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ALMAS JIWANI of UN WOMEN CANADA: The Audacity of Empowerment

When you give women power, you are assuring the progress of humanity. — Former Governor General of Canada Michaëlle Jean

Jumpstarting the progression of women’s rights throughout the world is no easy task. Gender equality is a cool and clinical term for a fundamental and essential right –- the right for women and girls worldwide to live free of discrimination, violence and poverty. Championing the challenge, UN Women has been in the forefront working throughout the world to secure women’s equality and empowerment.

The National Committee for UN Women Canada is an independent, non-governmental entity that supports the mission of UN Women. The organization is definitely making landmark strides in supporting the United Nations in its efforts, not only in Canada, but throughout the world. Almas Jiwani, President of UN Women Canada, exemplifies inspiration in action. A renowned humanitarian and enterprising entrepreneur, she is dedicated to the advancement of women’s rights at home and throughout the world.

As Almas relates, her resourcefulness and desire to serve a greater good developed early in her life. “I immigrated to Canada with my family in my early teens from Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We were leaving a region where political, humanitarian, and democratic institutions were collapsing. Arriving in Canada, we began rebuilding our lives, learning to navigate Canadian culture and practices and to integrate our own culture and faith.”

Almas also mentions that as newcomers and minorities, her family faced challenges but also experienced great opportunities. “At that time of my life, I realized that many communities in the developing world were apathetic towards women and did not allow them an environment for their social and intellectual growth. I also realized the importance of making a difference in the lives of the underprivileged, alleviating poverty, and uplifting women in society. This realization inspired me to begin volunteering with initiatives to promote women and advocate for their empowerment. I then became very involved with the Aga Khan Council for Canada with their various projects and portfolios. As a young teenager, facing the challenges of integrating into a new community, I made a commitment to do all in my capacity to ensure that women live as equals.”

Eventually, when Almas was making a presentation to community members in Vancouver, the president of a corporate company approached her and asked, Did you know that you have a hidden selling talent? “I felt offended, believe it or not, and he was actually trying to compliment me,” she remarks. “Then he called me a trooper—I didn’t know the meaning of the word trooper at the time—and introduced me to someone who was involved in a multimedia business. I remember being told, ‘You know what Almas, you will knock on ten doors—cold calls are extremely difficult—but eventually a door will open.’ I always remembered that message and use it in my speeches with regard to empowering women. Even if you’ve knocked on ten doors, don’t give up because the eleventh door may open for you.”

Still in all, Almas’ initial media endeavor didn’t last too long. “Being young, and having no clue . . . My dad passed away when I was eleven years old . . . I was like a one woman show. I had no idea who to talk to or who to confide in. I was doing everything on my own. It was a huge risk.” But being a risk-taker is Almas’ forte. She then ventured into international trading for a while until turning down her current road — President and CEO of Frontier Canada Inc., a corporate communications company.

Accomplished in both business and in the humanitarian field, Almas has also offered her volunteer efforts at the international level for the past nine years. “As I mentioned, I was involved with the Aga Khan Council and one of our mandates was to settle Afghan Ismaili refugees who were arriving in Canada and help the people integrate into the community and society. I was the national settlement vice chair. During the course of this, I had to attend a couple of government meetings and I guess people began to notice me. Eventually I was elected to be a member of the Board of Directors of UNIFEM Canada, and after several years, I undertook leadership in June 2009.”

The efforts of both Almas and the Board has taken UN Women Canada into new territories, expanding their efforts to promote gender equality in more sections of Canada than at any other time in the organization’s eighteen year history. Almas especially notes that in 2010, a year after becoming president, she had the honor of presenting the prestigious UNIFEM CANADA Award to Her Excellency Michaëlle Jean during her term as Governor General of Canada . . . the ideal candidate because of her extensive involvement in advancing the issue of gender equality in various capacities around the world.

And just as Almas reorganized the National Committee in Canada, the United Nations also restructured its efforts to establish women’s rights around the globe by creating a new, overarching entity: UN Women.

