Interview – Syncmag publication by Tabish Bhimani
Almas Jiwani, President of UN Women Canada National Committee and CEO of Frontier Canada Inc, is a fiercely vocal and internationally renowned champion for gender equality and women’s social, economic, and political empowerment.
A model of perseverance and determination, Ms. Jiwani’s efforts to strengthen women’s economic capacity as entrepreneurs and producers has earned her accolades. She plays a crucial role in building networks among charitable institutions and socially responsible businesses. She has fostered pivotal ties between UN Women and the Inter-Parliamentary Forum of the Americas (FIPA) and the Parliamentary Confederation of Americas (COPA).
Ms. Jiwani has gained international recognition and commendations from governments and the media and has been honored with numerous awards globally for her work on gender equity and women’s empowerment.
TB: As a world renowned most prominent humanitarian and women’s equality expert, please tell us what led you to be passionate about the issue of gender equality?
AJ: I must admit that I became an ardent supporter of gender equality from the earliest age that I can remember. Perhaps one of the most important ideas that I’ve adopted since my childhood is that of “service above oneself.” I owe my humble beginnings in international development, prior to my mandate with the United Nations Women National Committee Canada, to the exceptional work of institutions in the Aga Khan Development Network, and Focus Humanitarian Assistance. They operate in some of the most inhospitable and backward sectors of civil society and provide an enabling environment for humanity, an environment where women are able to flourish under the umbrella of social and ethical responsibility in a culturally, religiously pluralistic ethos and pathos for the greater good of humanity.
I strongly believe that the social advancement and general well-being of communities are at its greatest potential when women have the opportunity to take their full positions as citizens, and are not barred by artificial barriers and narrow prejudices.
TB: Women’s empowerment means different things to different people. Can you please tell little bit about what is Women’s Empowerment and what is your take on this?
AJ: When we speak of women’s empowerment, we refer to the strength, resilience and determination of women to achieve those inner qualities that found within them, and then use those qualities to inspire others to do the same. The women’s empowerment movement is a collective action that begins with the power of one.
When we talk about women’s economic empowerment we are talking about greater gross national product and income, better health and education for families and children, better performance in companies that have more women on their boards of directors and senior staff.
When we talk about women’s leadership and participation we are talking about more inclusive representation, greater transparency and better systems for accountability – which is a basic foundation of strong democracies. It begins with one woman seeking excellence from within herself, if a woman is empowered, through her success, she becomes an influence and an inspiration to others while progressing in all aspects of society.
Despite being aware of the power of smart economies and its impact on women, unfortunately, as we look around today, we see that women still continue to bear a disproportionate burden of the world’s poverty.
TB: What is UN Women?
AJ: In July 2010, United Nations Member States adopted a resolution to consolidate four separate entities into a new UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women). UN Women was born as a result of changes initiated by the United Nations General Assembly to accelerate the UN’s progress in meeting the needs of women and girls worldwide.
UN Women’s vision is one, where men and women have equal opportunities and capacities. And the principles of gender equality are embedded in development, peace and security agendas.
UN Women is currently working in 101 countries though its 15 sub-regional programme offices and 75 country programme offices. And it has program presence in 21 other countries with 18 National committees. Canada is one of them. In addition to their roles of mobilizing, coordinating and leveraging the efforts of others, UN Women focuses on five areas:
1) Expanding women’s voice, leadership and participation.
2) Ending violence against women and girls .
3) Strengthening women’s full participation in conflict resolution and peace processes.
4) Enhancing women’s political, economic, social and personal empowerment, and
5) Ensuring; gender priorities are reflected in national plans and budgets, including capacity to
support CEDAW reporting.
The creation of UN Women represents a movement to put gender equality on par with other development priorities. It represents a stronger voice for women in the United Nations system. unwomen.org
TB: How has your experience been with UN Women?
AJ: My experience with UN Women has been very exciting and positively overwhelming at the same time! UN Women has unique convening power. As a United Nations entity, the organization has strong links with host country and donor governments, inter-governmental forums, its sister UN agencies and other multilateral organizations. “A local presence, a global perspective”.
UN Women has unprecedented global reach. Because it is positioned to bring together and make heard the voices and visions of the world’s women, UN Women is a powerful advocacy voice.
My role as President of UN Women National Committee Canada is a heavily demanding role with many responsibilities which involves many sacrifices. At the same time, I truly appreciate the opportunity to serve humanity. This has given me the important opportunity and honour to advance the empowerment of women around the globe, and here in Canada. And this is a privilege that I deeply value because these core issues are close to my heart.
