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June 10, 2007

Women Who Rock the World

Moving seamlessly through foreign wars and cultures, these rising stars of the United Nations arm themselves with intellect, compassion, and diplomacy.

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Photo Credit: Laurence Gerard/UN/2007

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RADHIKA COOMARASWAMY

Job: Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

Translation: I am a moral voice and independent advocate for the protection of children in countries of armed conflict.

Where did you cut your teeth for this job?: The American university system in the '60s. I became very involved in the civil-rights movement and the women's movement, and I took those ideas with me for life.

Who is your role model?: Mahatma Gandhi and his movement of nonviolence-the idea of fighting for justice while maintaining the moral edge over your opponent.

If you want to know what Radhika Coomaraswamy is thinking, just ask her. The 53-year-old Sri Lankan didn't get to be top dog by biting her tongue. "My position involves naming and shaming parties that recruit child soldiers," she says. "Every year, we present a list of countries to the secretary-general. Then the Security Council can decide to impose sanctions until the parties end their violations."

The daughter of a U.N. diplomat, Coomara-swamy has spent her life moving between American and Sri Lankan cultures. In her teens, she attended the United Nations International School, which she credits with opening her eyes to global issues, even as her religious family cracked down on her personal freedom. "They wanted to marry me off," she says, raising her eyebrows. "An arranged marriage. They tried hard, bringing me this man and that man, and every time I said no." Finally, her relatives gave up. When Coomaraswamy published her first book a few years later, about the Sri Lankan constitution, she gave a copy to her grandmother as a gift. "I told her she could have it in place of a grandson-in-law!" she says.

In 1994, Coomaraswamy was selected to be the U.N. Human Rights Commission Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. In 2003, she became chairperson to Sri Lanka's Human Rights Commission. Last winter, she received the nod for the special-representative position.
Despite her rise to the top tier of U.N. officialdom in New York, Coomaraswamy hasn't forgotten the traditions of her homeland. "I'm not terribly religious, but the Hindu-Buddhist ability to detach from the everyday rat race is important to me," she says. "It reminds me that compassion, and the relationships we have with one another, are what really matter in the end."


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