This month, the Center for Public Leadership awarded Syeda Ghulam Fatima Gilani, Secretary General of Bonded Labour Liberation Front Pakistan, with the 2022 Gleitsman International Activist Award for her work to address bonded labor as a global challenge to human rights. While on campus to receive the award, Fatima spoke with CPL about her work and what she has learned about leadership.

Congratulations on winning the 2022 Gleitsman International Activist Award! This award was created by the late Alan Gleitsman to honor exceptional leaders and innovators, like you, who have sparked positive social change and inspired others to do the same. Mr. Gleitsman once observed that the intent of the award is to “recognize people who make a difference, tell their story, and make other people aware of what one person can do.” Please share your story and educate our audience about the work you do.

I started my struggle against oppressors and work helping victims of slavery as a teenager, with empty hands but a passionate heart. I stayed awake at night thinking about the risks involved in assisting people in mental and physical servitude—but I determined that I could not abandon them.

My first initiative was to educate workers at a single brick kiln. As I motivated workers to learn, I also convinced friends to teach at kilns voluntarily. I was able to quickly build adult education programs at ten brick kilns. Seeing my initial success, more workers and community members began to contribute funds and provide moral support.

It was courage and hard work that paved my path to success as an activist and developed my skills. I learned that leadership means doing the work. Eventually, I raised enough resources to begin offering legal assistance to enslaved families. I also opened 250 “One Teacher, One School” initiatives.

These teachers, students, and freed workers gradually became a powerful force of support for the cause through public protests. The demonstrations attracted many donors to our cause, including Trócaire International; the European Union; the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung foundation; All People Free; and renowned photojournalist Brandon Stanton. So far, the Bonded Labour Liberation Front Pakistan (BLLF) has released 85,000 workers and provided education to more than 100,000 children. These workers and children assist us in securing freedom for others like them. The BLLF turns victims into activists: it is a source of sustainable strength.

As my work has progressed, I’m humbled and grateful for the recognitions I have received. In particular, as a finalist for the 2016 Aurora Prize and a recipient of the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Hero Award from the U.S. State Department.

At CPL, our mission is to inspire and enhance the capacity for principled, effective public leadership in government, politics, civil society, and business. What is your organization's mission, and how are you pursuring it through your work?

The BLLF’s mission is to eradicate bonded labor system, injustice, illiteracy, inequality, and poverty alleviation; and to promote the International Labour Organization Decent Work Agenda. We also strive for empowerment of the working class; implementation of labor laws; equal rights for women and protections from sexual harassment in the workplace; respect for children’s rights; and positive societal change through sustainable development.

In pursuit of our mission, our organization has adopted a multi-pronged strategy:

  • We advocate for our cause through political demonstrations and lobbying, educational seminars, art exhibitions, and media campaigns.
  • We educate workers through formal and informal programs.
  • We provide comprehensive legal aid, rehabilitation services, and financial assistance to victims of the bonded labor system.
  • We lead community organizing efforts, including formation and capacity-building of trade unions and federations.

The motto of Harvard Kennedy School, “Ask what you can do,” is taken from U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech in which he challenged fellow citizens to ask themselves what they could do to serve their country. What is your message to students and community members who are searching for ways to serve others, not only in the United States but around the world?

Students have endless potential to drive change. I would like to take this opportunity to ask the Harvard Kennedy School community to help raise awareness of human trafficking and modern slavery. You can get involved by writing to the United Nations Secretary General in support of international anti-slavery conventions. You can write to the leaders of South Asian nations to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities to eradicate modern slavery. You can also contribute and help raise funds for the BLLF and our programs.

I am thankful to all of you for the chance to connect with your community.

Interview by Isabel Feinstein