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International Women’s Day 2021

Pema Gyamtsho

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Choose to challenge: Empowering women as leaders for gender equality in the “new normal”

Gender equality is imperative to the attainment of wellbeing for all and promoting gender equity in leadership is a critical step towards it. Since they were first introduced in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have brought much-needed global attention to and action towards gender equity, particularly through SDG 5 and its specific target on leadership – 5.5: Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic, and public life.

The rapid climatic, socio-economic, and epidemiological changes that characterize our “new normal” continue to place an unequal burden on women. Experience and research have shown that women and men manage and cope with new realities differently. The socially constructed norms and power relations that shape our roles, responsibilities, and life experiences as men and women are starkly different, contributing to a variety of insights and perspectives that need to be shared and considered. In this regard, the empowerment of women as leaders helps bring women’s voices into important conversations and is an important step towards gender parity.

Women make up a vast majority of the global workforce. However, women’s representation within top institutions – be it in global policy and governance forums, or in thought leadership panels and across decision-making structures in the public and private sectors – continues to be low. The gender gap, especially at the highest levels of management and leadership, is wide – with a persistent inverse relationship between level of professional position and female representation. Globally, 75 per cent of parliamentarians are men and they hold 73 per cent of managerial positions. The scenario is similar in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region, although it is important to note that many of our regional member countries and their states have been or are led by elected women representatives. Women’s representation in parliament ranges from 32.7 percent (in Nepal) to 11.3 percent (in Myanmar), although with provisions made by most governments, the number of women leaders is steadily growing in the region.

At the household and community levels, women in the HKH often find themselves taking the lead not just in their homes and agricultural fields, but also in public life – doing business and interacting with government and other formalized institutions – as a majority of men, particularly young men, migrate to cities and other countries for work.

Historically, women have risen to the occasion when times are hard and their families and communities are in need. With the progress in the HKH region, women in power, although still by no means the norm, are no longer a rarity. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we find women on the frontlines everywhere – as healthcare workers, community leaders, social workers, teachers, and legislators. We see women’s organizations, networks, and community groups shouldering much of the responsibility of preventing the spread of the virus and serving those in greatest need. A recent rapid assessment of the pandemic’s impact on women entrepreneurs in the HKH and South Asian countries conducted by ICIMOD and the South Asian Women Development Forum has also revealed that despite facing major challenges, women entrepreneurs in the small and medium enterprise sector displayed their resilience and leadership by taking innovative measures and restructuring their businesses in diverse ways.

Despite multiple challenges, women’s resilience and leadership have persisted, mostly in cases where they have received support from families and managers. Such positive change requires changes in personal, family, and organizational and working attitudes and practices. To foster them, institutions and organizations must put in place supportive policies, practices, systems, and work processes. It is imperative that such change begin with us – our homes and our workplaces must be restructured to explicitly address long-standing issues of unequal access and opportunity, and support leadership roles for women.

As an institution, we at ICIMOD have great faith in our gender transformative approach – where the focus is on engaging women as assets and leaders. For us, the most important pillar of this approach is strengthening capacity and women’s leadership among our partners and the communities we work in as well as within the Centre. Institutionally, we have made some progress in promoting women’s leadership and have worked through our regional programmes and initiatives to build women’s capacity and leadership – through trainings, for instance, and by supporting women community leaders, wherever possible. In our value chain work, we have moved from promoting women as producers and active participants in the value chain to enhancing their skills and capacities as independent entrepreneurs. We are, however, also aware that there is a lot more we need to do. We must combine technical and transformative interventions for economic empowerment to strengthen our efforts to reshape gender relations.

On this International Women’s Day, let us once again pledge our commitment to work and strive towards transformative change through our work and our attitudes towards our workplaces, homes, and communities. Let us #ChoosetoChallenge.

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