciation and gratitude to both the Founder Board and the current Board for their unwavering dedication over the years to the AIWF mission. It has only been by working together that we have succeeded in building the strong, sustainable, future-focused organisation that AIWF is today. The last two decades have been a remarkable journey of service ,of learning and sharing and working with others throughout, a journey that started with a great deal of belief but importantly with the determination to persist and succeed. I believe fully in the mission and vision of AIWF, and I have always been driven to accomplish it with the full support and co-operation of our exemplary Board and Partners.
I join the AIWF Board in looking forward to the upcoming AIWF Annual Programme 2021, and indeed to celebrating the milestone AIWF 20th Anniversary this year, during which we will continue to spotlight issues of shared concern as we all shape and navigate the uncertain ‘post-COVID’ years ahead. Personally, and as President & Founder of the Arab International Women’s Forum, I take this opportunity to extend my warmest wishes to all AIWF Partners, Members, friends and the women advocates and grassroots organisations all over the world who are working tirelessly to honour the spirit and mission this International Women’s Day and every day.
Haifa Al Kaylani founded the Arab International Women’s Forum in 2001 and is recognised in Arab and international government, development, business and NGO circles as a high-impact change agent focussed on women’s leadership and youth empowerment, working for progress, inclusion, peace and prosperity in the Arab region and internationally. She is a development economist and an international advocate for gender and youth empowerment, diversity and inclusion, the green economy, and sustainability. She is a Fellow of the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative 2017 and was a Commissioner of the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work (2017-2019).