On Women’s Political Empowerment in Asia, the Pacific, and the United States

Honolulu, Hawaii (July 9 – 20, 2006)

In summer, 2006, I received Fulbright Scholarship through East West Center (EWC) for the ‘Changing Faces Women’s Leadership course: Women’s Political Empowerment in Asia, the Pacific, and the United States’. The course was divided between Hawaii and Thailand. The course invited participants from across the world to share their professional expertise on building leadership qualities through challenges.

It was thrilling, to say the least. Cutting across boundaries was a conglomerate of people – Nurul Azkiyah from Indonesia, Hsieh Huai-Hui from Taiwan, Jiang Chulin and Li Xinling from China, Dora Jok from Malaysia, Shazia Junejo from Pakistan, Se-hee Jung from Korea, Lilia Kapuniai from Hawaii, Nikki T. Randall from Georgia, Maeve Taylor from Alaska and Tuyen Thanh Tran from Vietnam – who had gathered to take up the reins of a purposeful and positive leadership course, in the various aspects of social activities. There was a lot of energy and enthusiasm.

The selection

The selection was based on nomination, application, essay writing, and interview. Mine was on the challenges faced by Indian women leaders, especially in the Northeast. It focused on the lack of social space for women to participate in decision-making, even in Meghalaya’s (an Indian state in the northeastern part) matrilineal society. I raised the importance of having the courage and initiative to lead. The Course Program gave the participants an opportunity to review their varied experiences, for sharpening their calibre as women leaders in an unfavourable environment.

The Course Program: Speakers

The course entailed lessons on leadership by renowned speakers with immense experience and exposure.

Ms Puanani Burgess, a speaker in the Course Program, favoured soul-searching as a tool to evaluate a situation. She maintained that corrective steps could be taken, by calmly plotting management strategies – not through rigid rules, but innovative methods – to reach decisions from gut feelings, which are often stronger than the head or heart. I recalled my mother and grandmother saying that gut reaction is a folk strategy used to deal with problematic situations.

Dr Nick Barker, Coordinator, Leadership Education, East-West Center (EWC) and Program Manager, Asia Pacific Leadership Program as our lecture guide talk about the management and communication of leadership, highlighting practical decision-making. He pointed out that the quality of a leader is not in charisma alone, but in having and developing qualities of a convincing character, like being level-headed in all situations. A woman leader, however, has to play a different ball game. She has to sustain her leadership with strength and determination while deciding and executing her plan. He noted how Asian and American women leaderships differ, observing that Asian women community leaders have strings attached to their homes. But their American counterparts often worked on their determination, skill-improvement and decision-making, without getting tugged at by domesticity. I think, despite my Asian background, I could be more American in that regard!

Ms Dee Dee Letts, who has written on community collaboration and community-based planning, highlighted three types of communication skills – active communication techniques, non-verbal communication and listening skills, stating how the techniques vary from leader to leader.

How the course helps

The course proved beneficial in attaining maturity of judgment:

“To appraise and assess, and not to rush”

Dee Dee’s lecture on communication skills seemed very practical to me. Listening, I noted, reduces tension, wins friends and helps make better decisions, apart from soliciting information. The course also taught us how to cope with difficult behaviour, by applying an exercise called ‘window of the world’: standing up to someone, through a ‘window’ of compromise and negotiation. I felt that I can learn to analyse this model and develop my team on skill and strategic planning. The course also covered other subjects ranging from building a beloved community, pressing for a change of women activists in the Asia Pacific region, to collaborative decision-making, strategic planning and action plan.

What I did

I put forward the Meghalaya Model presently called the Impulse Model Action Plan at the EWC, for national application in India, in the next three years. The project idea was to address the issue of human trafficking by rescuing women and children victims through state and civil support. The work had already been done through state consultation on Rights-Based Anti-Trafficking programming in the eight north-eastern states of India. State partners had been identified in each state, from child and women’s rights NGOs, who had helped Impulse NGO Network in restoring rescued survivors. Financial and human resources could also be used systematically through a shared information domain, thus preventing duplication of the idea and saving valuable resources. This could be replicated in any other state of India. I was happy to note an overwhelming response to adopt the Impulse Model.

My experience in Hawaii

I noticed that Hawaiians and Khasis are quite similar. They love steaming rice and meat wrapped in fresh banana leaves like Khasis do. Their staple food– ‘poi’, or the arum root, is what in Khasi we call the ‘shriew’. Then there is ‘tyrso’ or the mustard leaf, which, both Khasis and Hawaiians are fond of. Even the facial features of the Hawaiians are similar to Khasis. The minorities in Hawaii have integrated themselves with the immigrants through inter-marriage, just like the system of integration, the Khasis call “tang-Jaid”. According to this custom, if a Khasi man marries a non-Khasi woman, a new surname emerges, to carry forward the woman’s lineage and the surname of their children. Their hospitality, daily pace of life and simplicity was also reminiscent of my own people.

Lessons and thoughts

In all, the course helped in building confidence and expanding capabilities. It also made me feel that women leadership should be reflected politically, to allow them equal say in policy decision-making and supervision over the execution of goals and objectives.