Soroptimists attend UNESCO conference in Saudi Arabia

A blog by Soroptimist, Lee Ann Cochran

Day One

“I am honored to be at the 7th UNESCO NGO Forum hosted in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia 3-4 May.  My name is Lee Ann Cochran and I am a passionate member of Soroptimist International of the America’s.

The travel to Riyadh was smooth although not relaxing. While having travelled internationally a great deal there was still a touch of stress about heading to Saudi Arabia.  I believe these feelings stemmed from the strict cultural requirements put on all women travelling to and living in Saudi Arabia. Whilst slipping a black abaya (black garment to enable covering a woman from neck to feet) on, a feeling came over me, a feeling of not being free. Arriving at the conference site, there were two entrances, one for women and a second for men. Seating for the session and lunch was also separated.

‘Youth and their Social Impact’ is the theme for this years’ Forum. Tanzila Khan, an author and disabled rights activist, was an articulate speaker from Pakistan. She shared how it is essential to, “create an environment to get youth excited about problems, rather than being frustrated by problems.”  H.E. Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of State for Federal National Council Affairs – United Arab Emirates, passionately shared that, “we must communicate with the youth, not wait for them to communicate with us.” Action is not only required from the youth, but also from volunteer organisations wanting to engage with them.

Promoting volunteer engagement at local and international levels, UNESCO 7th International Forum of NGO’s

During lunch, myself and two other SI representatives,  Victoria Pritchard and Amrita Gautam agreed that the message of Soroptimist International is being well received by participants in all countries. A special thanks to SI UN Representative in Paris, Marie-Christine Gries, for extending an invitation for us to attend this conference and represent SI. The UNESCO team, NGO Liaison Committee and MiSK have been exceptional hosts”.

Day Two

“The Soroptimist team started our second morning with breakfast to connect, recap and plan the day. Our team connected on a variety of topics, most importantly on how to share the voice of Soroptimist today and in the future.

Soroptimist International delegation at the 7th International Forum of NGOs – Victoria Pritchard, Amrita Gautam, Marie-Christine Gries, Noora Al Mulla and Lee Ann Cochran

This day had several highlights:

  • Sara Minkara, gave an inspirational speech on “Blindness as a Tool to Uncover Ability”.  Sara herself is a blind Lebanese American who lost her sight at the age of seven. She founded Empowerment Through Integration (ETI), out of her own personal experience and passion for empowering blind youth to be the catalysts for change in their communities. A quote from Sara that really struck me was, “when you don’t see what a person looks like, you allow the person to show you who they are”.

    Sara Minkara, founder of Empowerment Through Integration


  • Over lunch there was an opportunity to join Justin Smith, CEO of Bloomberg Media Group, for an interactive discussion. My fellow Soroptimist delegate, Victoria Pritchard and I, were the first to arrive and had the opportunity to speak directly with him and his chief of staff. This opportunity allowed us to share the work of Soroptimist International and ask questions. When the broader session began, it was still an intimate group of 10 people.
  • Carl Lewis, American former field and track athlete who won 10 Olympic medals (9 gold) took to the stage in the afternoon. Carl is a personal hero of mine, not only due to his winnings but also choosing to use his talent to give back to society. Through his non-profit, the Carl Lewis Foundation and as a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, Carl believes that: “Education is key to solving hunger”. I had the opportunity to ask him about what we can do as NGOs, to support youth and social impact. In his answer, he focused on the importance of collaboration and impact.
  • The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, gave a presentation on data. His desire to share, collaborate and have impact was motivating to hear. He highlighted that, “fake news is often designed to confirm and spread prejudices, it’s dangerous.” It brought a call to action to myself as a Soroptimist on how important it is we represent reality and share validated information.

Over the course of the two-day Forum, the event organisers, UNESCO and MiSK tracked data on social media posts. I received second place for the number of times I used the Forum’s hashtags – 70 times! Thank you to Soroptimist International for giving me the opportunity to attend this conference.”


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