Michelle Bekkering is the resident country director for Indonesia at the International Republican Institute (IRI)—a nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization dedicated to advancing democracy worldwide. Bekkering joined IRI in 2005. She visited New Delhi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kolkata in March and April and interacted with women in university groups, local business associations, civil society organizations as well as gender activists.
Excerpts from an interview.
What are the challenges faced by women who want to participate in public life?
There are actually several challenges. Women historically haven’t been represented in public life in large numbers and sometimes it’s a cultural attitude against this that holds them back. Beyond that, there can be challenges and barriers that are felt more by women than by men. For instance, if we are talking about women getting involved politically, in running for office, there are a lot of things they need to consider. First is raising money; and for a lot of women who maybe don’t earn as much as men or are not the primary breadwinners, that’s a challenge to overcome. Another issue we see often is a lack of self-confidence. So, for instance, there was a study that if you take a man and a woman, with equal skills, and you ask the man, “Can you do a certain job?” and ask the woman the same question, the majority of men would say, “Absolutely, I’ll be able to do that,” while a majority of women would qualify their response, “I could do it, but I need to first gain some more skills on the way.” The study noted that men view opportunities as based on their future potential while women view opportunities as based on their prior accomplishments. For many women, this holds them back altogether, or delays their pursuit of leadership roles.
How can we change the mindsets of people who resist participation of women in public life?
There are a couple of ways to change the mindset. The first is the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. The more a society visibly sees women in public leadership positions, the less strange it will be. The second thing is that we need to educate people on the positive correlation between an increase of women’s leadership in public life and benefits for their communities and countries. A significant challenge for women in public life is that they are often judged by different criteria than men. For example, they often have a dual burden—first of all, they’ll be judged on how they carried out their duties. Secondly, they will then be judged on how they represented and benefited women as a whole. We work with women leaders to understand this, to fulfill their job duties efficiently while also acknowledging their unique opportunity to serve as advocates for all women.
What role can nonprofit organizations play in empowering women for greater participation in public life?
NGOs are absolutely instrumental. They have an important role to play through issue-advocacy programs, leadership development programs, and educational initiatives such as teaching women their rights. I also want to emphasize the importance of networking. To conduct successful women’s empowerment strategies, you actually need to have coalitions between women in a variety of fields—political parties or government, NGOs, business, media, etc.—because each sector has unique contributions they can bring to the table as well as supporters. In the Women’s Democracy Network at IRI, a hallmark of our program was our 15 country chapters; coalitions of women in these sectors which worked together to increase the number of women elected to public office.
In your experience, how has empowering the women of a country helped its socioeconomic growth?
Studies have proven around the world that the more women that are in leadership positions, primarily referring to women elected to government, you will see a decrease in corruption, increase in GDP, lower rates of illiteracy, and also increased spending on education. Notable benefits not just for women but for the whole society. We also find that having more women elected to leadership positions actually has a positive effect on peace and security issues. So, for instance, if you are looking at a country that’s going through conflict, having more women involved in negotiating peace treaties can equate into more inclusive and lasting peace agreements, and having more women involved in the reconciliation processes can ensure justice for women who have maybe been victimized during the conflict. And finally, women tend to look at issues referred to as “women’s issues” as “social issues,” how these issues affect families, the communities. That’s important.
To what extent can rules or laws that advocate gender equality help in empowering women?
They are very helpful and I can’t stress that enough. What I have seen in my career is that laws are very useful tools for women who have nothing else to cling to in the face of abuse or repression. It gives them something tangible to point to—something to prove that they are equal members of society, that they must be afforded the same rights and opportunities.
How does the International Republican Institute help promote empowerment of women?
IRI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded in 1983. IRI’s goal is to advance freedom and democracy worldwide through support to issue-based political parties, engaged citizenry and transparent government bodies and responsive government officials. A key avenue of our work is increasing the role of marginalized groups in the political process—specifically women. IRI has, for the past 30 years, conducted women’s training across the world. In 2006, it created the Women’s Democracy Network (WDN) which conducts programming designed to increase women’s political participation, leadership and election to public office. WDN is currently active in 61 countries.
How important is it to ensure more participation of women in student organizations? How does starting early help?
Student organizations are one of the key avenues to fostering women’s empowerment as they offer early opportunities to be involved in structured organizations, gain experience and pursue leadership positions. It’s interesting to note that while in many countries, like the United States, more young women than men are earning degrees, less than a third of our university student government presidents are women. We have to continually encourage women, especially when they are young, to pursue leadership positions. This is a good place to start.
How important is mentorship in nurturing the upcoming generation of women leaders?
I think it’s invaluable. Life is a progression. A mentor will encourage you, and help you increase your self-confidence. They also can help you avoid pitfalls by learning from their own mistakes or successes. And it’s also a great way to learn new skills to broaden your thinking on things. Mentors are really good in helping you look at issues and problems from new perspectives. One thing that I always have thought was the hallmark of the WDN is that the entire division is built upon the importance of mentorship. WDN understood the importance of bringing women from different countries together so that they could share best practices of women’s empowerment strategies, so that other women could benefit from these great examples and utilize these best practices back home. Mentorship is really a responsibility; it’s a two-way street. I think that anyone of us who have succeeded in our goals need to mentor others as a way to thank those who helped us.
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