‘Women’s right across the world remain fragile and easy to reverse’: UN Women mission head Nishtha Satyam

Not everyone is lucky enough to get a platform that allows them to bring together their passion, expertise, ambition, and goals, but Nishtha Satyam, mission head, UN (United Nations) Women in Timor Leste, was “really fortunate to have this opportunity and exposure” early on in her career spanning over 15 years.

Born and largely brought up in Delhi to Tamil parents, Nishtha — as a “passive observer” — focused on getting through school, and college, and aspiring for a stable job. “I think a big difference, like they say between how it started and how it is going – is dreaming. I was a daydreamer then; I am a daydreamer now. I think most of my energy comes from that dream and over time, I have pushed myself to be the passive observer of my life to a very active influence in my own life,” said the 38-year-old, who became the youngest Deputy Country Representative for UN Women in India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka in 2020.

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The former deputy country representative, UN Women in India, who is currently in India, spoke about women breaking glass ceilings at the topmost positions, gender equality, and climate change and what can be done in an exclusive email interaction with indianexpress.com.

Talk to us about your journey. 

I do think my parents played a big role in this – because, for a large part of my life, it’s what impressed them. If I were to go home and tell my mother that I’m a multi-millionaire and that I can buy you a private plane and take you to the most exotic location – she would be happy but not impressed. I think your upbringing determines what happiness and success are to you. I was pushed, though subtly, to find meaning in my life, relationships and mostly everything. I’m glad that I am still on that journey and being with UN Women is one of the most immensely satisfying things I’ve done.

How important do you feel is it for women to be in top positions at institutions like the United Nations?

I truly do think that the world organisation is unparalleled in mandate, expertise, and the exposure that it offers to those who work for it. The UN still remains the place where the world meets on the most urgent issues and the UN’s contribution to world discourse, and global and national goal setting is irrefutable. UN Women specifically gave me the highest vantage point in the fight towards gender equality. Being a woman from the global south gave me an opportunity to experience the world organization and also bring to the table the views of women from a very socio-culturally diverse country like India. I would think that life could not have rendered me a greater privilege.

Gender equality is still a far-fetched dream — do you agree?

Gender equality, to me, in the most simplistic way is the re-distribution of power between genders in a way that enables a level playing field, equal opposites, equal rewards and risks. The easiest way to understand empowerment is probably the much-quoted voice, choice, agency framework. Voice for women and girls to actively advocate for what they want, choice and agency to make or influence a decision. The fact that no country in the world can fully recognise itself a gender equal country by its own standards reveals the distance that needs to be covered. It wouldn’t be right to average out the world to point overarching gaps, given that the issue of gender is very socio-culturally rooted. However, there are a few things that are glaring gaps in the world, one; women in decision making – its really hard to oversee that we remain governed by very lopsided boardrooms, parliaments, governments. Two: women are largely invisible in data – the world operates on the default assumption that a man is the consumer/provider. A very little is known about how women consume the world – infrastructure, services, products, technology differently. It is now important for us to re-problematise and renew our curiosity about what half of humanity wants and thinks. A very important question to ask and know across the globe is do women vote differently?

How do you see India’s rise at the global level vis-à-vis gender issues?

Like any other country in the world, India has issues that need to be addressed but we have one of the most affirmative constitutions in the world. India is home to the largest number of women in grassroot politics, the largest cadre of women health care workers and saw women in key decision-making positions, much before it was a matter of celebration anywhere else in the world. The emergence of India in the global south stands on the shoulders of its women, in formal and informal sectors. India has recently appointed its first Permanent Representative to the UN, recruited the women aviation combatant – we are making progress across the spectrum. What is probably important to remember is that we transcend these from being “moments” to “movements”. As we celebrate these gains is we know that these gains remain vulnerable. Women’s right across the world remain fragile and easy to reverse.

Therefore, it is imperative that as we make big gains, we invest in the most structural barriers to equality – decent work, ownership of land, access to finance – among the many. India is home to the most robust set of stakeholders, feminist organisations and the clarion call for women-led development – gender equality is a real possibility for nations and India could emerge as the lighthouse of the South.

What can women do to highlight issues like climate change at the global levels given that countries like Timor-Leste are prone to climate-related disasters such as flash floods, cyclones, earthquakes, wildfires, landslides, and extreme weather, according to the World Risk Index 2021, in which it ranked 15th amongst 181 countries.

The natural disasters combined with the looming effects of Covid-19 have exacerbated the existing inequalities in Timor Leste. Climate change-related food insecurity is on the rise: globally, in the last two years, the number of food insecure people has jumped from 135 million to 283 million. Timor Leste is no exception – the socio-economic impact of Covid-19 resulted in increase in food insecurity: the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity increased to 41.1 per cent during the pandemic, compared to 36 per cent chronically food insecure in the pre-pandemic period.

Women unfortunately as the most to suffer as they are constituting for a large part of the subsistence agriculture workforce, informal sector workers and of course the most food insecure part of the population leading to long standing impact on their health and well-being. That said, women are also the most potent force for change. Through their experiences as early adopters of many new agricultural techniques, first responders in crises, entrepreneurs of green energy and decision-makers at home, women offer valuable insights and solutions into better managing the climate and its risks. Yet, their contribution is often overlooked in humanitarian and climate action; their practical needs forgotten. I think we need to remind ourselves as a nation and as the world that this time we must “build back better”.

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