Statement at the Columbia University School of Nursing Graduation Ceremony

21 May 2003
Author: UNFPA

Good evening. It is a pleasure to address you tonight. Thank you for inviting me and for bestowing upon me the Columbia University School of Nursing Second Century Award. This award is honouring the United Nations Population Fund and the long years of its work to save women’s lives. It is indeed an honour, which I accept with great humility.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to be a part of this graduation ceremony. There are over 200 nurses being conferred with degrees tonight. It is impressive to see this mixture of men and women, young and old, all committed to be leaders in a new approach to medical care and well being. I say to you: Congratulations. I would also like to congratulate your families, friends and professors. You all have a right to feel proud.

As graduates, you have worked hard to obtain a quality education. You are prepared to believe that you can and will make a difference because you dared to trespass into a non-traditional domain of medical care. But change can only come when we dare to trespass beyond what has been accepted as the norm. You have your dreams, which you will now pursue, I have no doubt.

When I was a little girl, my parents, too, had a dream for me -a dream about having equal opportunity as my brothers, that I should receive an education. It is a dream that meant trespassing beyond the traditional and the accepted but I walked it, supported by two parents who are visionary and self-educated but who do not hold any educational certificates. My father, a devout Muslim, interpreted the command in the first surah of the Koran as instructions to all Muslims- men and women. The first word in the Koran is an order to "read". Yet in my home country of Saudi Arabia, a young country at that state, girls’ education had not yet been established. So my parents sent me to boarding school in Cairo when I was 7 years old. Though a few private schools got established later, public schools for girls were established in 1962, the year I received my secondary school certificate.

Years later, my government took my father’s dream and provided me with the first scholarship for a woman to study overseas. I went to Mills College in Oakland. My father was there in 1966, when I received my Bachelor’s Degree. He stood out amongst the crowd in his Saudi national attire, with his long white gown and traditional white headdress. I could spot him among the crowd seeing that his dream has become a reality.

On our way home to Jeddah, he became pre-occupied and nervous and I did not know why. But he explained. The flight arrived in Jeddah and there were so many men, including my three older brothers, waiting at the bottom of the gangway and we were the last passengers to exit the plane. And, in a very dramatic way, we walked down the stairs, my face uncovered for the very first time - an act against the time’s traditions, though very common now. My father held my hand firmly in his left hand and my Bachelor's diploma in his right - and waved it very high up in the air. I never covered my face again because my father sent a clear and loud message to the society: Education was my honour and my pride as well as his. Education was liberating and empowering and it imparted wisdom. Through education, we trespassed the norms of the society at that time and it made a difference.

Tonight, as you graduate from the Columbia University School of Nursing, you too are honoured with education. You are honoured to have attended a prestigious institution, which is a leader in its field and you are honoured and blessed by the very specialization which you have chosen and the very visionary approach you have adopted. As graduates, you are more than advanced practice nurses. You are leaders, and agents of change.

Leadership begins with education and involves a lifetime of learning. Education prepares us for the many challenges that lie ahead. It gives us a solid base from which to grasp the meaning of events and relationships. At its best, education helps us to better understand the human condition and human diversity. It gives us an appreciation and respect of other cultures and civilizations and helps us to become informed, responsible, global citizens.

Yet, when we look around the world, we see that 120 million children remain shut out of school, many of whom are girls. We see that more than 800 million adults are illiterate, the vast majority of whom are women.

Ladies and gentlemen, these are challenging times for our world. For, although we are connected as never before, we are also greatly divided. Today, one fifth of humanity consumes four-fifths of the world's resources. Today, half of all people live on less than $2 a day, and the 10 richest individuals are richer than the 10 poorest countries.

Despite the technological revolution, half of all people have never even talked on a telephone, let alone hooked up to the Internet. Despite ground-breaking scientific advances such as the mapping of the human genome, millions of people continue to die every year from preventable diseases.

During my professional life, I have devoted myself to women's advancement and gender equality. And I have to admit that while some progress has been made, much work remains to be done. In many countries worldwide, women still face considerable social, economic and legal barriers to exercising their rights. Gender discrimination and violence are widespread. And these forces cause great harm to all individuals and all societies.

