In the first of two John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum events to celebrate International Women’s Day, Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan shared her thoughts on COVID-19 inequality, the future of work, the state of education, climate change, and the divisiveness caused by the global pandemic. Melani Cammett, the Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs at Harvard and faculty affiliate at the Belfer Center’s Middle East Initiative and the Center for International Development, moderated the discussion.
After introductions by Doug Elmendorf, dean of Harvard Kennedy School and Iris Bonnet, academic dean, Queen Rania—who first visited HKS 13 years ago—discussed the specific challenges the pandemic raises for women. She began by identifying the inequality in pandemic suffering, and the social movement for radical change that it has created. “Today, we have an opportunity to reimagine a new future, a new social economic system that really gives opportunity for all,” she said. “I know that everybody can't wait to get back to normal, but I don't think we should be in a hurry to get back to the old normal, because our planet has clearly rebelled and rejected that normal.” The pandemic, she noted, is really an opportunity to make changes that are so long overdue.
When asked about the future of work in the Middle East, Her Majesty highlighted gender inequality and the push for flexible work. “In my country, the situation for women at work wasn't great to begin with; they only account for 20 percent of the labor force,” she explained. “Although they do five times as much unpaid care and domestic work, and then with the lockdown and the closures and schools and daycare centers, a lot of women found themselves either quitting or being asked to leave their jobs.”
Also contributing to the workforce issue are disparities in education—an issue that she cares deeply about as the head of The Queen Rania Foundation for Education and development, which aims to deliver quality education to all children. While the pandemic has caused widespread disruption of education worldwide, the difficulties in the Middle East, she observed, are quite astounding. “According to UNICEF, a full 40 percent of students in the region were completely canceled from any kind of remote education,” she reported. “And even among those who did have access, parents were reporting that their children were struggling both emotionally and academically.”
“Seventy percent of our population is under the age of 30,” she continued. “Now these are all young people who have the potential to be agents of change, to contribute to future prosperity and stability. But for us to be able to reap that demographic dividend, we really must make these urgent investments in quality education, and meaningful social engagement.”
Also among her current initiatives is her involvement with British royal family member Prince William’s Earthshot Prize, which funds innovators to combat climate change. “I think humanity has demonstrated that when our backs were against the wall, we are capable of coming up with innovative solutions,” she noted. “Maybe a silver lining in this pandemic is that it's awakening us to the sense of urgency for the environment.”
In the end, Queen Rania hopes we find the common thread we need to end our divisiveness. “We are in the midst of a media ecosystem that elevates lies over complex truths and where clicks reward conflict over credibility,” she said. “It is extremely dangerous because it traps us into an us-versus-them mentality and makes us ignore the complexities, the contradictions, the individuality that makes us human beings. Common ground is something that is shrinking in our world and we are in desperate need to find it.”
The event was co-hosted by the Center for International Development, the Middle East Initiative, the Institute of Politics, and the Women and Public Policy Program.
Banner photo by Royal Hashemite Court/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images