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     Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I’m using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I’m happy with that. Aretha Franklin

Belinda Brady

Belinda Brady knows the power of voice. A two time Juno Nominee for her hit singles “Flex” and “Gifted Man” she has also won the Canadian Urban Music Award for “Too Late” (1999) for best R&B single. The singer-songwriter has proven to be a woman who has designed her own course. Presently, the world’s the stage as far as Belinda is concerned, and she is ready and able to deliver her music onto a global platform.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, her artistry was influenced right from the start by parents who were deeply involved in the music business.

“My father, Carl Brady, was one of the founding members of a very famous calypso soca band by the name of Byron Lee and the Dragonaires,” Belinda states. “So I grew up being around the band and around the music. My mom was actually a dancer and traveled across the Caribbean and all across the world with them. Her name was Madame Wasp. My parents inspired me tremendously in terms of wanting to be a recording artist and wanting to be involved in the music business. I just loved the excitement and loved going up on stage seeing my mom and dad. I was always in awe when I saw my dad performing.”

Belinda eventually joined the Jamaica Musical Theatre Company where she was able to hone her craft as a singer, dancer and as an actress.

“I learned a lot from the theatre, but my first professional gig was with soca queen Denyse Plummer from Trinidad,” Belinda recalls. “I think I was seventeen years old at the time, and she asked me to come and sing and dance with her. That was really fascinating. The first show I did was one of the biggest festivals in Jamaica called Reggae Sunsplash. They’re no longer around, but it was one of the most prestigious festivals, and I had the opportunity to perform there.”

Her career beginning to blossom, Belinda graduated from Hillel Academy, an international school in Jamaica. “That was another great experience. At school we had a lot of foreign students, and it was a very diverse environment. We were interacting with people from all over the world, so that alone was setting up the stage for my launch outside of Jamaica.”

As Belinda explains, her mother also made a pivotal decision at that time — a choice that catapulted Belinda into a new world. “I’m the youngest out of eight. So wherever my mom went, I thought ‘I’ve gotta go.’ She decided to move to Canada to start a new life, and after I graduated from Hillel I decided to go there.” Belinda remarks how she wanted to get her OEC as well as attend York University. “I had it all planned out.”

But life, Belinda muses, doesn’t always go exactly as intended. To her surprise, new doors began to open. “You have to just go with the flow or with the path that has chosen you as opposed to the path that you’ve chosen. I was offered an opportunity to work with a very famous recording artist by the name of Shaggy. I traveled the world with him — to Asia, to the UK, and we did promotional shows in the States.”

Belinda remembers her travels with Shaggy vividly. “I’d be dancing on the stage in front of 10,000 people, telling them to wave their hands left to right. It was such a powerful, inspiring and enlightening experience. And I never forgot how that was an Aha moment in my life — about the power that one has in front of all those people and what you can do with that power, good or bad.”

Along with the ecstatic moments, Belinda has faced her own struggles as a musician. Like many female artists, she’s encountered difficulties in an industry that is still male-oriented and tends to package female singers by sexualizing them. Belinda clearly recognized the pitfalls and relates how she had to make some life-changing decisions in order to steer clear of the “sex object” trap.

“I must say that in the beginning, I had no clue. I was so naïve, and everything was being handed to me on a silver platter until the point that I decided to leave the Shaggy core to become a solo artist.” With a strong desire to strike out on her own, Belinda envisioned herself making it to the top, performing in Spain and Paris and many of the places she had previously visited with Shaggy. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t the reality. I had a lot of challenges as a female with wanting producers to take me seriously. I’m not saying with all of them, but with many. In Jamaica, unfortunately, the music industry is very male-dominated.”

Some producers Belinda encountered didn’t toe the professional line, but instead wanted to pursue a relationship. “It became like you work with me, but we also have to get involved intimately, and that wasn’t the direction I wanted to take. My parents showed me a life where I didn’t need to make that choice, so I walked away. I walked away from many opportunities.”

Belinda also notes she confronted similar issues even in Canada — producers and other music business professionals who did not want to speak to the artist directly, and in the case of female musicians, who wanted to strike up a more intimate relationship with them while working. “That was always the issue. There was no longevity in terms of doing a project from start to finish.”

What Belinda describes is quite a common experience for female artists. Many still deal with outdated concepts about which instruments are acceptable for them to play. They still confront not being taken as seriously as their male counterparts. And, big surprise, they’re still portrayed as sex objects.

So the next step, as Belinda describes, was to take matters into her own hands. “At this point in my career, I decided I’m not going to knock on a producer’s or a manager’s door and ask him to work with me. As an independent artist, I’m going to fund my own projects.” Belinda conveys a strong stance. “You have to take control of your situation as opposed to allowing other people to take it for you or to bring you to the finishing line, because if you do, you’ll be waiting forever.”

Belinda also gives credit to her former manager, Canadian Idol judge Farley Flex, for ushering her to the next plateau in her career. “Although he’s no longer my manager, he took me to a level where I developed the strength within to say, ‘You know, I’ve done some great work.’ He gave me the platform to be myself, which is a diverse artist.”

