Q&A with female IDA agent and distributor for IWD
Within the context of upcoming International Women's Day (IWD) on March 8, we approached a few of our female agents and distributors with some questions regarding gender equality.
IDA Foundation has identified five focus Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in its long-term strategy. With our focus on bridging the gap in access to medicines (closely related to SDG3), we are also focusing on SDG5: Gender Equality. As part of the campaign to create more awareness on this subject, hereby we would like to spotlight two of our great agents and distributors as examples of great female leadership.
Meet Shakun Tewarie, who is the General Manager at Kersten Distribution in Suriname, and Salamata Konde, who is our agent in Burkina Faso. We asked Shakun and Salamata about their experiences and challenges during their careers, and for their opinion on several gender-related topics.
Q: The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘Choose to challenge’. This can be interpreted in many ways: we can choose to challenge gender stereotypes, or gender bias. What does ‘choose to challenge’ mean to you in your career?
Shakun: I believe that for women challenges are continuous and almost on every level- even more with the current pandemic. But if I had to choose one particular challenge, I would choose access to education. There are many problems a woman can tackle if she is educated in order to become (financially) independent.
Salamata: Choosing to challenge in my profession would be, for example, refusing to distribute products that lighten black skin, these products are often targeted at women. It would be to denounce this phenomenon, this scourge which destroys the health of many people, especially Africans, and which brings so much money to the cosmetics industry! Finally, it would be to sensitize the population on the harmful effects of this degrading practice for black skin, which exposes it to many diseases, especially cancer.
Q: As an independent female professional, can you give an impression of what it was like for you to get to this stage of your career?
Shakun: As a single mum with a medical background, I never thought I would end up in my current position as GM of a company. With the help of another strong woman (my mother) I was able to develop myself professionally through the years. Without physical and mental support I guess it is difficult for everyone to achieve certain goals in life. The most important thing I learned though, is that when you encounter difficulties in life and you are able to overcome these, it makes you as strong as “superwoman”.
Salamata: In my country the profession of Pharmacist is a liberal profession which can be defined as the first line, or the first doorway into the health care system. A profession where one is in permanent contact with patients and clients, at the service of the population, sometimes with feedback from certain patients, which is giving me a lot of personal satisfaction.
Q: Have you personally come across gender-specific challenges and stereotypes in your career?
Shakun: Absolutely! However, this differs per country and region. I had the privilege to work in a few countries where gender-related issues, e.g., sexual “innocent” comments, not being taken seriously as a woman, or lack of respect to name a few, were obvious sometimes. Most of the times it was noticeable but not tangible. It’s the latter I hated most, because there is no way to prove it! But it never got me off track professionally.
Salamata: Luckily, I haven't really encountered any gender-specific challenges in my career because as a pharmacist I practice a highly feminised profession.
Q: It is said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, women are shouldering a heavier burden of household labour and caregiving and experience physical symptoms of stress and burnout at up to twice the rate of men. How do you think this can be improved in the future?
Shakun: This question does not have an easy straight-forward answer, because it depends on many different factors, for example: culture, geographic location, economic situation, and so forth. But providing a safe platform where women can support each other by having freedom of speech – this would be a good start. In addition, availability & FREE access to health care and education would support mental and physical freedom. Unconditional support by the local Government will multiply its success and reduce time to accomplish otherwise.
Salamata: The effect of this pandemic is to be put into perspective in Africa and particularly in my country, Burkina Faso. However, I think that with financial independence, they can better face the challenges they face. There is also a need to raise awareness among men for solidarity in the distribution of domestic tasks.
Q: It is said that it can take more than 100 years to reach gender equality. Worldwide, there is still a male majority in leadership and women are paid less than men for the same work. Do you think there should be affirmative action to improve this? For example, should businesses require policies of 50% women, 50% men in leadership?
Shakun: It is shown and mentioned in a few scientific studies, that, where women are represented in leadership, this has many beneficial results for a company/organization. Policies of 50-50% of female leadership would definitely improve the culture of a company- however if these women are “copies of men” it's not going to make a difference in my opinion.
Salamata: Yes, I agree that equal pay for equal work is necessary and that women should not be underpaid compared to men for the same work. On the other hand, I do not agree with the quota system because it is also a segregation of the male sex. For me, competence should be given priority.
Q: What do you think needs to happen (which essential developments) to reach gender equality in the workplace?
Shakun: It starts with the GM/MD/CEO and higher management. The approach and support on how to achieve gender equality is equally important as with whom it starts. Because, if the GM/MD/CEO and higher management do not wholeheartedly believe in and support a plan to reach gender equality in the workplace, it will never work. So, to summarize the answer to the question: unanimously stand behind your plan to achieve gender equality at work.
Salamata: This is something that cannot be decreed. However, there must be equitable access to education. Everyone should be self-confident, educated and effective in the workplace. And equality in pay should be restored. Furthermore, all forms of harassment should be punished.
Q: What is your career advice to other women?
Shakun: Know your worth and strengths, nurture and develop these and be unstoppable! The sky is NOT the limit! But a small piece of advice: when you go for it, go for it not with arrogance, but with confidence, knowledge, kindness, and the human touch.
Salamata: Seek education, be confident and enterprising. Educate your children (boys and girls) in the same way, to give them the same opportunities and the same chances. Make sure that there is equitable distribution of household chores between boys and girls.
Q: WHO also recognises that gender health equity remains an issue: i.e. females lack access to essential health products specifically for female health (menstrual health, reproductive health, maternal health) and this is creating barriers for other areas (education, work, etc.). Do you think more focus should be on these products for women?
Shakun: Absolutely, and this should be addressed and implemented on a governmental level. But not only providing these products is sufficient- education and nationwide information programs to explain why it is important to support this will be key to make a long-term change. These things take time.
Salamata: It is possible to focus on these products without ignoring other aspects, particularly women's education, which must remain paramount. I believe that this is the only way for them to become independent.
Q: We recognise the importance of role models, especially when it comes to gender equality since "you can't be what you can't see". Which female leaders and role models have inspired (and still inspire) you in your career? (These can be family members, colleagues, leaders, anyone that comes to mind)
Shakun: #1: My mother: Cecilia Mungra, who was the first medical doctor of Indian descent in Suriname. #2: My grandmother: Mathilda Mungra, who was very poor and still raised 18 children of which all accomplished something in life and who contributed to the Suriname society as doctors, lawyers, politicians, ministers and member of parliament. #3: Rani Lakhsmi Bai of Jhansi: one of the leaders of the First War of Independence of India and holds her place in history as a fearless warrior and a passionate patriot. #4: Bidhya Devi Bhandari (President of Nepal) the first Nepali woman to be elected to parliament and the first woman to become a cabinet minister.
Salamata: For me, a role model is my trade unionist friend who has inspired me since university and she still keeps inspiring me everyday.