Engaging mountain communities through the international Women of the Mountains Conference

May 8th 2015, I remember walking into class – International Relations of the Middle East. I had just flown all the way across the world from Bulgaria for summer school at Utah Valley University (UVU) located in city of Orem, state of Utah, USA. I had signed up for eight classes aiming to graduate as soon as possible. I remember stepping into class, meeting my professor – a short individual, speaking with a very strong accent and knowing I had absolutely no idea what is coming next. From this moment on, my life has completely changed. I had been playing professional basketball for nine years in Bulgaria and I decided it was time to give it up and focus on my other dream: a diplomatic career in the field of International Relations. I did not have any understanding how that was possible and I had to do to make it happen. After all, my life I had only been about playing basketball. I only knew that the time had come and it was now or never.

Professor Baktybek Abdrisaev began lecturing and in the middle of it, he started to talk about an international conference titled “Women of the Mountains” under the umbrella of the United Nations Mountain Partnership (MP) that was going to be held in October and that he needed students willing to participate in its preparation and hosting. MP coordinates global activities with a focus on the sustainable mountain development (SMD) agenda of the United Nations and works under the umbrella of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, Italy.

He later informed us that for the first time such a high level international forum will be hosted by students and in particular by the members of the Utah International Mountain Forum (UIMF), a coalition of student clubs at UVU. The next thing he mentioned was an incentive for his students to get involved: extra credit for those, who are willing to participate, plus gaining professional experiences and skills on an international level. I knew only one thing – I need all the help I could get; taking so many classes in one summer and I had to do whatever it takes to complete my courses successfully because I could not afford to not pass any of my classes. So needless to say, I was very interested.

The next morning I woke up early. The first thing I did was to rush to his office. “I want in,” is exactly what I said, even though I did not know what I was getting into. I soon realized that this was the very moment when my actual education in diplomacy started. I was asked how I was willing to help and what would I like to do for the conference. I knew that at the end of the summer I had to fly back to Europe, so if I wanted to work for the conference it had to be something I could do from a distance.

I was introduced to the members of the organizing committee of the Fourth International Women of the Mountains Conference (WOMC) including Tony Medina, Vice President for logistics and protocol; Dean Torsak, Executive Secretary; and Jenny Starley, PR and Fundraising. I quickly decided to manage the social media campaign, having learned that the websites for the conference had only been managed occasionally during last few years. I accepted the responsibility of the social media liaison. My initial work consisted of contacting globally over 300 members of the Mountain Partnership – governments, intergovernmental organizations, major non-governmental organizations and sub national authorities, informing them about the conference, and inviting them to follow the Women of the Mountains conferences social media outlets.

It was important for me to increase our social media presence in order to promote our efforts on a grass roots level and engage student groups from the State of Utah and beyond, to raise awareness and advocate for SMD and gender issues throughout the Rocky Mountain region and the world. I spent countless sleepless nights sending personal emails aiming to put the Women of the Mountains Conference on the social media map. Not very many institutions and individuals knew about us and I had to find new ways to attract attention and interest from the local and global audiences. From those 300 emails, to my disappointment, I received only a few replies. Many recipients didn’t take us seriously as we were only students.

Later, to my surprise, I received some encouraging responses from people ready to do whatever it takes in favor of the mountains. Through this communication, I was able to contact, and later meet at the conference, many amazing people from all over the world, and people that I will always call friends. I am very happy now to count among them, for example, Noorani Barkat, from Pakistan who is a graduate student at Texas A&M. During the Panel Session on Education of Women & Children she was very outspoken about role of education of women and children in improving lives of mountain communities in Pakistan. I was also impressed by the energy and persistence of Sejuti Sarkar De from India, a chief coordinator for the Society for Natural Resource Management and Community Development, who was so determined to come to the conference, that she found funds for air travel, while we provided her accommodation and transportation in Utah. Sejuti made a great presentation during conference on the topic of “Utilization of Forest Products by Mountain Women.”

Similarly, I was glad to establish the first contacts and then facilitate a dialogue with several women entrepreneurs and participants of a business fair, whom our student organizing committee was able to bring to Utah by raising funds for that purpose: Yunita Kopjanski, a founder and executive director from North Sumatera, Indonesia, who was interested in finding a business partner in Utah with focus on Renewable Energy for improving livelihoods of mountain communities in her native country; Diana Lucia Chaman Salas, a project coordinator of the Red de Agroindustria Rural (REDAR) del Perú from Peru, another amazing young woman that I had the chance to communicate and interact, was looking for local business partners in Utah focusing on use of educational alternatives for rural development in the Andes.


Ambassador Baktybek Abdrisaev, Diana Lucia Chaman Salas,(Peru) Project Coordinator, Red de Agroindustria Rural (REDAR) del Perú and Yanko Dzhukev

My involvement with the conference allowed to me also to work with Ms. Mia Rowan, a Communications and Advocacy Officer from the Mountain Partnership Secretariat, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. I was able to learn from Mia Rowan many professional lessons, both in use of media and in gender and SMD advocacy as well, and I am so thankful to her for sharing with me her enlightening experiences. And finally, it was a special pleasure for me to contact and invite as a presenter at the conference Mr. Joseph Loftin, the principal of Wasatch Academy, where I had received my secondary education. Wasatch Academy, founded in 1875, is an independent, coeducational, college preparatory boarding school for grades 8-12 located in Mt. Pleasant, Utah. It has students from more than 40 different countries including mountainous ones. Mr. Loftin, during his presentation titled, “Access to educational opportunities for women in communities throughout the world,” spoke about opportunities at school for students and girls in particular to broaden their horizons to gain a global perspective from living and learning alongside students from different cultures and traditions.


