CHANDANI JOSHI, who served as regional Director of South Asia Regional Office, United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), is an icon of global women movement. Joshi, who is still actively involved in empowering women in the region as well as in Nepal, needs no introduction. In the context of International Women's Day, Joshi spoke to KESHAB POUDEL on various issues. Excerpts:
What have you learnt in life after working for such a long time in the movement for women's empowerment?
Of course, we have learnt our lessons. One thing I have learnt is aggressiveness never pays. Aggressiveness might be your ego that you have but aggressiveness does not need to be working by any means whether it might be in your meeting with the government, press or common people. I think you have to have human kindness while you are dealing with people or institutions. You have to have a good logic and patience to listen. We tend to see a lot of things we don’t listen.
How do you view your working with women?
What I have learnt working with women is the sense and the courage they have. Such things have really touched me. This might be from anywhere. It might from poor women, rich women, working women or women staying at home. It might be from Bangladesh or Latin America, or Burundi. Everywhere women are the same. Believe me, once you trust them or once you give a task to them they will do it. That is the faith I have. You have to tell them what you need to do. With vision in your mind, you will be able to get the results. You have to transfer that vision then the transformations comes. Whether women are literate or illiterate or have higher education, they are the same.
Although there are laws on protection of women's rights, they have failed to prevent violence against women, given the current state of Nepal. How do you look at this?
Just formulating laws is not enough. There are different aspects of laws. One of the most important things is that the law has to be simplified. Let me give you an example of India. There is a law in India on women rights vis-à-vis police station. Once women are taken to police custody, it guarantees certain rights of women. However, many people do not know this. Even women activists do not know it. When we were working on domestic violence act in India, only a few people knew about it because of complicated words used in it.
Do you mean the law needs to be simplified?
If people don’t know about the words of law, what is the use of it? In India, when we went to work with the research institute, what they did was looked at the law and they simplified it. They made posters and literally showed what rights were written in the laws and what privileges they guaranteed. Although there are many provisions in Indian law to protect the women, nobody knew this because of complication. Similar cases are in Nepal where many laws exist but they are very much complicated. Even here, there is the need to simplify the law to raise the awareness level. Nepalese laws also need to be simplified. I have not seen such things printed in posters. At least there should be simplifications of those laws so the recipients and duty bearers as well as the right holders know what other law is and what it means and what women rights are guaranteed in that law. Then only comes the implementation part. People who are giving law should know and people who demand it should also know that it is there.
How do you look at the celebration of International Women's Day?
International Women's Day is the day that we celebrate. In other words, we commemorate rather than celebrate. It is a kind of reminder where we are and from where we start our journey. Every country celebrates the international day in different ways. In Nepal, we did not have to fight a war for the emancipation of women. Because women's movement was strong, it came gradually but slowly, but it came to Nepal.
How much is Nepal influenced by the international movement?
Definitely, we are very much influenced by the international women's movement. However, the movement that we have in South Asia is very different. It is not radical feminism as such and it’s more like a feministic approach to life. How do we live in peace and men and women live in peace where there is no discrimination? There is harmony and peace. I think these are the whole thrust of women here. When we seek justice, where we need to act, etc. A recent case of acid throwing is a new phenomenon that entered as violence against women in Nepal. This kind of acid cases is highly prevalent in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. However, there were no such cases in Nepal. We have to look at why such incidents are penetrating into our society. That is something that really worries me.
Say something about the International Women's Day?
International Women's Day is the day when we claim what we have achieved. We also talk about what we still need to achieve. It is a kind of reminder. It is not that out of 365 days, it is just one day for women. If you look at the population of Nepal, fifty-one percent of Nepalese are women. Then, why you see just one day for over half of the population. So it is not that but it is more like really praising the people who have really been in this movement. This is also a day to remember and praise the people who have gone and people who have lost or who have drifted away. It is also the day for encouraging the new blood of society to tell them how important this movement is.
How do you describe the women's movement?
If you look at the women's movement, I call it the conscience of the society. This is my vision, we have to live together, and we have to live in unity with respect to each other. You cannot take women lightly. Women have to be taken seriously. Their contributions should be assessed and they have to be seen in the particular way that they are contributors to the national economy as a whole. They are bread winners in many households which we don’t see. Generally what we try to do in debate of development is we have such words like farmers, laborers, breadwinners. Even the words like youth which indicate men not women.
What is your perception then?
Youth for me is young men and women of Nepal. Similarly, farmers for me are men and women working together in agriculture. It should come automatically when we talk about certain groups of people. The word does have meaning for men and women. I think we have to learn. Sometimes, when I see people talk, they get very angry.
