Then and Now: Kavita Ramdas
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Kavita Ramdas is President and CEO of the San Francisco-based Global Fund for Women, a grant-making foundation that focuses exclusively on international women’s rights. Educated in the United States, Ramdas remains a citizen of India. I spoke with her in Palo Alto, where she lives with her husband, who is from Pakistan, and their daughter.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Kavita Ramdas, thanks for being with us.
KAVITA RAMDAS, Global Fund for Women: Thank you. It’s nice to be with you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: As somebody who is based here in the United States, but who works in different parts of the world, how did September 11 affect you?
KAVITA RAMDAS: Well, September 11 had a profound effect both on me personally, as well as on the work I do professionally. I work for the Global Fund for Women, an organization that is actively supporting women’s rights groups in 160 countries around the world. Every single one of those countries, I think, had at least somebody, maybe, you know, someone from almost every one of the nationalities that experienced some sense of loss. In a true sense, I think those events were not just an attack against the United States, but against everything that all of us hold dear in terms of humanity, in terms of basic value and basic decency.
There was an outpouring of solidarity, I think, with the United States that I as a person who grew up in a different part of the world and yet has had the privilege to live in this country could resonate with. At the same time, I would say for all of us at the Global Fund for Women and women’s organizations around the world, there was a sense of a collective holding of breath, waiting to see what would happen. Would the violence that we had already experienced be met with more violence? What kind of set of events would this lead to? And there was a great amount of hope that perhaps we would find different ways to resolve this. Perhaps we would find ways that would involve dialogue. And yet, as we saw, those decisions that were then taken had further repercussions, which were not peaceful repercussions for most of the world.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So the collective holding of breath, hoping for some sort of way of dealing with it that wouldn’t involve war. Is that what you are talking about? And yet you were working with women in Afghanistan, and did the war not, in the long-run, help them?
KAVITA RAMDAS: I think talking about the women of Afghanistan is a very important issue for us to think about. We had been working with women in Afghanistan since 1990, and in fact, as Afghan women will often say, it has been 25 years that they have experienced war and suffering and it took the tragic events of 9/11 to create a response that would actually, in any way, recognize or alleviate what their own struggles have been.
I think even there, remarkably, even there there was, on the one hand, a great sense of relief at the removal of the Taliban, and on the other hand a grave sense of concern that this not be viewed as simply the solution to a larger set of problems that have to do with how women are viewed and treated and responded to within a society. The condition, the wellbeing, the health, the levels of education of women are extraordinary indicators about the wellbeing and health of that society as a whole. And in some ways, September 11 opened a door for us in this country and for much of the world to begin to think of a different way to envision ourselves as a global community. I think we have much to do to make that vision a reality.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So when you looked at it, you thought it was a chance for Americans to understand more about the rest of world. Do you feel that door has closed?
KAVITA RAMDAS: No, I don’t think that door has closed. I think there is as much activism and as much of as a sense of outpouring. At the Global Fund for Women, for example, thousands of new donors stepped up and said “what can we do? We want to learn more. We want to help.” We have responsibilities that go beyond our small world and we use philanthropy and the act of kind of engaging, in giving back, as a way to express their sense of solidarity in being global citizens. And my hope is that we have the opportunity, because this is a democracy, to continue to push for the values and the principles that this country was founded on and based on.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Specifically, what would you like to see?
KAVITA RAMDAS: I think I have a grave sense of concern about the erosion of liberty and civil liberties in particular. As an Indian, it’s become now commonplace for me now to walk into an airline terminal and expect to be pulled out of line. I worry for my husband.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Your husband is from Pakistan.
KAVITA RAMDAS: My husband is from Pakistan. Every time, you see a Muslim sounding name on a passport, there is a response. And I worry on a personal level, but I also worry at a larger level. Women’s organizations in places like Lebanon and Rwanda and Angola tell us what happens in the United States affects our countries. Leadership is by example. To promote democracy and the values of freedom and freedom of speech and freedom of association on the one hand, and to have them eroded on the other hand and to have different sets of values… we want democracy in Iraq, but we’re not willing to question Saudi Arabia why women don’t have the vote there or Kuwait. They’re not able to anymore make the argument that these values are universal when the sort of leading nation in the world doesn’t seem to be consistent with how it implements those values. So I think that is an area of some concern, not just for myself, but for many, many leaders in many different parts of the world.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In what you’re hearing from the groups that you work with, what could be the consequences of the steps taken so far, for good or for ill, in this past year?
KAVITA RAMDAS: I think the primary concern is that while we as a group of nations wage war on terror, we will forget the other battles women are fighting — battles that are not just relevant for women, but for all of us: The battle against AIDS, the battle against environmental degradation, the battle against poverty and hunger, the battle against ignorance and illiteracy and lack of education that leads to situations like what we saw in Afghanistan. That is a deep fear that as we fight one war, we will lose many other significant battles, and that women are at the frontlines of that battle and there don’t seem to be any reinforcements coming.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Kavita Ramdas, thanks for being with us.
KAVITA RAMDAS: Thank you. It was a pleasure.