If there is one thing we have learned over the past decade it is that women are critical to social and economic development. When women are empowered—through laws that ensure their rights, health care that ensures their well-being, and education that ensures their active participation - the benefits go far beyond the individual. They benefit the family, the community and the nation.

The United Nations agency I lead today, UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, is committed to women’s rights and women’s health. It is devoted to reducing poverty and expanding choices and opportunities. We are working with partners in 142 countries to increase access to education and reproductive health services. Such services include voluntary family planning, care during pregnancy and childbirth, the treatment and prevention of sexually transmitted infections, and the prevention of HIV/AIDS.

The need for greater access to these services is hard to overstate. In my travels around the world, I have often been overwhelmed by the lack of health facilities and health supplies. I have been discouraged by conditions that are in total contrast to those we experience here in the United States and Europe. But I have also been heartened and deeply inspired by the dedication of health professionals who remain committed and keep going. I have been humbled by individuals who are working in very difficult circumstances to make a difference in people’s lives and the communities in which they live.

At UNFPA, one of our top goals is safe motherhood. And midwives have a key role to play. As home to the nation’s oldest, continuous program for nurse midwives, the Columbia University School of Nursing has set the standard in this important field.

Around the world, there is an urgent need for greater skilled attendance at birth and greater access to emergency obstetric care.

Today 48 per cent of all women in the developing world give birth without any medical assistance. And the results are tragic. One woman dies every minute, half a million women a year. Of all health indicators, it is maternal mortality that shows the largest gap between rich and poor nations.

Today, a poor mother in a poor country is 80 to 600 times more likely to die in childbirth than a woman in a rich country. This is not only a scandal or crime; it is violation of basic human rights.

Last year we launched a global campaign to end obstetric fistula. This condition, which plagues some 2 million girls and women in poor countries, was eliminated in wealthy countries over a century ago. The last fistula hospital in the United States, which stood at the site of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, was closed in 1886. But in poor countries, fistula continues to strike more than 100,000 young women a year.

UNFPA has joined forces with international and local partners to prevent and treat fistula. Our goal is to make the condition as rare in the developing world as it is here in the United States.

If we work together, we can close the great gaps that exist in our world today. Perhaps nowhere is this need more urgent than in the field of health.

As graduates, the challenges you face at the start of this twenty-first century are more varied and may be even more difficult than the challenges when I graduated.

This is reflected in your curriculum in such areas as bio-terrorism and emergency readiness, genetics and genomics, geriatric care, and HIV/AIDS.

I would like to commend the Columbia University School of Nursing for its Center for AIDS Research and its HIV/AIDS Sub-specialty Program. Innovative research and service provision approaches for the prevention and management of HIV are urgently needed. All of us must scale up our response to this global pandemic. Nations and communities must be supported in their efforts to introduce a wide range of science-based interventions, tailored to the needs of their people.

I would also like to commend the School of Nursing for its International Nursing Center. Your collaboration with developing countries in sharing relevant curricula, teaching methods and exchanging nurse scholars contributes directly to the improvement of individual and community health, and health policies and standards. Imparting your knowledge and experience to others in the developing countries and participating in building their human resources is the greatest commitment any one can express.

As you know, nursing is far more than a career. It is a vocation. It is a high calling that requires medical expertise, deep social awareness and a desire to contribute to individual and social well-being.

At the heart of such well-being is the fundamental belief in the integrity and worth of the human person.

This fundamental belief, which is so simple and yet so profound, is a guiding principle of the United Nations and it is a guiding philosophy of the Columbia University School of Nursing.

In my travels around the world, I have found that people share many of the same dreams. They want peace and justice. They want education for themselves and their children. They want to live healthy and productive lives. These dreams represent shared aspirations that unite us in our common humanity.

Tonight, as you receive your diplomas and you begin the next phase of your lives, I ask you to keep sight of your dreams for a better world. There will be times when you are discouraged. There will be times when the obstacles you face may seem insurmountable. But you should always stand firm in knowing that in choosing to be a nurse leader, you have devoted yourself to a worthy, and noble, cause. The challenges you face will be great, and that in itself will make the rewards even greater.

Population : 50.9 mil
Fertility rate
Maternal Mortality Ratio
Contraceptives prevalence rate
Population aged 10-24
Youth secondary school enrollment
Boys 75%
Girls 80%

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