How do you deal with the women's issue?
My own way of dealing with this whole issue of women rights in the last fifty years is to talk with logic. To explain and to tell people what I know. Sometimes, it is very important. When I see the words, I see it with different meanings. When I see the word youth, I see the word is for young men and women in Nepal. Similarly, farmers means men and women working in agriculture sector. Sometimes, we use the word which has very different meanings for me, for example, feminist.
How do you define feminist?
For me feminist has different meanings. For me the word feminist means a person who is for justice, a person who wants to see a just society. For many people, feminism means women's rights which are not very true. Women's rights are one angle to it. Feminism is a huge theory.
How do you explain the status of women?
When you say the status of women, it is different in each country. In some country, dowry is a whole menace but in another country it is poverty and illiteracy. It is very difficult to compare the status of women. There is the need to have certain parameters. Education and health will be one indicator. For me status of women consists of many things like kind of existence of law and its implementation. Mobility of women, education or percentage of women's literacy, women’s working condition, whether they work with dignity or not is also a matter to consider. There are many factors which come to mind when you talk about the status of women. Emancipation also means a lot of different things. You need more parity when you talk this issue.
How do you see the transformation in Nepal?
I don’t go very much to history. I consider myself as a first generation of literate woman. My mother did not go to school. Since she did not go to school, it was her pressure and inspiration that I go to school. I went to convent and studied English and I am now bilingual. I give credit for my mother for my success. In the same way just going from that generation to this generation we have come through so many different hurdles. Working was not a concept when I was young. Although my mother was illiterate, she was one to give me education. My father was double MA; he did not want me to go to work. If you now ask even an eight years old girl, she naturally says of her ambition to be a doctor, engineer or teacher, social worker. That is a paradigm shift. When I compare those days with now, the situation has changed much.
What do you mean by paradigm shift?
My children even do not like to join civil service or private sector as my husband and I did. What they want now is to become an entrepreneur. Both my children completed higher education and they are entrepreneurs. When I see younger women, they give me a lot of pride. They are literate and they are very determined about what kind of education they should get. I think there is a lot of peer pressure also. Women can now think about novel or new kinds of jobs. I saw the huge shift for the better. I want to see more as there is still backwardness. They don’t want to be there mother and father. Wage earner children do not want to be laborers.
How do you assess the progress made by women?
Although women made a lot of progress, they are yet to be part of decision making. When we survey them at the decision making level, they are nowhere. There is still a handful of men taking decision for women. That really worries me. Women are educated and broad-minded, regionally, locally and nationally. However, where are they in decision making? We are very proud that there are 33 percent women in parliament and we see it as a great achievement in Nepal. My concern is how much are they involved in decision making process? Of course, Nepal is far ahead in women's participation in various sectors, including politics in South Asia and around the world. However, when it comes to decision making, they are seen nowhere. We must look at this. This is a huge question. When the peace accord was signed, there was no woman at all. This shows the reality and rhetoric is different. There were just a few men who decided the whole process. That is something that really needs to be thought of. When you talk about data and percentage, you have given everything to women as equal. What is happening in reality is different.
How did the campaign against violence against women start?
In 1996, we had a meeting in New York and we were sitting around and Latin American women were doing something to launch the campaign for domestic violence against women. They were talking about the change of laws. It was like a dream for me how to implement it in South Asia. This was the reason we did not talk about the violence. Before that domestic violence was hiding in South Asia. It was supposed to be a dignity of family and one should not talk about. Everybody was pretending that everything is fine. Those were the days. Then we met in the Philippines in 1997 and decided to take Latin American campaign in Asia on violence against women. We started the first campaign on violence against women in Asia in 1998. I met Babita in the Philippines in 1998 and asked her to do some curtain raiser on this issue.
When did it start in Nepal?
We held the first conference in Nepal with participation of government officials, ministers and women activists in 1998. At that time even journalists did not know the difference between violence and violin. They see violence meant beating wife. Nobody knew different forms of violence and nobody talked about it. This kind of violence is just in private domain. The terminology of domestic violence against women is common.
How do you see it now?
The government is very sensitized. Violence against women is no more tolerated in Nepal. Media and civil society are aware and government is also aware. People have the understanding. It is constantly reminded that women are not a commodity but a force. Women are human beings and not just some sex tools. They are a national force. There is also the issue of exploitation of women in workforce. People are talking about sexual assaults, right of women and so on. There is a realization and the people know they are doing wrong. Earlier, nobody even saw it was wrong. Our discourse has changed.