Remarkable women’s advocacy leader and child marriage survivor shares her story

Houry Geudelekian is chair of the NGO Commission on the Status of Women, NY (NGO CSW/NY). She is also the United Nations coordinator of Unchained At Last, an organization working to end child marriage in the United States, and previously served as the organization’s gender program coordinator.

Born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a well-off, progressive Armenian family, Houry’s life changed when war broke out in Lebanon. At 14 years old, she married a man 16 years her senior and they moved to New York City in the late 1970s. She received a General Equivalency Diploma (GED) but did not go back to college for decades.  When she was 19, Houry and her then-husband started a business that grew to more than 30 employees and 2,000 clientele in the competitive market of Manhattan.

It wasn’t until her divorce about 10 years ago that Houry discovered her voice and began working in the advocacy space. As UN coordinator for the Armenian Relief Society (2011-2016), she served as an executive committee member of NGO CSW/NY for two terms, co-chaired the NGO CSW Forum Planning Committee, hosted two Consultation Days and chaired the Women of Distinction Award for CSW57/58.

As a board member of NGO CSW/NY, Houry was a founding member of the Cities for CEDAW campaign, as well as Beijing Platform for Action+20, working closely with UN Women. She has also facilitated and partnered with UN Member States, UN Women and the United Nations Development Programme to bring about positive change globally through panel discussions and projects.

In April, Houry was featured by Zonta International in a Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories event, a leadership series hosted by Lynne Foley OAM, chairman of the Zonta International Leadership Development Committee.

Here are some of the top takeaways from their conversation:

Empowering women and girls

“At the end of the day, we need to figure out a way to end patriarchy once and for all. But patriarchy exists because we, as women, are marginalized. And we see ourselves in so many ways, most of the time as the nurturers, rather than the leaders and the ones who really should take things into our own hands. I’m not saying this is 100%, and I would be even cautious to generalize it too much. But I know [this] from my lifetime, from my circles, what I have seen in myself.”

“The bottom line is that for women and girls, there is a disproportionate difference. There are many families who would first send their sons [to school] or make sure their sons are protected. And girls can always stay home and take care of the family or feed or clean or find a job to support and take care of the elderly. It starts as young as 12-, 13-year-old girls taking care of either their older relatives or their younger siblings. And that right away is a perfect example of why we need to make sure just because they were used to doing that, just because that has been acceptable, doesn't mean we have to keep doing it that way. We have to make sure that we consciously educate families, societies, communities, and say, even instinctively, your child can handle it, just like my parents thought.”

Education is a necessity

“Whenever I would complain about not being able to go to school, people would say, ‘Well, why do you need education? You've achieved so much, what's more important?’ … But I educated myself as much as possible. … Even though I am successful, even though I am smart, I was able to ‘talk to anybody under the table,’ as my family would say, I could argue because I read newspapers [and] I listened to the news. But that wasn't enough. There was something missing. I always felt like there was something missing in me. And that really took a long time for me to get over.”

Surviving child marriage

“It took me a long time for me to admit to myself that what happened to me was not OK. And then to also be able to share it with others because there was also this guilt feeling of, I don't want my parents or my husband to feel bad. … I know that they didn't intentionally hurt me. They thought this was the best solution. Well, it wasn't. … It wasn't a forced marriage, but I didn't feel like I had a choice. If my parents sat me down and said, ‘Well, you're not going to be able to go to school anymore. Would you like to go to school or start your life as a married woman?’ I know, I would have picked school. I just didn't think I had a choice. I thought, ‘Well, I’m getting married now. But I’ll go to school anyway.’ That's how much I had convinced myself that it was OK.”

Working together for gender equality

“The ultimate goal is access for gender equality globally so as long as you keep that in the goal, how we get there, who does what [doesn’t matter]. If it can lead us to the ultimate result it's absolutely fine. There are so many different ways of getting there.”

