A Bank of Women, by Women, for Women

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Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last week opened the first branch of the Bharatiya Mahila Bank (Indian Women’s Bank) in Mumbai, which will employ only women, and accept deposits from and lend mostly to women.

Importantly, this bank will have branches in smaller towns and villages where its services are most required. And while men may also operate accounts here, the focus will be on women, and making educating women financially-aware.

Why a bank – primarily – for women? Only 26 percent of women in India have an account in a financial institution – be it a bank, a credit union, a post office or a microfinance institution – compared with 46 percent of men, according to a study by the World Bank. 

Financial inclusion is a big challenge in many developing countries where barriers to opening a bank account or taking a loan include physical distance, lack of documentation and high costs; only 35 percent of Indians have access to banking services compared to a global average of 50 percent, and a developing-nation average of 41 percent, according to World Bank data.

In India, even as more women are getting an education and jobs, millions still have no access to basic financial services and are reduced to being dependent on their fathers or their husbands to manage their money. At the same time, some of the top private banks, from ICICI Bank to HSBC Plc and JP Morgan in India have women CEOs. 

Microfinance institutions and self-help groups have done much to improve access to financial services for women, as have the advent of mobile phones and the rollout of India’s unique identification system. Simply setting up a bank of women will not solve entrenched social issues and traditions which continue to favor men. But it is a start, and much like India’s popular ladies’-special-trains, the bank may lower the barriers for women in a deeply patriarchal society.

Fading Opportunities for Women in the Land of the Rising Sun

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I am just back from a vacation in Japan (highly recommend it), where I was as struck by the cutting-edge technology in everything from toilets to trains and the wondrous aesthetic sense of shop assistants and chefs alike, as I was by the appalling gender gap.

Japan, the world’s third-biggest economy (overtaken by China in 2010, in case you missed it), is the world’s most rapidly aging advanced country, with also the widest gender gap among developed countries. This is not something to be proud of; yet, one leader after another, one CEO after another, has failed to address the issue, to Japan’s great detriment. 

Global female labor-force participation has stalled at about 50 percent for two decades, according to a report in September from the International Monetary Fund.  More than half the nations in East Asia and the Pacific have restrictions on the types of jobs women can do, according to the World Bank. Failure to integrate women fully into the workforce is costing the Asia-Pacific region about $89 billion a year in unrealized output, according to the United Nations. 

Japan’s 63 percent of women in the workforce is comparable more to developing countries, and most women are confined to lower-paying and lower-rung jobs. Even in fancy offices, women until very recently were required to serve tea to their male colleagues and  having a baby is a sure route to career-wilderness, as there is little by way of public daycare, and hiring a nanny is an expensive process.

Christine Lagarde, among the most high-profile women in the world as managing director of the IMF, has made it something of a personal crusade to call out countries on their female participation, and in asking them to report on gender issues. In a paper last year called ‘Can Women Save Japan’, the IMF highlighted the many hurdles to working women in Japan, and suggested ways to remove them – primarily, with policies to reduce the gender gap in work and better support for working mothers. The economic outlook for Japan would be much brighter if more women joined the labour force, it said.

In April, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced measures to elevate the role of women, calling for women to fill 30 percent of senior positions across different parts of the society by 2020 and vowing to eliminate waiting lists for childcare and provide training for mothers returning to work. While Sony, Hitachi, Toshiba and Daiwa have all recently pledged to increase the number of female managers significantly in the coming years, Japan resolutely refuses to mandate quotas for women in the government or in company boards. The sun may well be setting, and quickly.  

Women Are Less Equal in Natural Disasters

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Pic: CNN/Getty Images

The Philippines is still assessing the destruction wreaked by Typhoon Haiyan, which is estimated to have killed at least 10,000 people and caused damage costing billions of dollars. The super typhoon may have a greater economic impact on the country than Hurricane Sandy did in the U.S., according to estimates from disaster modelling by Kinetic Analysis Corp.

What’s definitely clear though, is that the country’s women will be hit harder than the men. This is true not just in the Philippines, but pretty much in any disaster area, particularly in a developing nation.

