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The Glass Ceiling In India’s Development Sector

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By Tara Rao:

In the early 2000s, the ‘indigenisation of international NGOs (INGOs) began to take root. This was an initiative on the part of these organisations to start including people from the global south in their leadership—global south being a more politically correct term for ‘developing’ nations.

The rationale was to create a work culture that would have representation from a broader part of the world, while also building local legitimacy in the developing countries that they were working in.

To start with, INGO indigenisation focused significantly on representation in leadership; and these organisations experienced an increase in the population of men from the global south — definitely a step in the right direction for widening representation.

This development though, quite unfortunately, also seemed to reinforce the ground reality in the geographies that these organisations worked in. The growing visibility of this group of ‘southern males’ not only heightened but also reinforced local realities, thereby perpetuating the gender disparity they were there to change.

If there were breakout sparks they were few and far between at the international level — and that too of women in senior leadership positions from the global north (the ‘developed’ world): Barbara Stocking (Executive Director, Oxfam); Joanna Kerr (ED, ActionAid); Loretta Minghella, (ED, Christian Aid); Bunny McDiarmid and Jennifer Morgan (Co-EDs, Greenpeace International).

Women head only 12-14% of the non-profits with the largest budgets in the US and 24% of the top 100 nonprofits in the UK. Of the UK’s top development nonprofits—Action Aid, CAFOD, Christian Aid, Oxfam, Save the Children UK—collectively known as the British Overseas Aid Group, just two are headed by women, today.

Over time, in the ‘wider representation drive’, we seem to have cemented ourselves to this new reality of ‘indigenised skewedness’.

The Revolving Door

One of the more visible symptoms that seems to have evolved from this indigenised skewedness across international and national leadership positions, is a ‘revolving door’ situation, where the southern male seems to be organisation hopping—from one leadership position to next.

The convenience of taking someone in who has the credentials and experience is clear, but possibly not quite acceptable, given the emphasis that most of these organisations place on gender-balanced leadership.

The skewedness towards appointing male leaders reveals a bias, which systemically takes root and reinforces itself; this then creates the ideal conditions for a revolving door, where the accumulated credentials and experience furthers the respective individual’s career path by way of organisation hopping.

So, while the staff is largely female, the highest rung in many of the organisations is still dominated by men, with little signs of letting up. Despite some organisations’ aims to hire women leaders, systems don’t seem to be in place to turn intentions into reality.

“The biggest barrier to women advancing into these positions is the internal process and belief system,” according to Barbara Stocking. There are a number of barriers that women face in reaching leadership both structurally and internally. An uneven playing field is among the top challenges. “There is this prime assumption that the men who are leading these organisations are really good. They’re not…some are pretty mediocre. At the moment women are having to be very, very good to get to the top,” indicates Stocking.

If it’s not the nonprofit world that can show the way, I can’t imagine which sector can. Gender empowerment has been championed in the context of overall development for decades, however, women professionals in the development sector mirror the challenges faced by women working in male-dominated fields.

Loretta Minghella, director at Christian Aid and a lawyer formerly working in the financial sector, reflects, “I’m not sure the barriers for women’s leadership in the nonprofit sector generally are that different from those in other sectors, which is a bit disappointing.”

It is interesting to see how the ground seems to be squirming beneath our feet crying out for a different reality. Here I draw the reader’s attention to the #MeToo campaign. The campaign is a reaction to this persistent and resistant systemic male bias, where one gender has systematically benefited more, and even at the cost of the other.

I invite the nonprofit community to see #MeToo not only as a distant ‘Weinstein episode’ but also a sign of an eruption closer to home. The reactive energy in such campaigns stems from a certain kind of male-centric organisational culture and the day-to-day reality that organisations have managed and sustained. One needs to ask — what is the gender dynamic playing out among our own nonprofits?

Time To Change, Time To Act

Change often comes from a combination of imbibing a new courage and a new imagination. In the present environment of deep-seated, deep conservatism, both are urgently required, and appallingly in short supply. We need to ask whether and how organisations that identify themselves as representing the interests of civil society are equipped to help reverse this extreme situation from deepening.

Here are a few on my checklist that I believe need addressing: the composition of boards and their agendas, the objectives of organisational development of each of these organisations, and the level of funding offered by grantmakers towards making strategic investments in gender-responsive organisational building.

Boards of NGOs need to muster a renewed and concerted drive both individually and collectively to respond to the illiberal wave that has gripped our world. Organisations must propel themselves into understanding the new reality and engage with it, rather than cower away; they must challenge the prevailing resistance to actively seeking women leaders.

Women in leadership, moreover, cannot not be seen only as ‘women in leadership’, but as symbolising a shift to a much-needed progressive track. Otherwise, we can rest assured that that revolving door will continue to revolve. And will continue to revolve at odds with what is the need of the hour.

I believe, courage and imagination also seems to be getting stunted by the uncertainty that the present regime in India imposes (though the ‘wave’ seems to be a global one too). In this scenario, agendas like stepping up on women in leadership does seem to be taking a back seat. I’d also argue that the current regime even allows for the organisations own breed of conservatism to persist, which possibly could exclude the ‘women in leadership’ agenda.

In the world out there though, the lines of acceptability are being pushed. What is critical is how we view this as a jiu-jitsu moment—using the energy of the opposing force to make positive change happen. This positive change is vital even to ensure civil society organisations don’t make themselves irrelevant.

About the author: Her first profession being an architect, Tara, over the last 30 years, has employed her design skills, working with governments, bilateral and multi-lateral organisations in the areas of development, environment and human rights, in Asia and elsewhere.

This article was originally published on India Development Review. You can view it here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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