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Gissou Nia on Human Rights and Leadership


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): The Good Men Project

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/12/20

Ms. Gissou Nia is the Board Chair of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and the Strategy Director of Purpose. Here we talk about human rights and leadership.

When I started the conversation, we focused on the human rights work and positions of leadership of Gissou. In particular, the potential takeaways for women with want to pursue human rights work based on her experience.

Nia spoke to human rights interests probably being based on personal experiences. Where if some things happened in a different way for her, she may have acquired different interests to channel her talents.

“Being keenly aware of that, and seeing my peers who some came from similar conditions or culture, things could have gone differently for me. That was a driving force motivating me to pursue that work,” Nia stated.

The personal connection is more important than the pay grade of the work, where the “monetary incentive” simply is not the main reason to enter into the work. It is about making an impact in the lives of others. Of those people in those impact-sector positions, Nia noted the legal qualifications commonly found in the backgrounds of the individuals in them.

She remarked on the variations in the qualifications, though, while also reiterating the J.D. credential as a prominent trend. This became a motivation to enter law school and to acquire the appropriate skills to create a “serious body of work.”

In terms of the advice to others, Nia stated, “I would say to focus on the things that personally move them and to make sure they have a serious body of work or research to show that they have expertise in an area. I think it is tempting, in the current environment, that has cropped up over the past 5 years to be in this place of personal branding and looking to being very active in terms of sharing things on social media or having an opinion but without necessarily doing the really deep work that would credibly inform that opinion or would come from a place of substance.”

Nia thinks there needs to be more of the substantive presentation of opinions and information rather than the uninformed and the superficial. We began to speak about some of the gender-selected educational statuses around the globe with, typically, more investment in the boys than in the girls.

“If there is a family with 5 children and only a few of the children can go to school because there are only the monetary resources for 2 or 3 of those children to go to school,” Nia explained, “in many countries, the boys would be seen as the ones to go to school because they are going to be seen as breadwinners and the people that the family should be most invest in as they will carry the family name.”

The issue, then, is working to overcome the inherent bias of family and culture for boys and against girls. Where this is regarded as an important part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals now, for the empowerment of women and girls, education is crucial for the advancement and empowerment of women and girls.

Nia said, “Of course, education changes everything. We see a direct connection between lower rates of child marriage, lower rates of child and teen pregnancy, and higher education rates for women and girls. There is the statistical evidence to show that it is important.”

In terms of the anecdote for Nia’s life, she saw the difference in quality schooling on her life, personal interests, and, indeed, options for her life. I remarked on the other sociocultural barriers for women and women of color, and women in developing countries.

Nia noted the ways in which, one way or another, girls and women can miss out on education. These gaps in education could come about via the death of a parent and then taking on the tasks and responsibilities of the parent for the other siblings, as the eldest daughter, for example.

“You often see women, girls, or adolescent girls are shouldering the parenting responsibilities. This is something that can happen in situations of conflict where there has been a natural disaster or in challenging circumstances involving health and the loss of a parent,” Nia explained, “Other things are the factors that I mentioned such as early marriage. Once a girl is married off, it is unlikely that she will be continuing her education. If she falls pregnant, it is unlikely that she will be continuing her education.”

Nia noted something rather astonishing. Even in the United States, teen pregnancy can be a huge issue. It’s a global problem. But it can impact even some of the richest nations in the world. Then there are factors, Nia described, in the restrictions of girls to have primary education. Something like 15 million girls will never enter a classroom compared to 10 million boys.

That is a gross disparity. She made a distinct point: no one should miss schooling. However, the disparity is the real issue. Nia said some of the issues may be menstruation and then cultural taboos around it. Girls not being able to interact with others during their periods, and so on.

Nia concluded, “She would also not be able to go to school during those days. There is a lot of awareness built around that. There are a lot of programs specifically directed at improving access for girls, but that is something very front of mind and was informing what I was saying at the beginning. I am lucky in a global sense to have those opportunities.”


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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