SCI-India Maharashtra State Group’s Webinar on the International Women’s Day 2023
Since August 2022, SCI-India’s Maharashtra State Group has organized a series of webinars on various occasions (International Day of Peace, Pierre Cérésole Day, International Volunteer Day). SCI volunteers from across the world participated in and spoke at these well-appreciated events.
This year, the Group decided to hold a women’s webinar to observe the International Women’s Day 2023. Eight members of the SCI family from across the world were invited to share their personal experience of growing and working as a woman, and give their individual perspectives on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Some 35 people, women and men from India and from other SCI branches and groups attended the webinar.
The meeting was scheduled for Wednesday, 8th March, at 8:00 pm, Indian time (IST), and each speaker was allocated a symbolic 8 minutes of time.
The webinar started with the Group’s volunteer Haseena Khan welcoming all the ‘powerful, empowered women’ participants. She then invited the first speaker, Maharashtra State Group President Sheherbanoo Gullar, to the virtual podium. Sheherbanoo gave a brief introduction of Haseena, who has an MSW (Masters of Social Work) from Pune, India, and has been associated with several non-governmental organizations. Sheherbanoo then presented a brief overview of the Group’s activities since its revival in August 2022, including the webinars, workcamps and weekend activities. She herself was instrumental in organising a grooming workshop for young women and home makers, under the women’s empowerment movement. This workshop provided training in home science, culinary arts and other areas. This year, the Group’s women volunteers have restarted the weekend reading services for the girls at Kamla Mehta School for the Blind, Mumbai.
The second speaker, Alexandra Vasileiou, International President of SCI, talked about women’s empowerment. Women’s empowerment is about promoting women’s sense of self-worth, their ability to determine their own choices and their right to influence social change for themselves and others. In patriarchal societies since ancient times, women have been confined to the roles of victim, lover, mother, and even monster, rarely a hero. They are basically used according to the needs of the society, as amply evident in their temporary role as labour force during the two world wars of the last century. To achieve women’s empowerment, society needs to support and encourage five components, namely, psychological, educational, economic, social, and political. Age-old traditions, sexual harassment, pay disparity, child marriages, femicide, and many forms of violence as well as limited or no access to liberty and freedom, still remain some of the major barriers to women’s empowerment. Despite the progress made in the past few decades, the world is not on track to reach the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (Number #5) of gender equality by the year 2030. “Women’s empowerment is a life-long process,” Alexandra said. Alexandra’s own experience as a child in Greece during the 1960s, and later during academic and work life, was one of being discriminated, looked down upon, and not respected because of her gender. It was only through education and personal determination that she was able to become independent, follow her career and live a happier life. Her association with SCI since 1983 (she founded SCI-Hellas in Athens, SCI’s Greek branch!) “has reinforced my self-esteem, improved different skills in me, and has given me the pleasure of feeling useful and complete in my life.”
Next, Kerry Hargadon, Project Officer at SCI’s International Secretariat, shared her personal experience as an activist, and as a member of SCI’s Gender Blenders working group. As a feminist since before she knew the word (she thanks her mother who showed her that “anything is possible, as a woman”), Kerry believes in intersectional and inclusive feminism, and sees feminism as a complex system. Different systems of gender inequality and discrimination are created when other factors, such as race, class, caste, and ability are involved. Kerry shared her experience as an activist over the years, participating in IWD protests and vigils on various issues (pension cuts, gender equality, femicide, etc.). During 2018-20, she worked with the Gender Blenders working group to raise awareness on the connection between gender and sexuality stereotypes and to promote gender education, through local actions, international events and production of a toolkit ‘Free To Be You And Me’. The toolkit was translated into 10 different languages, and a more dynamic and flexible ‘living’ version was launched a year later.
Ambra Thana shared her inspiring educational journey from her small town in Albania to Antwerp, Belgium, where she now works as Communications Volunteer at SCI’s International Secretariat. How her caring grandmother, illiterate herself, passionately encouraged Ambra to “get educated” was simply awe-inspiring. When Ambra joined the university at the capital, Tirana, the grandmother decided to go and live with her granddaughter to give her emotional support. She was proud of her granddaughter, who later earned a Master’s from China and is now studying for PhD while working at SCI during the gap year.