“There is a pattern of gender differentiation at all levels of the disaster process: exposure to risk, risk perception, preparedness, response, physical impact, psychological impact, recovery and reconstruction,” the World Health Organization notes. “Due to social norms and their interaction with biological factors, women and girls may face increased risk to adverse health effects and violence. They may be unable to access assistance safely and/or to make their needs known. Additionally, women are insufficiently included in community consultation and decision-making processes, resulting in their needs not being met.”

Fortunately, the Philippines has the smallest gender gap among developing nations and its women are a feisty, resilient lot. Even so, the government, aid agencies and donors would be well-advised to keep women front and center as the country recovers from the tragedy.

When Saudi Women Went For a Drive

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A bunch of Saudi Arabian women went for a drive on Saturday. There’s no punchline to that, because there’s nothing funny in the fact that these women risked imprisonment – or worse – in defying a ban on driving in the kingdom.

This was the third such protest staged by Saudi Arabian women against a de facto ban that has led to women being arrested, sentenced to flogged and losing their jobs for defying orders. There have been calls from various quarters to lift this ban – which really has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with exercising control over women. Saudi women also need a man’s permission to get a job or travel abroad.

But the Saudi government – and the country’s men – appear divided on whether it should lift the ban on driving. While the king has made some noises about lifting the ban in 2015, and various men showed their support on Saturday, one particularly enlightened cleric last month said women who drive risk damaging their ovaries and producing children with clinical problems.

Limiting the mobility of women is a time-honored practice in many countries, kept alive and well by politicians and religious leaders pandering for votes and afraid to incur the wrath of the religious conservatives. Clerics in Afghanistan this year barred women from leaving home without a male chaperone. Politicians and police in India advised women to not stay outdoors after dark following a brutal gang rape in Delhi last year. Movements such as Take Back the Night haven’t quite had an impact here; what we really need is more women going for a drive or a walk. Free and unafraid.

Mind the Gap. Your Fortune Depends on it.

Just a few surprises in the latest Global Gender Gap Report, 2013 released by the World Economic Forum. For the fifth straight year, Iceland tops the list and is followed by its Nordic peers Finland, Norway and Sweden. The surprise is in No. 5: the Philippines. It’s the only Asian country to make the Top 10, and handily beats mightier rivals from Germany to the UK. The U.S. is a distant No. 23, in case you were wondering.

The Philippines has steadily climbed up the ranks: in 2010 it was ranked No. 9 on the index that measures the gap between women and men in terms of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The country is the only one in Asia and the Pacific that has fully closed the gender gap in both education and health, the report said.

Much of the improvement can be attributed directly to President Benigno Aquino, who has appointed women in top posts from chief justice to chief tax collector in a bid to end corruption. He has even taken on the Catholic Church to push through legislation to allow free access to contraception as he seeks to reduce poverty.

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Today, Chief Justice Maria Sereno and the gun-toting head of the Bureau of Internal Revenue Kim Henares, are household names in a country whose most famous – ok, notorious – woman was known only by the extent of her shoe collection.

It’s not all good news, though. While the gender gap narrowed slightly across the globe in 2013, with 86 of 133 countries showing improvements, “change is definitely slow”, the report said. And as for why closing the gender gap is important: it is not only a matter of human rights and equity; it is also one of efficiency.

Little wonder then, that the Philippine economy is growing at more than 7 percent annually – second only to China in the region – and the country has been awarded its first investment-grade rankings by all three ratings agencies this year. Philippine women can take some credit for that.

12 Years a Slave. How About a Lifetime in Slavery ?

Moving as the film is, even more gut-wrenching is a global index published today that shows a staggering 29.8 million people serving as modern-day slaves in countries ranging from Nigeria to Myanmar.

Ten countries account for three-fourths of the world’s slaves, and India alone is host to almost half the total, according to Walk Free, an Australia-based rights group. While slavery is illegal in every country, the fight against it is not a big priority for most governments, and some forms of the practice – including forced marriage and trafficking of women and children for domestic work and as sex workers – may not be considered slavery in these countries.

Walk Free doesn’t break down the numbers to show how many modern-day slaves are women, but it’s likely to be a high proportion of the total. Yet there’s not much action on say, domestic workers in Asia or the Middle East, a practice that encourages the trafficking of women. Despite reports of violence against domestic workers in cities from New Delhi to Dubai, the demand – ironically fueled at least in part by greater numbers of working women – hasn’t abated.

