By Alexandra Raphel, MPP’14, Staff Writer
When Halimatou Hima (MPP’14) received a phone call from the Gates Foundation one Sunday morning during winter break, her first thought was that they had the wrong number.
In fact, they were calling to invite Halima to speak at TEDxChange, an event co-organized by TED and the Gates Foundation that brings together a diverse group of experts to discuss innovative solutions to global health and development challenges. The 90-minute discussion is hosted by Melinda Gates in Seattle and live streamed on TED.com for audiences around the world.
“I was thrilled. I panicked. I almost declined. I created excuses,” Halima says. “Finally, I accepted the idea that I would stand for a full fifteen minutes to give tribute to the women that have inspired me thus far by their extraordinary resilience. This type of opportunity, I realized, knocks on one’s door once in a blue moon.”
The theme for TEDxChange 2013 is “Positive Disruption,” which Halima finds exciting.
“My hope is that my talk will unsettle the community of change makers (and aspiring change makers) to think differently about the way we engage with communities in rural areas, especially for programs on girls’ empowerment.”
Prior to becoming the first woman from Niger to enroll at HKS, Halima worked in the child protection unit of UNICEF in her home country, frequently partnering with the government on initiatives in rural areas.
“This experience was unique because it allowed me to gain a deep understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing women and girls living in highly precarious conditions,” she explains. “I could not have asked for a better gift because you have to be able to first understand communities and people in order to be able to help them in their stride for a better life.”
One of the major portfolios she focused on pertained to girls’ empowerment and child marriage. “My country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, and the problem is as structural as it is cultural.”
In 2011, she received a grant from the Moremi Initiative, honoring her as one of Africa’s top 25 emerging leaders under 25. With the grant, she started a series of businesses run by women entrepreneurs with ideas and drive, but limited financial resources and training.
Halima also did some research with a Gates Foundation team on family planning, women’s access (or lack of thereof) to certain services, and the supply and demand chains for treatments. It was through this research that she was initially introduced to the Foundation.
“Honestly, I did not think Melinda Gates would remember me. Apparently I was wrong! Her team mentioned that when they debriefed about potential speakers for the TED conference, my name immediately came up.”
In fact, as she introduced Halima to a packed auditorium on the day of the event (April 3), Melinda Gates clearly recalled details of the time she spent with Halima walking through a village in Niger to understand the barriers in access to contraceptives for the women. And then, Halima addressed the audience with a graceful yet powerful talk, beginning with the question, “Every now and then, I would ask myself, did I give lately of what I hold dearest?”
Halima incorporated what she learned in Cambridge into her talk at TEDxChange. In particular, she notes “System Dynamics,” an MIT class that “focuses on the interactions between various actors that may seem completely unrelated and the importance of incorporating elements that may initially be perceived as irrelevant.”
She also found Professor Nathalie Laidler-Kylander’s management class valuable for thinking about effectively sparking social change: “The class provided me with a space to analyze some of my mistakes that may have delayed social impact. I used to do much of my work intuitively, but here I learned about social change and policy in a more systematic manner.”
“I intend to use this beautiful gift to bring about change in the lives of women and girls and to give them the means to empower themselves and the opportunities to achieve their highest potential,” Halima says.
The TEDxChange event was streamed live via webcast on April 3, 2012 and is available for viewing at http://www.ted.com/pages/tedxchange_webcast