“UN Women — United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women — is charged with advancing gender equality,” Almas states. “It was established by a General Assembly Resolution in 2010, and became operational on January 1, 2011. We had our first official launch on February 24th in New York. Now, UN Women is operating under the auspices of Under-Secretary-General Michelle Bachelet (former President of Chile).”

As Almas notes, the creation of UN Women came about as part of the UN reform agenda. Its main objective is to connect resources and mandates for greater overall impact and to accelerate progress towards the goal of gender equality. This includes increasing women’s economic empowerment and leadership as well as bringing women to the center of peace and security issues. UN Women is the result of the cohesive merging of four previously distinct parts of the UN system:

Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW)
International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW)
Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI)
United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)

“UN Women’s work today builds on the strong foundation of these four parts and represents a movement to put gender equality on par with other development priorities,” Almas explains. “It represents a stronger voice for women in the United Nations and a greater advocate for larger financial investments to support gender equality initiatives. UN Women will serve as a dynamic and strong champion for women and girls and we will provide them with a powerful voice at the global, regional, and local levels.”

As one of UN Women’s independent, non-governmental National Committees, UN WOMEN CANADA (previously UNIFEM Canada), founded in 1993, is a volunteer-driven organization. As Almas explains, UN Women Canada’s key strategies of advocacy, awareness and fundraising are implemented through the following initiatives:

Executing advocacy and media campaigns
An annual Award Fundraising Gala
Collaborating with public education platforms
Public speaking opportunities
Building membership drives and campaigns
Partnering with private and public sector funding
A Youth Development Conference

“This year, we have hosted five successful launches in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Papineau, QC, and Winnipeg to raise awareness of UN Women, and more launches are planned,” Almas informs. “We are also putting together a prestigious black tie fundraising gala and a youth conference to engage and empower young Canadians in actions that will advance the gender equality mission. The bottom line is we want to raise awareness and ensure that everyone knows what UN Women is all about and what our goals are.”

One of these goals, women’s economic empowerment, is of primary importance to Almas. Without it, many women continuously face a vicious cycle. “Women bear a disproportionate burden of the world’s poverty,” Almas asserts. “Statistics indicate that women are more likely than men to be poor and at risk of hunger because of the systematic discrimination they face in education, health care, employment and control of assets. Poverty implications are widespread for women, leaving many without even basic rights such as access to clean drinking water, sanitation, medical care and decent employment. Being poor can also mean that they have little protection from violence and have no role, absolutely no role, in decision making.”

According to some estimates, women represent 70 percent of the world’s poor. They are often paid less than men for their work, with the average wage gap in 2008 being 17 percent. “Women face persistent discrimination,” Almas remarks, “not only in developing countries but also in the developed world when they apply for credit for business or self-employment. They are also often concentrated in insecure, unsafe and low-wage work.”

And just how does the present economic crisis affect women in the work arena? What special difficulties does it present?

“The current financial crisis is likely to affect women particularly severely,” Almas maintains. “In many developing countries where women work in export-led factories, or in countries where migrant women workers are the backbone of service industries, women’s jobs have taken the greatest hit. When there’s a recession, women are the first to be laid off.”

And the proof is in the statistics. In 2009, the International Labour Organization estimated that the economic downturn could lead to somewhere around 22 million more unemployed women, jeopardizing the gains made in the last few decades in women’s empowerment. In addition, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) forecasted that women’s unemployment would accelerate at a faster rate than men’s throughout 2010 as the crisis continued to affect female-dominated industries such as manufacturing and tourism.

So that leaves us with getting down to the basics: A fundamental ingredient to advancing women’s human rights and economic stability lay in obtaining monies for the endeavour, as well as initiating awareness that investing in women creates a win-win situation. “Financing for gender equality is more than just securing resources and funding for institutions such as national women’s organizations and gender equality projects,” Almas recognizes. “To accomplish sustainable and deep-rooted changes, financing for gender equality must recognize women as active economic agents that are central to a vibrant economy.”

