Leading with Conviction: International Women’s Day with Resident Coordinators
Every year, International Women’s Day on March 8th offers an opportunity for reflection on how far we’ve come and how far we have to go as a global community striving for gender equality and women’s empowerment. But it is also a recognition of the effort, strength and resilience of women in policy advocacy.
This year, UN DCO brought together two UN Resident Coordinators—Gwyn Lewis in Bangladesh and Susan Ngongi Namondo in Uganda for an open and freewheeling conversation on gender equality, promising initiatives in the two countries that can motivate other Least Developed Countries in similar circumstances, and finally, the inspiration to keep advocating for a fairer and more equal world.
Susan: Wonderful, Gwyn! Let me start. What is the progress you’re seeing in achieving SDG Goal 5 and gender equality in Bangladesh?
Gwyn: Since the 1990s there has been a significant improvement, from improved representation of women in government, having women Prime Ministers and Speakers of the House. We’ve seen participation rising in schools, very often girls have higher learning outcomes than boys. But there still is a long way to go.
Women in Bangladesh are still experiencing multiple forms of violence (over 70% of women report that they experienced forms of violence and that is higher, unfortunately, for women with disabilities). Forced early marriage is also a huge issue in Bangladesh. We need sustained investments to raise awareness and a lot more effort. The government has put in place gender-responsive budgeting meaning 27% of the overall budget goes towards gender-responsive programming but we need to strengthen the monitoring of that money and seeing how that impacts women and girls on the ground.
Bangladesh is a country very prone to climate induced disasters and girls face several issues, particularly in accessing water, sanitation and health services and experience gender-based violence is crises.
Having a systemic approach will be the only way we can achieve SDG Goal 5 by 2030. What is it like in Uganda in terms of progress?
Susan: I was going to say that there are lots of similarities in these contexts. One of the similarities is women’s representation in government. But we’re also seeing progress in our legal framework. Last year, for instance, several bills have been passed but one of the most important is the Succession Bill- which gives women equal access to property and inheritance- a major coup! Yet there are other challenges, one of which is the high rate of violence against women. A Survey on Violence in Uganda (Uganda Bureau of Statistics/UN Women 2020) found that there was an increase in sexual violence from 22% in 2016 to 35% in 2020. We have a long way to go to truly make Goal 5 a reality.
Gwyn: Absolutely! In your work as the Resident Coordinator in Uganda, could you tell me about some promising initiatives empowering women that are underway?
Susan: I think one of the most promising ones has been the Spotlight Initiative. What I’ve really enjoyed is that it has really brought the UN family to work together, coherently, under the leadership of the Resident Coordinator’s office by pooling our resources and supporting the government on gender-based violence. I look forward to seeing how we can learn from this, for other joint initiatives across the United Nations to make significant progress on thorny issues.
Gwyn: In Bangladesh, we have a dedicated strategic priority in our Cooperation Framework on gender equality and gender-based violence and we are trying to improve our work linking community-based organizations and government. We’re also working a lot with women-led business owners and women entrepreneurs. We still have significant discrepancies when it comes to unemployment figures. About 36% of women participate in the labour force, while the proportion is 81% for men. That is still a big challenge, so we’re helping women participate in the economy and across supply chains. We can’t take it for granted that we’re making progress.
Susan: I agree fully! This year’s International Women’s Day theme focuses on digital technology and innovation for gender equality. How do you think that digital technology can really help us in terms of reducing the gender equity and equality gaps?
Gwyn: We have what we call “Smart Bangladesh” at the moment- a big initiative by the government that also includes a pillar on capacity. Before “Smart Bangladesh”, the government launched a policy called “Digital Bangladesh” and a lot of progress had been made in terms of giving people access to technology. Despite a lot of those policies, 80% of women don’t have access to the internet. Access to technology means greater financial inclusion for women. Unfortunately, there are concerns linked to it as well- specifically, harassment and online abuse. We need to make sure girls are protected in the digital space, while at the same time, accelerating technology and giving women access to new forms of employment.
Susan: Some similar challenges there but I agree with you that these are tools that can be helpful. We saw that during COVID-19 here in Uganda- where we were able to support women in the market for instance. They were able to access virtual platforms to get their produce into people’s homes. And for people in turn to get that produce without endangering themselves. It has definitely given a big boost to e-commerce. But some of the areas for improvement really revolve around investing in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). We need to ensure that we can get more girls and women into the sector. Technology that can be helpful but only if leveraged well. We also see a lot of abuse of women online including women’s rights defenders, women activists, human rights defenders.
Gwyn: This is very relevant to Bangladesh as well- the online attacks on human rights defenders and women-led organizations. In terms of your experience as a woman Resident Coordinator in the policymaking sphere in Uganda, how are you finding those aspects of the work?
Susan: I think fundamentally, for any of us really in policymaking, is understanding politics, understanding the structure of the government, the power dynamics and the institutions. And then seeing how one can work within these institutions to bring about policies and influence the infrastructure to advance gender equality. That is not deliberately taught.
Gwyn: Yes, in Bangladesh it is finding those possibilities and opportunities and “the door that’s a little bit open” to make the change. I think there are a lot of male-dominated spheres in our work and we need to continue to make the important points but also to be ourselves and make sure that we are bringing a different voice into the room. It’s not always easy ---
Susan: No, it’s not; society is still very patriarchal in many ways. At least in Uganda it is. So, what advice would you give other women and girls who want to advocate for gender equality in policy decisions?
Gwyn: It is really important that we continue to advocate because there’s a lot of work still left to be done. It’s important that women are true to themselves. Achieving women’s equality and upholding the rights of women and girls are really critical for us to reach where we need to be by 2030.
Susan: And, I would add to that—sordidly map the lay of the land. Try and understand the power dynamics in the society and the institutions you’re in. Have a really broad network in society. It helps to get all the different perspectives. And, have lots of enthusiasm and resilience, because you will need a lot of that to keep going when you inevitably meet the obstacles. (laughs).
Gwyn: -- and a sense of humour!
Susan: Indeed, that always helps.
Gwyn: So, finally, who is a gender champion in Uganda that you would like to spotlight?
Susan: We have several and I would like to spotlight two. The first one is a young activist, Victo Nalule. She is a champion for those who are not included in the mainstream on gender rights, and people with disabilities. She manages a civil society organization, and she is active in the advocacy space as well as in service delivery- an all-round incredible young woman! The second is Dr. Maggie Kigozi. She is an Elder now but was earlier a doctor and a businesswoman. But consistently, from the MDG days to the SDGs, she has been a champion and a consistent voice, especially on women’s economic rights.
Gwyn: I was thinking a lot about this too. What really strikes me about Bangladesh is the “everyday woman”. We had floods in Bangladesh in June last year- a huge crisis with 7 million people affected. I saw the women picking up their lives, taking care of their families. Their strength and resilience is extraordinary. The women living in the urban slums in Dhaka doing everything they can to ensure their little girls and boys are going to school every day. Or the Rohingya women in the camps in Cox’s Bazaar and everything that they have been through. The everyday women in Bangladesh for me are the heroes and the support and the strength that they give their daughters gives me hope.
As of March 2023, the UN Resident Coordinator System has achieved near gender parity with 52 per cent of Resident Coordinators around the world being female. For more information, please click here. This interview has been edited by UNDCO for clarity.