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In Conversation with Neelum Khan Toru

In Conversation with Neelum Khan Toru
Neelum Khan Toru with Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Evan Ryan.

By Rimsha Ali Shah

In October 2016, Neelum Khan Toru’s term as the Chairperson of the Provincial Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), was concluding.  During her two years at the PCSW, Toru was charged with reviewing legislation, assessing government programs, and monitoring their implementation for increased women’s participation in the political, social, and economic fronts.

It was a month prior to her tenure completion that she received an email confirming her selection for the inaugural Distinguished Humphrey Leadership Award taking place from September 16 – October 4, 2016, in the U.S.

“I was surprised when I received the email confirming my nomination for this program!” exclaims Toru.  She feels that such opportunities are equally pivotal for the continuous progress of professionals and students, alike.  “Once you are in the professional circle, opportunities for such executive courses are crucial for your professional grooming and growth,” she adds.

As part of the group of 10 leaders representing nine countries in the inaugural Distinguished Humphrey Leadership Award, Toru attended a one-week executive leadership course at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, one-week individualized job shadowing at Global Rights for Women (GRW), Minneapolis, and a one-on-one meeting with U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Cathy Russel in Washington, D.C.  

“The program has helped me understand the similarity of gender issues across borders.  It is a global challenge for countries and societies to mainstream gender,” comments Toru, who speaks from a key policy position based on her years of powerful grassroots advocacy for women’s rights and empowerment.

We spoke with her about her experience of being a student at Harvard University, an observer at GRW, and an exchange participant in the U.S.

Executive Course at the Kennedy School of Government

Toru with Executive Leadership Course Instructor Hugh O' Daniel at the Course Graduation

Toru with Executive Leadership Course Instructor Hugh O’ Daniel at the Course Graduation

“The executive leadership course was a unique experience that gave me a fresh perspective,” comments Toru.  For this course, the exchange participants joined 69 other senior men and women from around the world at the Kennedy School of Government.  “The course helped me look at leadership as an adaptive process – a completely new concept for me, and a very useful one, I might add”

The course also gave Toru the opportunity to network with 69 accomplished individuals from all over the world.  When we asked her what was the most intriguing aspect of the course, she spoke of a question that was put before everyone:

What was your road not taken?

“This question was one that forced everyone to look at how their life could have been, putting aside their current successes and achievements.  For me, such expressive exchanges in the classroom were the highlight!  They really helped with forming connections, exchanging ideas for collaboration, and creating a network of support that was global.”

Job Shadowing at Global Rights for Women

The Inaugural Distinguished Humphrey Leadership Award cohort

The Inaugural Distinguished Humphrey Leadership Award cohort

From Boston, Toru traveled to Minneapolis for one week of job shadowing with Angela at GRW.  “I was glad to learn that I was in a city that was famous as the ‘City of Women’!”  Her one-week experience with the Domestic Abuse Project (DAP) at GRW helped her understand the legislative process, the counseling mechanism aimed at reforming aggressors, and low-cost methods of working for victims and aggressors of domestic abuse.

“I attended classes that were given to the aggressors and the victims as part of the DAP.  These classes were designed to reduce the burden on the overcrowded prisons and served a much more important purpose of working for rehabilitation and reform of the aggressors.  The perspectives I gained have been monumental.  I don’t see why we cannot adopt something similar in Pakistan,” says Toru.

The Washington Experience

The Program Debrief at the State Department

The Program Debrief at the State Department PC: International Exchange Alumni Flickr Account

In Washington, D.C. each of the participants met with a government official as part of the program.  “I was excited and humbled when I found out that my meeting was with Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, Cathy Russel!  As the Chairperson of the PCSW, K-P, this meeting was deeply meaningful for me.  I shared my work at the PCSW with her, and areas of possible collaboration.  I am thankful to the State Department for making this exchange possible,” exclaims Toru, who is still in contact with Ambassador Russel’s office.

While in D.C., Toru also attended a dinner hosted by the President of Institute of International Education Dr. Allan E. Goodman, a debrief session with Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Evan Ryan, and visited the newly inaugurated National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

Now, back in Pakistan, Toru feels a renewed sense of energy, enthusiasm, experience, and skills that she is ready to transfer to the community at-large through workshops and training sessions.  “It was an honor for me to represent my country in this prestigious program, and I now look forward to replicating the best practices I learned in my professional and personal capacity.”

The Distinguished Humphrey Leadership Award is a new program initiative under the umbrella of the traditional Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program, which brings young and mid-career professionals from developing countries to the United States for a year of non-degree, graduate-level study, and professional collaboration with U.S. counterparts. This year’s inaugural Distinguished Humphrey Leadership program is taking place from September 16 – October 4, 2016, and includes a one-week executive leadership course for all participants at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, for which participants will receive a certificate, followed by a one-week individualized job shadowing experience with a policy level U.S. counterpart from the government, NGO, or corporate sector. The program’s goal is to facilitate leadership development, multilateral collaboration, and cooperation on shared global challenges.



Pakistan-U.S. Alumni Network (PUAN) is an association of U.S. exchange alumni who are committed to making meaningful contributions to Pakistan and comprise of current and former Pakistani participants of U.S. federal government-sponsored exchange programs.

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