TB: What do you see for the future of UN Women?
AJ: When UN Women was launched, Michelle Bachelet, the Executive Director of UN Women, stated: “Women’s strength, industry and wisdom are humanity’s greatest untapped resource. It is potential we simply can’t afford to continue to waste.” In keeping with that powerful thought, we would like to continue to reach new milestones throughout the upcoming year and add our efforts to the global momentum in achieving women’s and girls’ equality.
UN Women will continue our steady growth and expand our strategies and objectives with regard to advocacy, awareness and fundraising. We, in Canada, will also continue to advocate for women globally through media campaigns, collaboration with public education platforms, and consulting work with civil society organizations and the Canadian Government. While there is still much work to be done, I have total confidence that together we can make a difference in the lives of girls and women worldwide, and can make gender equality a lived reality.
TB: You are self-made business woman. Tell us more about your journey in the business world
AJ: Yes, I’m a self-made business woman and my journey to success was not something that came over night.
Ambition was my driving force! As such, I started to expand and explore diverse business opportunities in all fields and naturally I faced barriers that many women face. These barriers acquired economic, familial, social and gendered dimensions. However, with the same deterministic attitude and a sense of fearlessness in mind, I was motivated and empowered in my business enterprise and juggled the responsibilities fairly well. The great English poet, Robert Frost in his Poem, “The Road Not Taken”, once remarked: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – took the one less travelled by.”
I find particular inspiration in this passage from Robert Frost because I am a firm believer in taking the road less travelled. Many career women today face a number of obstacles while trying to shatter the glass ceiling. In lieu of these challenges, many women lose hope through the realization of no “easy” way out. However, it is only through the trials and tribulations faced on the road not taken that I found my inspiration and success has been nurtured along this road.
TB: As a businesswoman yourself, do you believe that the so-called “glass ceiling” can ever be broken? If so, how will society and businesses change?
AJ: I don’t think the glass ceiling is going to be broken by just one crack. It’s going to take many cracks before the glass ceiling disappears. Positive change doesn’t come overnight. It comes from consistent effort, inspiration and motivation over time. Success comes through taking what the poet Robert Frost calls “the road less taken.”
Glass ceilings can definitely be shattered, and societies and businesses can adapt, if they open opportunities for women to pursue leadership roles, for example through company mentorship programs.
TB: You have been working as both an entrepreneur and a community leader. How do you balance the responsibilities that come with these roles?
AJ: Balancing an active professional career and busy leadership role as President of the UN Women National Committee Canada, while still making time for family, friends and myself, is very fulfilling, but also very challenging. In order to keep up with the many responsibilities, I constantly sort my priorities and plan my time accordingly. Making sure that I have an agenda and a strategy for accomplishing the tasks at hand prevents me from operating on autopilot and becoming stressed and overwhelmed.
TB: What were some of the challenges you faced as an entrepreneur?
AJ: Like many entrepreneurs, I have faced challenges associated with time management. As the CEO of your own business, you wear many hats and it is easy to become heavily involved in all aspects of your company and start to lose sight of the work-life balance. This is especially the case at the early stages of starting a business, when the learning curve is the steepest.
TB: Are female entrepreneurs taken seriously?
AJ: Female entrepreneurs are a tremendous force in the Canadian economy and around the world. I absolutely think female entrepreneurs are gaining more recognition and are a serious force to be reckoned with. The majority of businesses in Canada fall into the small and medium category and women entrepreneurs are starting small and medium businesses at an ever-growing rate and employing more and more Canadians. However, outside of the Western world, we are still working hard to empower women to find their place in their country’s business arena.
TB: Your work on women and gender issues has taken you to several third-world countries. How would you compare the status of women in these countries and in the developed world?
AJ: Many developing countries lag behind more developed countries in terms of implementing gender equitable policies and legislation that protect women’s rights and facilitate equal opportunities for education, employment, and participation in civil and political life. For example, many countries still have legislation that prohibits women from inheriting property or land, accessing credit or opening bank accounts, or refusing arranged or underage marriage. Also, in many countries the criminal justice system fails to fully protect women from violence, especially from domestic violence. As long as women live in fear of violence, and do not enjoy the protection and recognition of their human rights, there can be no sustainable, meaningful growth and progress.
TB: What is the most notable contribution to social change in business that you have made?