Almas explains that gender-responsive budgeting can make a huge difference in how governments allocate funds. “A budget is the most comprehensive statement of a government’s social and economic plans and priorities. In tracking where the money comes from and where it goes, budgets determine how public funds are raised, how they are used, and who benefits from them.”

Although women’s empowerment is the focus, Almas emphasizes that gender-responsive budgeting is not about creating separate budgets for women. “I believe a gender-responsive budget should recognize the ways which women contribute to society and the economy,” Almas adds, “including through their unpaid labor in bearing and rearing children and caring for the people in the country—that’s my perception. I also feel it’s important that people see the benefits that can be derived from supporting gender-based budgeting. Seeing the benefits will encourage further support.”

Yet, it appears the most lucrative changes will occur when those power brokers steering the world economy start practicing as well as implementing changes to purge a system beset by imbalance and corruption. Nothing short of corporate catharsis will do the trick. Those sitting on top of the economic stockpile need a dose of gender equity to help provide balance in how, where, and how much funds are allocated and if women’s rights are part of the picture.

To that end, Almas relates that when making a presentation at the World Bank, she was confronted with a question regarding the prevalence of corruption within governments worldwide. “I answered by saying, ‘Let me present a counter question: How many women are sitting on your Board making decisions?’ They were silent. ‘Zero . . . that’s the answer. You want to prevent corruption, have more women on the Board. Give them the power to influence the policies and you’ll see the difference.”

In addition to supporting gender-responsive budgeting initiatives, UN Women also works to strengthen women’s rights to land and inheritance. Almas describes the struggles women face when these rights are denied.

“In many countries around the world, women’s property rights are limited by social norms, customs and at times legislation,” Almas states, “hampering their economic status and opportunities to overcome poverty. Even in countries where women constitute the majority of small farmers and do more than 75 percent of the agricultural work, they are routinely denied the right to own the land they cultivate and which they are dependent upon to raise their families. Ownership of land and property empowers women and provides income and security. Without resources such as land, women have limited say in household decision-making, and no recourse to the assets during a crisis. This often relates to other vulnerabilities such as domestic violence, HIV and AIDS.”

In other words, in most countries in the world, property rights provide protection and security. Often denied these rights, women fall victim to rejection and destitution. “In regions of conflict, the impact of unequal land rights has particularly serious consequences for women — often the only survivors,” Almas notes. “In conflict and post-conflict situations, the number of women-headed households often increases sharply as many men have either been killed or are absent. Without their husbands, brothers or fathers — in whose name land and property titles are traditionally held — they find themselves denied access to their homes and fields by male family members, former in-laws or neighbors. Without the security of a home or income, women and their families fall into poverty traps and struggle for livelihoods, education, sanitation, health care, and other basic rights.”

International agreements already underscore the importance of women’s land and property rights. The Beijing Platform for Action affirms that women’s right to inheritance and ownership of land and property should be recognized. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has addressed it as well regarding rural women’s rights to equal treatment in land and agrarian reform processes. In addition, women’s property rights are essential to realizing the Millennium Development Goals, specifically the goals of eradicating extreme poverty and achieving gender equality.

Almas also describes how globalization has contributed to an increasing flow of migrant workers from countries with limited economic opportunities. Women migrant workers, whose numbers have been increasing, now constitute 50 percent or more of the migrant workforce in Asia and Latin America.

“By creating new economic opportunities, migration can promote economic independence and status for women workers, who are often sustaining communities at home,” Almas states. “Studies indicate that migrant women workers contribute to the development of both sending and receiving countries — remittances from their incomes account for as much as 10 percent of the GDP in some countries. In 2008, remittances were estimated by the World Bank at US $305 billion. These monetary investments — used for food, housing, education and medical services — along with newly acquired skills of returnees, can potentially contribute significantly to poverty reduction and the Millennium Development Goals.”

