Shan Sherwan has been advocating for women’s rights since she was 16.
Growing up in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, Sherwan’s passion for empowerment was inspired by her late mother, a secondary school teacher who wrote articles under a pseudonym for women’s newspapers. Those newspapers — which the family kept hidden as they were taboo at the time — always seemed to bring news of honor killings.
“I found out I’m in a society where I don’t own the body that I’m in,” Sherwan says. “That was the minute I started to open my eyes and say, ‘Why shouldn’t I take ownership of my own self?” She began researching how girls at her school could protect themselves from harassment, sharing that research with her classmates while also encouraging them to finish their education.
Now, at 29, Sherwan is still searching for ways to support and protect other women. As an economic empowerment manager, she helps women develop the resources and skills to gain financial independence through entrepreneurship and other vocational skills.
She was able to turn her passion into a career with the help of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP), an international exchange sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and implemented by World Learning. IYLEP offers Iraqi high school and undergraduate students an opportunity to spend four weeks in the United States learning about leadership, civic engagement, peacebuilding, and more.
In 2010, Sherwan heard about IYLEP as an undergraduate student in Iraq. She was intrigued by the opportunity to become a more effective advocate. Even though some of her family members warned her against applying — believing the opportunity was wasted on a girl — she did so anyway. “I really thought IYLEP would open that door for me,” she says. “And it did. I gained way more than I had ever hoped.”
Sherwan credits IYLEP with developing her confidence and leadership abilities and providing her with the tools to take action in her community. For example, during the exchange, Sherwan took part in public speaking exercises and delivered presentations at U.S. universities about the history of Iraq. “It really helped me a lot with my communication,” she says.
After IYLEP, Sherwan returned to Iraq, where she completed her engineering degree and joined an organization that raised awareness about women’s rights. She then earned a scholarship to attend the University of Southern Indiana, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in business administration. She then returned to Iraq to work on economic empowerment programs for NGOs including the International Rescue Committee and, currently, Women for Women International.
Through that work, Sherwan trains women in entrepreneurship skills, with a focus on helping domestic violence victims gain economic independence from their abusers. She’s already seen the difference it can make. Some of the women in Sherwan’s vocational workshops have gone on to open hair salons or sell clothing in their refugee camp. One woman took lessons from a financial skills course to open a secondhand shop in Sulaymaniyah. Their newfound financial independence means that these women don’t need to rely on an abusive spouse to feed and provide housing for them and their children.
“It’s so important to have your own money,” Sherwan says.
Sherwan notes that these skills are important beyond these immediate successes. “Wherever they go, [these women] can take the skill that they learned,” she says. “So, it’s really important to focus on the basic skills: how to start a business, how to maintain it, how to calculate the cost, the benefit. That skill is very important because it’s transferable.”
Sherwan is always looking for new opportunities to make a difference in women’s lives, and IYLEP has helped her do so. In 2017, she received funding from the U.S. Embassy Baghdad’s Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund to teach handcrafting and English language to women who have escaped honor killings and are now living in a shelter. It was such a success that the Iraqi government ultimately decided to employ the handicraft trainer at the shelter full-time after the project ended.
Sherwan is also working to cultivate leadership among new generations of Iraqi youth. She recently joined World Learning as an Iraq Coordinator on the IYLEP team.
Now, the same family members who had discouraged Sherwan from applying to IYLEP are proud of the work she’s doing. Though there’s still more to be done to empower women in Iraq, Sherwan says she has seen a shift in attitudes. “I think it really has changed for the better,” she says.
IYLEP alumni deserve credit for some of that shift. Sherwan notes that several members from her IYLEP cohort have gone on to become change agents and engaged citizens. “That’s how IYLEP equips us: to become more efficient, to become more productive, and to be more humanitarian,” she says.