Ambra thinks joining SCI was the best decision she made. She is learning a lot about this “big SCI family” and realizes that education is not just at school, but learning new things everyday, learning how to be more mindful and tolerant. “SCI has given me so much in the past six months that I am looking forward to learn more and more in the next six months.”
Shamim Ara Nipa, former treasurer of SCI-Bangladesh, was to speak next, but due to technical difficulties, could not join.
Nurul Shyahida, former president of SCI-Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur group, spoke next, sharing her thoughts on women’s involvement in SCI in Asia. Her observations were based on her 20+ years’ experience through workcamps, seminars, training projects in Asia and Europe. First, SCI in Asia is dominated by men, with women playing only supportive roles, more as backbenchers, barring a few notable exceptions from SCI groups in Vietnam, Japan, Korea, Australia and Malaysia. Second, the age gap between Asian and European volunteers is conspicuous. While European volunteers are generally much younger, 18-24, for instance, Asian volunteers tend to be much older (30-60), although the gap is closing lately. Women in Asia come from closely knit families and only join voluntary activities after they are married and have kids. Third, differences in geographies of Asia and Europe can be a factor impacting participation. Travelling in Europe is much easier (greater accessibility) than in many Asian countries due to distances. Fourth, social media have greatly helped increase women participation in SCI activities. People are better informed and communities are more open to allow their daughters and sons to participate in volunteer exchange programmes. The Covid pandemic has had a negative effect, both on activities and women’s participation. SCI groups in Vietnam, Japan, Mauritius have become quiet. Nurul suggested holding regional workcamps for the Asian youth, which would help revive these groups and encourage participation. Webinars would also help improve participation by providing the opportunity to talk on topics of interest. Nurul noted that women’s participation in SCI has improved over the past two decades, and she is proud of the women in SCI.
Haseena then invited Hemamali Perera from Sri Lanka to share her thoughts. A former interim international president of SCI, Hemamali is a human rights lawyer and currently a member of the executive committee of the Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service (CCIVS). Hemamali described how SCI workcamps on gender-related themes help promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. The participating volunteers take the learning experience and exposure to different cultures back to their society. She stressed the need to have more activities with gender equality and women’s empowerment themes. Even religious and educational organisations are becoming aware of women’s contribution to voluntary activities and charity. A study found that single women donate more generously to community work than do single men. Hemamali pointed out that 44 years after the ratification of the CEDAW (the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) by 189 countries, gender discrimination still exists, often under the guise of labels like tradition and local culture. In many societies, women and children are not safe. SCI, and voluntary work in general, is the best way to educate the society and help reduce gender inequality. Every year, CEDAW signatories must send reports of the progress made in ending gender discrimination, and yet most countries are still far behind. CEDAW was drafted by women for themselves. However, women are not represented equally in decision-making positions. How can we increase women’s share in decision-making, not just in cities and parliaments, but even in their own communities? This is where organisations like SCI can play an important role. As human beings, we all, men and women, “can work together to make the world a better place for women and children”, Hemamali said.
Claudia Strambini, Communication and Volunteer Coordinator at SCI’s International Secretariat, shared her personal experience as an SCI volunteer since 2016. The new skills and knowledge she learned while volunteering—for example, non-violent communication, facilitation of groups, first-aid and intervention in emergency situations—were useful in later voluntary work, but also boosted her self-confidence. The volunteering environment allows one to try out new skills, get encouragement from other people, and help break one’s own stereotypes or barriers by doing what one thought was impossible or too difficult (in her case, the fear of using ladders, and that only men use power drills). SCI has many women in leadership positions, and one can observe their leadership styles more closely, something not common in the corporate world or in politics. Furthermore, meeting and volunteering with women from different cultures and backgrounds helps remove prejudices and stereotypes about them.
The meeting concluded with Shobha Bajpai D’Silva expressing thanks to all those who made this event possible—the women and men volunteers of the Maharashtra State Group—and to the guest friends for sharing their experience, and the motivational and inspiring interactions. Shobha took the opportunity to thank the Group’s partner organisations, namely, Jeevan Anand, Care, Sai International, and Parivartansheel, all of which facilitate volunteer placements, and the Blind People’s Association.
Overall, this International Women’s Day webinar was an inspiring and learning experience for the participants.
You can watch the Webinar here