But migration is also a risky endeavor for women, many of whom end up at the lower end of the job market. “Female migrants often work as domestic workers and entertainers — a euphemism for sex workers — in unregulated informal sectors that do not fall under national labor laws,” Almas states. “Migrant women routinely lack access to social services and legal protection and are subjected to abuses such as harsh working and living conditions, low wages, illegal withholding of wages and premature termination of employment. The worst abuses force women into sexual slavery.”

For these reasons, UN Women focuses on promoting safe migration for women around the world. It works with governments and civil society to eliminate trafficking and establish laws that protect the human rights of women migrants as well as strengthen migrants’ organizations. Since due to economic stress, women are venturing all the more to obtain livelihoods in countries other than their own, national poverty reduction programs in their homeland, including the advancement of women’s rights and ability to procure a decent living would be actions well worth pursuing to remedy the problem.

So it appears that for lasting change to take hold concepts of women’s economic viability need to change. How are women’s equality and their economic empowerment connected to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals?

“The statistical data at the UN reveals that the majority of Millennium Development Goals such as literacy, alleviation of poverty, access to maternal health care, reduction of childhood mortality, environmental sustainability, and the eradication of HIV/ AIDS and Malaria are all inextricably tied to gender equality and women’s empowerment,” Almas declares. “I believe that the investment in gender equality is an essential characteristic of secure and efficient societies. Presently, women and girls make up more than half of the world’s population. Yet most women are discriminated against, mistreated and deprived of their basic human rights. For this reason, gender equality needs to be regarded as a moral imperative and an urgent priority in all regions. UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, consistently emphasizes the necessity for the empowerment of women. The notion of gender-based budgeting and investment in international development projects is no longer a concession but a compulsion.”

In addition, Almas emphasizes that in societies where women have equal access to economic assets, decent livelihoods and a voice in decision-making, the economies are stronger, maternal mortality rate drops, and child nutrition improves. “Therefore, gender equality lies at the core of this issue,” she stresses. “If we want to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, we need to mainstream gender equality in developing countries. Without accomplishing this on a global scale, we will continue to ignore the plight of almost half the world’s population.”

There also appears to be a direct link between women’s economic security and an individual country’s peace and security issues. “We can clearly notice that in countries where gender equality has been mainstreamed into economic, political, social, educational, and literary arenas, such as in the USA, UK, and Canada, the economic progress of those countries increased by significant margins. Also, case-studies that include Afghanistan, Iraq and Rwanda reveal that when women are empowered economically, the country’s economy and state structure flourish. Yet, we also can see that when war and insecurity plagues these countries, any reforms or gains toward gender equality deteriorates . . . and the abuse of women’s human rights increases immensely.”

With regard to post-conflict situations, Almas notes that in Rwanda, women now make up more than 70% of the Parliamentarians. In that climate, the status of women’s economic opportunities rose. “After the resolution of the Hutu-Tutsi tribal violence in Rwanda, the United Nations and the Rwandan Government worked together to ensure gender equality, and the proper representation of women. Thus, in this time of peace, we observe a significant presence of lucrative economic opportunities for women.”

Throughout all the losses and gains, women’s groups large and small have been coming to the fore around the world in amazing numbers. Almas takes a look at the phenomenon and its effect on the progression of women’s rights. “Years of advocacy by the global women’s movement have been instrumental in the creation of UN Women,” Almas recognizes. “Civil society, in particular women’s organizations, play a vital role in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment. Strong relationships between UN Women and partners from all over the world are crucial in working towards achieving these goals. So together, we can become a much stronger voice and make a more powerful impact.”

Almas refers to the current predominance of women’s rights groups flourishing around the world as a “ripple effect.” In many places, whether in the developing world such as in South or Central Asia, Africa and Latin America, or in the developed Western countries, the issues of gender equality and the progress being made in the realm of women’s rights has really struck a chord with most women.