Joseph Loftin, Principal, Wasatch Academy, Mount Pleasant, Utah
“Access to Educational Opportunities for Women in Communities Throughout 
the World,” Panel Session on Education of Women & Children

As part of the activities of the conference I was also responsible for creating and using the conference social media outlets to contribute to the campaign organized by the Mountain Partnership for inclusion of mountain indicators among the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) during their adoption by the United Nations in September 25, 2015. These SDGs were built upon the Millennium Development Goals and laid a foundation for the post 2015 development agenda of the United Nations. During the sessions of the United Nations Open Working Groups on SDGs in 2013-2014, UVU students were able to contribute to the joint efforts of MP members to ensure that the three mountain-related targets have been included among the draft of SDGs.

Starting at the beginning of June 2015 through the moment when United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 in September 25-27, 2015 adopted new SDGs, we attempted to reach out to numerous mountain related governments, organizations, individuals, and well-known mountain climbers. For that purpose I created an additional social media link – “Keep Mountains in the SDGs.” I contacted also the leaders of mountain nations and their Permanent Representatives to the United Nations urging them to advocate for keeping mountain indicators among the SDGs during the intergovernmental negotiations on the outcome of the document. I kept on pushing this very important agenda and urging for support, spreading this message because all of us, members of the UIMF, wanted to make a significant impact. Finally, when the three mountain indicators were adopted among the SDGs, it gave to us, and myself, satisfaction in knowing that we have fulfilled our obligation.

Meanwhile, our social media network grew significantly. I was able to attract more than 400 people to join our social media network. Our Facebook pages, titled: “Women of the Mountains,” and “Mountains Matter” was followed by more than 200 people, and more than 160 people joined our “Utah International Mountain Forum” pages. Alongside Facebook, I administered a “Women of the Mountains” LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter accounts and a Flickr profile where I have uploaded all of our photos.

An additional item on the conference agenda was also to contribute to the social campaign organized by F.A.O.-U.N. and the Mountain Partnership in gathering signatures to support petition “UNFCCC – United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: Ensure that the impact of climate change on Mountain Peoples and Ecosystems is fully addressed in the UNFCCC COP21 new climate deal.” We are proud that through efforts of our students and partners in many part of the global mountainous world, including in Kyrgyzstan, our team was able to mobilize more than 1,000 signatures from 6,283 gathered in total as a result of this campaign.

My social media liaison work kept me busy all the time, as there was always something to be done. No matter how many invitation letters I had sent or how many posts I had made, I felt like something extra could, and probably should be done. It was very interesting and enriching experience, allowing to me to network with so many institutions and people around the world and build personal relationships along with promoting very important for me mountain cause. I believe that coming from Bulgaria, a country where the mountains play a very important role in the lives of the people, has allowed me to understand in a more intimate way exactly how the WOMC demonstrates its importance for the people of my country to work together with mountain communities in North America and globally. Frankly speaking, during the preparations to the conference, I had completely abandoned my school work, as I saw the fruits of our labor beginning to take root.

I was very happy to be part of the student team which successfully hosted the Fourth International Women of the Mountains Conference in Orem UT on October 7-9, 2015. Many of my colleagues started preparation to the conference one year in advance when traditional organizers of the WOMCs, Utah Valley University and the Kyrgyz National Centre for Development of Mountain Regions, decided that students from the State of Utah and UIMF members in particular will be able to play role of major hosts of the 2015 WOMC. UIMF was created in 2011 and as a coalition of several student clubs at UVU gained recognition since that time on local and international levels for contribution to the promotion of the United Nations SMD agenda. The Fourth International Women of the Mountains conference continued the traditions set during the previous International Women of the Mountains Conferences hosted in Orem, Utah in 2007, 2011 and in Puno, Peru in 2012 in promotion of gender and SMD agendas of the United Nations and in strengthening the involvement of North American mountain communities with the MP. The conference gathered a majority of the MP members from North America in addition to representatives of the U.N., U.S. State Department, envoys from mountain nation accredited to the U.N. and to the U.S., experts and scholars on gender issues from the Rocky Mountain region and abroad.


H.E. Ion Jinga, Permanent Representative of Romania to the United Nations and Yanko Dzhukev during the conference at Utah Valley University

Generally speaking, I had such a valuable and enriching experience during the Conference. While being in Europe for the summer, I flew back to Utah to be there for the conference and to see that all the hard work that we had invested during entire year come about. We had more than 120 distinguished guests from twenty mountainous countries, and I felt so happy of being a part of such a big event. And, now that I know that my contribution made a difference, I am ready to invest so much more and many more sleepless nights for the mountain cause that is completely worth it. A cause that most of the people take for granted, but not me. Advocating for sustainable mountain development has become a new passion of mine and I will continue to pursue it in all of my future endeavors in international affairs.

In closing, I would like to thank all of my colleagues that joined together for such a worthy cause. And finally, I would like to thank His Excellency Professor Baktybek Abdrisaev, for helping me reach my full potential and believe in myself.

Yanko Dzhukev, Organizing Committee, Social Media Liaison of the Fourth International Women of the Mountains Conference