Shoko Ishikawa has over 15 years of experience working with UN WOMEN. She currently is the Country Representative in Bangladesh. Before this assignment, she was the Country Representative of UN Women in Vietnam. Ms. Ishikawa led the establishment of UN Women’s first program in Myanmar in 2012/13. She started her career with United Nations in UNIFEM, worked in the UNIFEM Headquarters in New York before returning to Bangkok in 2007 to lead a regional program covering seven countries. In her role, she promoted CEDAW implementation through support to strengthening legal frameworks to advance gender equality and access to justice for women, and stronger national capacity for planning, implementation, and monitoring of gender equality priorities. Ms. Ishikawa holds a Master’s degree in International Development Studies from the George Washington University, USA.
It has been 25 years since the Beijing accord. While we have surely made progress, there is still a substantial gap in achieving gender equality (GE). In your opinion what are the three biggest challenges in this path?
Yes, major progress has been made in regards to women’s empowerment and GE. But we have to look deeper and analyze issues that persist. Number one among them would be the growing number of rape/violence against women and children that are reported everyday which not just poses as a big threat to achieving GE, but also makes us take several steps back. Linked to that, the other two vital challenges would be gender-based stereotypes and patriarchy that are etched in our systems, and by and large in society, in a way that it holds women back from achieving their true potential, limits their access to resources and hence become major obstacles to achieving GE.
Can you identify some innovative approaches or ventures which were successful in bringing major shifts in existing business or behavior?
A successful approach for me is the HeForShe movement, which has worked incredibly well in raising awareness and enabling men to stand up for gender equality. Often, men are not included in dialogues, or we forget that GE benefits men and women alike. HeForShe was a major step in enabling dialogue between different groups and witnessing men become advocates of gender equality.
Secondly, something else that I feel has resulted in major success is the involvement of the youth. In Bangladesh, we partnered with Jaago, the largest youth volunteer network and we held district level discussions where we spoke to young people about what gender equality means and how they have a strong role to play in achieving it. If each of the participants present in these discussions, go on to continue what they learned and spread the message amongst their networks, I think we can achieve great results.
Thirdly, Nordic countries such as Sweden have made a huge impact by introducing feminist policies in their countries; as an example, they have introduced parental leave for both fathers and mothers equally that resulted in household labor to be split amongst the partners as well as broke the age-old tradition of raising children to be only a woman’s job.
This year the focus is on bringing everyone together to drive gender equality. During the last 25 years’ journey to what extent have these kinds of powerful themes brought substantial changes? What can we do for everyone to feel and act to drive gender equality?
Since the Beijing Declaration, we have made tremendous progress, especially because we have recognized that the issues vary from context to context and we have started having inter-disciplinary, inter-sectional and cross-cultural discussions. I think that has led to major success. For the next 2 years, the major theme under which all of UN Women’s work will be done is Generation Equality, which focusses on cross-generational dialogue which so far is proving to be quite effective. If everyone thinks and feels that it is their duty, that every bit helps, or that if every person gets other motivated to join the movement, and feel that society as a whole will benefit from gender equality, that will quite naturally have far better results.
In the age of social media, how can we involve millennials in this drive beyond mere online shares and likes?
Social media in itself is a very powerful tool. Not just likes and shares, but I feel young people can create the movements that they can spread via social media. they can start campaigns, competitions and advocate for social causes. They can also stand up for online sexual harassment, spread messages against it and have online conversations to support women’s empowerment and gender equality which will help reach masses and become trendy in the process. We need to convey to young people that GE is trendy!
We are witnessing alarming trends of reversal of many of the progress made in the last 25 years. Why do you feel this is happening?
I don’t necessarily feel that we are in the process of reversal. However, I do think that achieving GE in the greater sense is a time consuming and tiring process. One has to be persistent. And that every successful step will be met with ten other non-successful ones. This is why I think we have to keep at it and try and try and force ourselves to push the boundaries until we achieve gender equality in all shapes and spheres.
Do you feel that pursuing more women to be in leadership positions can fit fundamentally and holistically to address the issues?
Women in leadership positions are one way for sure, but it is not the only way. There is research to show that when women lead companies, they make more profit. However, we are not trying to push for only women to be at leadership positions. UN Women envisages a world, or rather Planet 50-50 where the ratio of men and women, in offices, schools and leadership positions will be 50-50. And that is the true sense of GE.
What should be our strategic approach to drive gender equality in Bangladesh and make it part of our broader culture?
In Bangladesh, as in anywhere in the world, I think all stakeholders need to work together and do their part – be it The Government of Bangladesh, NGO/INGO, private sector and the media. We also need to start bringing communities, families and guardians into these discussions, along with youth. If a holistic approach is used, that will be far more effective than individual groups working amongst themselves or working to reach their aims. Joint forces will mean more manpower, creative ideas, and thus enable better results.