“As a result, we have noticed exponential growth in women’s grassroots movements on the ground in the developing world,” Almas informs, “whether it’s regarding a battle for land rights, access to health-care, alleviation of poverty or a host of other social justice issues. And in the developed world, where we have overcome the core issues such as poverty and land rights, the women’s rights movement is more focused on parity between women and men in the workforce, women’s access to education, and eradicating the issues of domestic abuse . . . So I personally think that this rippling of women’s equality movements in large numbers is a positive sign. These movements also indicate that more and more women in contemporary society have the opportunity to mobilize together and champion their rights for equality.”

Throughout the years, whether volunteering or in her present sphere as President of UN Women Canada, Almas has found inspiration through her spiritual beliefs as an Ismaili Muslim, as well as from those prominent individuals who have influenced her work.

“I’ve gained much inspiration over the years from many individuals and entities that drive me forward and make me who I am as a leader,” Almas conveys. “Since my childhood, His Highness Aga Khan IV, the Ismaili spiritual leader and humanitarian, has been a huge inspirational source for me. His humanitarian ideals for empowering the underprivileged, educating women, and using civil society as a force for positive change and international development in order to foster an ‘enabling environment’ for those less fortunate is the catalyst that humbles and motivates me to serve the unprivileged women and girls of the world.”

Almas mentions other influential figures that have affected her leadership. “Emily Murphy of the Famous Five and the out-going Governor General of Canada, the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean are exemplary women that I have consistently looked up to for inspiration. These visionaries inspire me with the legacy of women’s equality present in their public service work.”

In addition, Almas also recognizes the Government of Canada and its consistent devotion to the cause of gender equality, as well as UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet and Outreach and Business Development Advisor, Mr. Antoine De Jong as important sources of encouragement. “When I see that our hard work, our time, and our knowledge is impacting and making a difference in the world, it just encourages and inspires me to do more. I want to be that drop in the ocean that makes a big difference.”

Certainly her contributions are worthy of admiration. Almas has brought her whole self to the task, including her spiritual beliefs, her culture, and a CAN DO philosophy that’s extraordinary in measure. In short, Almas Jiwani has recognized that uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction. Her fearless drive has served to motivate others in their own work toward women’s empowerment.

That personal stance is reflected in a quote from the poem, The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost which Almas finds especially meaningful.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less travelled by.

“I’m a firm believer in taking the road less travelled,” Almas conveys. “Many career women today face a number of obstacles while trying to shatter the glass ceiling. In lieu of these challenges, some women lose hope through the realization of there being no ‘easy’ way out. However, it is only through the trials and tribulations faced on the road not taken that my own inspiration and success has been nurtured. And so, I urge all women and young girls to also embark on this journey. As a result of an innovative and non-traditional approach to life, beset with challenges, I’ve become a stronger woman.”

Of that, we have no doubt.

A number of years ago in Nairobi, at an international business conference where she was a speaker, Almas addressed the audience with words which ring just as true today, embodying the spirit of her approach to life, business and the women’s movement.

“It turned out that I was the only Indian woman speaking at the conference,” Almas relates. “There were seven speakers and I was the last one. I listened to all the other presenters before me and when my time came to talk, I told the audience, I’ve decided I will not read my speech today. I will speak to you guys from my heart. I will tell you how I got myself where I am today — about my challenges and experiences, and with no background education in the field that I’m in. With no training, no guidance, and nobody to tell me what to do. Today, I am here because of perseverance . . because of this passion . . . because I want to make a difference. If I can do it, you guys can do it.’’

The story of her life is the story of her leadership.

Perhaps we can find our own strength by taking those words of encouragement to heart. For those of us questioning whether we have the power to act, we can stop wondering. Just take the plunge, as Almas did, and give it all you’ve got.

********

You can read more interviews with inspiring women on my blog, POWERFUL WOMEN CHANGING THE WORLD. http://perribirney.wordpress.com

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