AJ: The most notable contribution to social change in the business world that I am personally trying to make is to inspire, to aspire and provide a stimulus for change. “Inspire to Aspire”, is both inspiring in its own right, as well as a goal which we all should adopt.
I think the most difficult part of my position is to enact positive social change at both the institutional and grass roots level. Thus, my most notable contribution to social change in business is the advocacy for policy work that encourages inclusion and the creation of opportunity for women in business through various international, civil society and governmental platforms that have potential for change for the better.
TB: Do you think Canada is doing a good job with its multicultural policy? What more/changes would you like to see at a systemic level?
AJ: Canada’s multicultural policies have certainly been seen as a success to many countries and are now referred to as the “Canadian Model.” In Canada, we have a cultural mosaic; demonstrated in the large amount of diversity and general acceptance of different cultures and traditions within our society. I believe the success of the policies is depicted in the high number of immigrants who choose to become citizens. For many of these new citizens, Canada’s broad multicultural mosaic and tolerance to dual citizenship allows them to maintain important connections to their country of origin, and take pride in their culture while seeking full integration and participation to life in Canada.
TB: In tough economic times, issues like rights, environment etc takes a back seat. How can this hurt the world?
AJ: Economics do not operate in a vacuum. Our societies and economies are inextricably linked to our environment, as demonstrated by the negative economic impacts of natural disasters, drought and resulting famine, as well as our social conditions, which in the absence of human rights and equality, can lead to significant economic interruptions in the form of riots, coups and the occupy movement. For example, progress and economic growth is interdependent on a number of factors and in order to achieve sustainable and meaningful social advancements and economic growth, we cannot focus on fiscal measures and stimulus packages alone.
TB: What practical steps would you suggest to women, especially those not on strong financial footing, to empower them?
AJ: Women can empower themselves by seeking out opportunities for education and skills advancement. There are an increasing number of organizations offering free seminars and training programs that help foster business skills, financial literacy, second language training as well as other skills and encourage networking and mentoring. It is important that women take control of their resources and educate themselves about financial products and services to ensure they are receiving the best possible services and products for their needs. It’s also important that they understand the risks and opportunities associated with them.
Women can also empower themselves by making themselves politically engaged and aware; and by voting for representatives who will work towards their best interests, protect their rights and encourage gender equitable policies and legislation.
In addition to political awareness, women also need to educate themselves and be aware of their rights. Women need to know what resources are available to them in the event that these rights are violated, and the means of those recourses in order to seek justice.
TB: Do you feel that there is a greater responsibility on fathers/men to empower women than it is on mothers?
AJ:Saying that there is a greater responsibility on men to empower women applied that empowerment is something men can grant to women, and that women are passive in the process. This is certainly not the case. Power that is given, is power that can be taken away. Women are active agents of their own empowerment, and through all aspects of their life, women must take power for themselves and demand equality and equal opportunities.
As a strong proponent of gender equality, I believe men and women are responsible for encouraging their children and providing them with opportunities for growth and development. Parents should seek to treat their children equally and encourage the development of their skills, talents and ambition based on their interests and strengths rather than on traditional gender roles and conceptions. For many men, this may mean changing their norms and assumptions about gender roles and behaviours.
TB: Would you consider yourself a feminist?
AJ: If by feminist you mean marching with placards and burning bras in public then “No”, I am definitely not a feminist. But I am a feminist if you mean someone who is acutely aware of the inequities and biases women face in their daily lives, and want to do something about it. I guess I’m more of a moderate activist who raises awareness and affects change by working the system and gaining support from influential people across Canada.
TB:A lot of your work also focuses on gender equality issues in Canada. As one of the most progressive countries in the world, why do you think that gender inequality is still a prevalent issue in our nation?
AJ: While Canada has certainly made great strides in gender equality and women’s empowerment, it still ranks only 20th in the world on the Urn’s Gender Equality Index. We ought to be #1. Yes, women have the votes, sit in parliament, run big companies, and have a strong voice in society. But that doesn’t mean they’re equal.
Women are still paid less than men doing equal work or carrying equal responsibility. They still have less access to the better, higher paying jobs, particularly at the corporate executive levels, and there are still far too few women serving on the boards of the leading corporations and institutions. Canada ranks 20th on the Gender Equality Index, which is bad news for a progressive and mature democracy such as our country.
Some of the gender equality issues facing Canada are in some ways similar to those in the developing world. We can be proud of what Canada has achieved, but under no circumstances is there any reason to be complacent. There’s still a lot of work to do