In the early morning hours of August 2, 1990 Iraqi army tanks and helicopters crossed their southern border into Kuwait, beginning what would turn out to be a seven-month occupation of the tiny desert nation.
Dr. Hanan Al-Mutawa, like many Kuwaitis, found herself stranded in the UK, unable to return home and wondering what the future held for herself and her country.
It would seem there was little she could do but wait – but that’s not Hanan’s style. Legacy Makers are people of action, so Hanan set out to do what she could for her fellow displaced countrymen.
With an eye not just on the immediate needs of refugees, but on the future of Kuwait, Hanan set up an academy in London for educating the children of Kuwaiti families there. She also convinced other existing institutions to accept refugee children.
This was the start of a nearly 30-year (and counting!) run of transformational and educational programs that have been central to her life and work.
Hanan’s focus has been on the empowerment of women. As successful as she’s been, it’s been no easy task with centuries of culture and tradition working against her.
Against the grain
Hanan knows that women are vital to the future of Kuwait and the Arab world in general. So it’s no surprise that she is totally aligned with UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #5 – Gender Equality. She’s been dedicated to its principles since before SDG’s were even conceptualised.
Empowering women in environments where cultural and religious norms are part of the fabric of society takes patience and care. Trying to do too much too fast can be counterproductive, so sometimes you have to take small wins when you can get them. Above all, Hanan points out, you have to remain dedicated to the cause through the ups and downs.
“You have to be in it to win it,” she says.
Hanan has been at the forefront of many wins, both big and small. She orchestrated the campaign of Dr. Massouma Al-Mubarak, who became the first woman elected as a Kuwaiti Cabinet Minister in 2005. In 2009 she went on to help Dr. Massouma become the first woman elected to the Kuwaiti Parliament in its 71-year history. Hanan kept the momentum going by then helping get three more women elected to the Kuwaiti Parliament.
These big, high-profile triumphs are important and energizing. But sometimes the little victories can be just as transformational – and Hanan hasn’t lost sight of the everyday women that need to be empowered as well.
Helping women THRIVE
In addition to her other humanitarian efforts, serving on multiple boards for educational and government institutions and speaking on a wide range of topics, Hanan co-founded the THRIVE foundation with her husband Russell Byrne. Based in Kuwait City, THRIVE supports women and children in need by providing scholarships and other educational resources across Kuwait as well as in other parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
The organization is a key part of Hanan’s larger goals, especially those supporting SDG #5, and aligns with her philosophy that the empowerment of women is good for all of society.
“THRIVE exists to help disenfranchised women, youth and children live a fulfilling life and help others do so too, making our world a better place,” she says.
THRIVE is also a super B1G1 partner, resulting in over 136,596 giving impacts thus far.
Legacy: becoming a catalyst for change
The influx of female leadership that Hanan helped bring about was unprecedented for Arab states in the Persian Gulf region and marked a shift in cultural mindset that would serve as a template for other nations in the area. It also shows what can happen – even against seemingly insurmountable odds – when like-minded people remain dedicated to a worthy cause. Building a lasting legacy, however, is often more about individuals than grandiose ideas.
Years ago, Hanan met with a young woman who was applying for a job at her Kindergarten. In her late teens, already with four children, and escaping an abusive relationship, she had little education or marketable skills. Despite her tenuous state, the woman was seeking to take control of her and her children’s’ futures. Where Hanan didn’t necessarily see skill, she saw an “attitude” that she liked, and a chance to help a young woman teetering on a knife’s edge.
It turns out that the chance Hanan took on this girl was just the catalyst she needed to turn her life around. She is now free of her violent home life and thriving in a stable situation where she can care for her children. She’s even moving on to help manage another school franchise where she’ll be able to pass her experiences on to others.
That’s how true legacies are built – one person at a time.