Finding her voice

“About 25 years into my marriage and successful business and being a community leader, I started reflecting on, Where was my voice? And where were my needs, how are they being met? And I started a journey of self-discovery and ended up really finding out that I had buried that 14-year-old girl's voice—who was brave, who was amazing, but was not able to really achieve all her goals. And the most important piece of all of this was the lack of education. The education piece was what was really eating up on me. So that, in a nutshell, is what really drove me to advocate [and] be an advocate, and of course, working towards gender equality globally. Every single thing I do, I feel like is a part of my healing as well. … I feel very lucky that 10 years ago, I discovered NGO Committee on the Status of Women.”

“I could see how I was actually more confident than my husband even though he had the creative aspect of the business and he was older, he was more well-traveled. But there were insecurities in him that I felt like I need to cover up for and not worry about my own issues. So, my issues were always pushed aside and his needs were [more important]. I’ve seen this happen in so many households. And part of it is because I could convince myself to say, ‘Oh you're strong enough, you'll get there, don't worry about it.’ And sure enough I was strong enough and I did get there. I ended up having to do it by leaving, getting a divorce and then really speaking up for other women until I was able to speak my own story.”

Sharing her story

“When I started at NGO CSW, I didn't tell my story until five years into my volunteering. After I heard so many other brave women speak up I finally thought, OK I can talk about this. And it's still kind of hard, it's still kind of new for me to be sitting here. And in my head, I’m thinking, I wonder how many people are going to hear this story and laugh at me or judge me or think that this is crazy. I mean, who would do something like this? But you have to get past that because to me what's important is that I heard other women tell these stories that empowered me and I’m hoping at least some part of my story will help and empower someone else to say, ‘I’m ready to tell my story.’ ”

What it means to be a leader

“At the end of the day, I am the chair. If I do need to make a final decision, if I see that a decision needs to be made and we're not able to bring it together in a collaborative shared leadership model, I am not afraid. So, being brave is one of the things that we have to accept. … Every step that I’m taking, … if it leads toward access to gender equality, then I’m not doing anything wrong.”

Being an advocacy leader

“Being a business leader is so different than being an activist and advocacy leader, but when I first got into this space, I remember feeling so little. I didn't have my degree yet and I was coming from a beauty and fashion industry, and I thought they were going to look down on me. … I remember at the time Soon-Young Yoon, who had just become chair [of NGO CSW/NY], looked at me and … said, ‘Houry, please do not put yourself down. Your experience of event organizing, fundraising or even the way you think because of your background, your education, even the lack of education and your passion for education can really be useful in the group.’ And that really empowered me to speak up in meetings.”

Personal growth is necessary for collective growth

“Sometimes women and girls who have not had the opportunity to reflect and grow individually bring toxic masculinity and the notions of patriarchy into our space. The first couple of times I noticed, I was like, Wait a minute these are our sisters. They have suffered just as much as I have, for different reasons. Maybe they didn't have early marriage but they had sexual assault or you know or whatever issues. ... But if we have not addressed it, if we have not looked into it deeply, personally, it will affect the collective. So, it's really important to keep encouraging each other to grow on an individual level so that we can collectively grow together too.”

How to recharge

“The highlight of my day, week, month—even when I was raising three kids, I had 30 employees and had this huge social life—I always found moments of quiet. And I never understood what that was. … but it is meditation. … True discovery of myself, at the end of the day, has come from those quiet moments. The answer has always been inside me. It's when I’m not confident, it's when I’m scared, when I’m sad, feeling sorry for myself, that I forget that I have the answers. Now it's not always easy to find that and one of the things I have discovered is to just wait a day before you give up completely on an idea.”

Moving on after a major life change

“With all the success, after I got divorced and [left] the business we created together … I could not find a job in my community. … I just kept myself open to what's next. Just show me the way. And then NGO CSW showed up.”

To keep up with NGO CSW/NY, follow the organization on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Watch Houry’s Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories session:


6 MAY 2022