Some Philippine recruiters recently decided to stop sending maids to Singapore till the issue of the payment of a placement fee is addressed – which often leaves maids with little cash in hand. Indonesia has demanded more safety for its workers in Singapore after a frightening number fell to their deaths cleaning windows in high-rise apartments.

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Yet, while the decision in Hong Kong to not grant residency permits to domestic workers who have lived there for years has fueled the debate for greater rights, there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort to end slave-like conditions – or even grant a mandatory day off to domestic workers.

So for every country that steps in to try and protect the rights of its women who are trafficked to richer countries, poorer countries including Cambodia and Myanmar willingly send their womenfolk into slavery.  Public apathy is as much to blame as government inaction.

Colourful Histories

The first chapter of my Master’s thesis looked at the history of Carnival in the Caribbean. In order to represent the syncretic nature of the festival, I chose to tell 3 separate narratives: the African story, the European story and the Indian Story. One story would not have done it justice. Now, having lived in metropolitan societies with many cultural groups, I’m beginning to see how the history of any given place is layered by many stories. Neighbourhoods become defined by cultural and racial borders, so that the city itself becomes a tapestry that immediately reflects the cultures that constitute its parts.

That being said, although there is great beauty in seeing the diversity of a place and people, I can’t help but wonder at the effect of separating the larger historical narratives of a society into racial counterparts. Why, for example, is the history of Black Americans segregated as Black History? Why isn’t their narrative equally represented as American history? Why is Native American history in Canada, taught as Native American studies? Why isn’t it just Canadian History? I can’t help but wonder if allowing history to be represented in racially skewed narratives does more harm than good. Is it still useful in society for the prevalent history to be by the conquerors? I would argue that there is nothing to be gained through a polarized history of a place or people.

There are many more useful insights to be gained from stories like those presented in Malcolm Gladwell’s books or Freakonomics or from podcasts like This American Life that look at real stories of real people. There’s a great Ted talk from novelist Chimamanda Adichie called ‘The danger of the Single Story’ that illuminates what I’m getting at with much more poise and eloquence. In her example she talks about the narrow way in which people respond to her, when they discovered she is from Nigeria. She talked about moving to America and being perceived as ‘African’ for the first time. She talks about the danger of creating single visions of entire cultures that preclude the opportunity for true empathy between cultural groups.

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In a world that is learning to incorporate many cultures into the mainstream, we need to ease up on looking at individual histories as ‘us’ and ‘them’. That is no longer really useful. As an immigrant to Canada, it’s sometimes nice to be recognized for my cultural differences, but at the same time there’s danger in being seen as outside of what’s normal or expected. Being different makes it hard for people to respect you and impossible for you to feel like a real member of the society, when you are constantly reminded of how ‘other’ you are. People take for granted that they know my history because they have some vague notion of what being from the Caribbean might mean, based on all inclusive vacations, bad movies and Reggae music. They’re not interested in being corrected either. They’re already convinced of their own imagined story of my ‘otherness’.

Maybe there’s a more temperate way for everyone to look at history and cultural diversity. I wonder for example in the modern situation of world travellers, if we can demand truer histories of the places that we inhabit that are more inclusive of all the stakeholders of places and events. I wonder if it’s possible for people to back off on believing that they know everything about everyone and look at the world without the need to polarize things.

We Can Be Superheroes, Burkas And All

One wouldn’t generally expect Pakistan to produce role models for women – not since former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, and not the kind for Birkin bags that a certain foreign minister is famous for.

So Geo TV’s animated kids’ show Burka Avenger has been nothing short of a revelation. It is set in a picturesque green valley, where the arrival of a villain with a long beard who shuts down the local girls’ school casts a pall of gloom. Until, that is, the appearance of a figure in a flowing black burka, who takes on the religious zealots and corrupt politicians alike. Turns out – spoiler alert – it’s a teacher, who wields the chalk by day and displays her considerable martial-arts skills by night to protect the girls’ right to education, clad in a black burka.

There are so many facts about this one could focus on, especially when the young Afghan schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban for daring to go to school is being touted for a Nobel Peace Prize. Amazingly though, some of the conversation about the Burka Avenger has centred – not on the brave, new stance of Geo TV or the much-needed focus on education or the hopes for change in depicting women on TV and as superheroes – but on her burka, and the fact that it’s a symbol of oppression. Really.

That’s a debate worth having, yes. But picking on this series for just this reason is a bit disingenuous, surely. And hey, maybe just maybe, the show’s creators meant to show the burka as also being a symbol of power. Why must superheroes everywhere conform to the Western ideal of one, including their dress code? Is it more inconceivable to have a heroine clad in a saree, a kimono, an ao dai – or, indeed, a burka – than it is to imagine one with cat’s whiskers?Image

When Constitutions Collude to Keep Women Out of Politics

Aung San Suu Kyi has just concluded a five-day visit to Singapore, her first to the city state. In her many meetings and speeches – all warm, witty and carefully delivered – she asked companies to invest responsibly in Myanmar, invited Burmese nationals in Singapore to participate in the country’s transition, and reiterated her demand that the constitution be changed, so she can run in elections to be held in 2015.

Myanmar’s constitution gives the military a lot of power in the political system and prohibits anyone with children who are foreign nationals from holding the posts of President or Vice-President. That is clearly aimed at Suu Kyi, whose two sons are British nationals.

That the military has no interest in giving up its cushy position is hardly surprising. That a woman is deliberately being sidelined from the political system in Asia is also, unfortunately, not surprising.

Women’s political participation in Eastern Asia, Southeastern Asia, South Asia and the Pacific Islands is well below the global average, according to research from Monash University. In all these regions, “there is strong resistance to women’s participation in public life evidenced in the formal statements of leaders and politicians and in the mentalities of the broader societies. Cultural, customary and religious discourses are frequently used to moralize that the ‘rightful’ place of women is NOT in politics,” the researchers wrote in a paper last year. Violence against women in politics or those seeking political office is very common in these countries, the report noted.

While gender quotas and reservations have significantly improved women’s political participation in some Asian countries, others are dragging their feet over such legislation. In India, a women’s reservation bill in India, which proposes to amend the constitution to reserve 33 per cent of all seats in the lower house of Parliament and in all state legislative assemblies for women, has languished for more than three years in the lower house. Women’s political participation in India is 11 percent.

Elsewhere, women do slightly better. In China, where Mao famously said ‘women hold up half the sky’, their political participation is about a fifth of the total, whereas in South Korea it’s 16 percent. The Philippines – where President Aquino, whose mother was once President, and who has recently appointed women to key posts including Chief Justice and Tax Collector – the participation rate is nearly a fourth, while in Thailand, where Yingluck Shinawatra is Prime Minister, albeit a mere puppet of her brother, the rate is 15 percent. Myanmar – and this should come as no surprise to Daw Suu – has the lowest score of all Asian countries measured, of less than 2 percent.

Investors rushing in to cash in on the gold rush that is Myanmar would do well to remember that statistic alongside the numbers on Myanmar’s gas reserves and its potential for mobile phone users and credit-card holders.

That’s Not Fair: on Nina Davaluri and Miss America

I never pay any attention to so-called beauty pageants. But it was hard to miss the tsunami of tweets on the newly-crowned #MissAmerica, Nina Davuluri, who is of Indian descent. The majority of those tweets were not congratulatory.

Rather, they focused on the fact that Davuluri is of Indian heritage and therefore “cannot be regarded as American.” The fact that she has dark skin and dark hair. The fiction that she’s Muslim and a terrorist. And the speculation that she must run a Seven-Eleven store.

In fact, Davuluri’s American and from New York. She’s not a Muslim; she wants to be a physician, like her dad. The only intractable fact is that she’s dark-skinned.

Our fixation with fair skin and light hair is alive and well in the 21st century, rearing its ugly head from Zurich to Dhaka, and targeting women in particular. Cosmetics companies have built billion-dollar businesses hawking wonder skin-lightening creams to desperate women who are made to believe being a couple of shades lighter will give them a better chance in the world that places such a premium on fair skin. You will do well in school, land a plum job, score with a good-looking guy, make your parents proud – if only your skin’s lighter.

Award-winning Indian actor and director Nandita Das recently launched a campaign called Dark is Beautiful to “campaign against the toxic belief that a person’s worth is measured by the fairness of their skin.” Davuluri-haters should sign up for a lesson in being fair, regardless of skin color.