Independent and steering her own path, Belinda found investing in herself key to her professional development. “That’s one thing I’d like to put out there for any artist. This is a business, and you’ve got to invest in your craft. And yes, you will lose but you will also win. There’s fulfillment within it if you plan it right. So now here I am as an independent artist, and as a woman, feeling very fulfilled with the choices that I’ve made and the team that I’ve created around me.”

Belinda’s unique vision also includes being true to herself with regard to her musical style. She flows easily between the genres — Rock, Pop, R&B, Folk and Reggae — influenced by artists such as Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, India Arie and Alanis Morissette. Her musical canvas is broad, and Belinda likes it that way. As she notes, being eclectic provides her the freedom to connect to a wide audience.

“I think I write for everybody,” Belinda states, “and it’s from the heart. Coming from Jamaica, people think, ‘Oh she’s just reggae, just reggae.’ But no, the first song that I wrote was a folk song. I was in England . . . and I wrote a folk song! I didn’t even know how to write reggae, and I had to be trained how to do that. I  loved heavy metal, and I also loved Salt-N-Pepa.”

A versatile artist, Belinda’s music doesn’t lend itself to being neatly categorized. “The album I had done with Farley Flex was very diverse. I had reggae on it. I had rock and folk, and I had R&B. Unfortunately, the music industry had no idea what to do with it,” she reflects. “It’s about the marketing and the target market, and they don’t believe that certain markets can cross over. But I think they’re absolutely wrong because there are artists out there that have done it. What I think they’re saying is that you have to be established in the beginning and grow a fan base and then you can cross over like, for example, Shania Twain or Whitney Houston. So I was always the artist that was developing and they were always saying Stay here, no stay here.”

But Belinda was not about to stay here for too long. She enjoys diversity. It’s who she is. “I think I was ahead of myself, so they say,” Belinda reflects, “at least in theory.”

But perhaps she’s no longer ahead of her time, but right on game. What the music industry could not wrap its collective head around in the past may be what will change it for the better today. A little renovation is due. It may be time to alter the music scene, change the playing field if you will, so musicians, women as well as men, can express their art without being bound by the same old rules. Could adding more women leaders to the music industry make a difference?

“I think we need more role models — women who are successful in the music business — to inspire the younger generation, to help them understand that there are different ways other than getting intimate with a producer or selling your body to do this. You can use your mind and educate yourself. That’s why role models are important. We can go out and we can educate the younger generation to feel inspired, to know that as a recording artist you can be respected, and as a business professional in the music industry you can be successful. We can also let them know there are other avenues within the industry where you can actually make a good income as well.”

As Belinda moves forward, performing at forums such as Amazing Woman’s Day and more recently on International Women’s Day as well as at the UN Women Canada event at CBC, Progress of the World’s Women, she highlights her commitment to humanitarian issues, including women’s empowerment.

“Well, I have to tell you that my life changed when I performed at Amazing Woman’s Day when I saw three hundred women standing up, crying and clapping and feeling so inspired. I thought, ‘This is the reason why my God wants me to do this. I need to be here on this earth to inspire people, and not just women. I am a vehicle, and as a vehicle I’m going to spread a positive message. I’m going to touch the soul.’ And I touched souls that day. I realized that is my path, that is my purpose, and that is my journey. So when I was invited by UN Women Canada to sing, I said ‘Absolutely, yes. I would love to be a part of your forum.’ I would love to serve my purpose — as a woman, as a messenger, and as a vehicle through song.”

And there’s no doubt that Belinda is definitely inspiring women to feel their own sense of power.

“I really feel that when I perform, I’m helping women feel empowered and know that they can do whatever they want to do. When it comes to the message I bring and the words I sing, I really want them to feel it. I want them to hear it. I want them to know that they can live it,” Belinda asserts. “I want to hit home for people and help them feel empowered and enlightened and know that they have the strength within to accomplish whatever dream they may have — whether that’s to be happy, whether it’s to find the right career, or whether it’s to live this life with contentment. My goal is to touch them so they can feel the light within.”

Yet, as many of us know, being in touch with that light is only part of the journey. Belinda offers some words of encouragement about pursuing your dreams and being yourself, no matter what.

“I think it all starts with self and I had to learn that,” she relates. “I went to self-development courses. I read A New Earth and The Power of Now (by Eckhart Tolle) and also Tony Robbins’ work. I hadn’t the confidence in myself to know that I could have this internal strength, that I could see the light and be enlightened as to what my purpose was on this earth. So it all starts in the core with finding the truth of who you are, accepting that truth, feeling joy, and moving on from the joy to executing what you truly want in this life.”

Listening to Belinda, one can’t help but feel her enthusiasm. She not only talks the talk but is determined to go the distance, expressing excitement about the new album she’s currently developing. “FACTOR (The Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings) is an agency that allows Canadian artists to pursue their dreams and they funded me. My project manager, Aisha Wickham Thomas, wrote a grant proposal, and we received a grant to do the album as well as to execute a marketing plan. So because of the funding assistance from this organization, I’m in the position to go into the studio to do a pop-electro album. It’s going to be really exciting because of all the positive things that are going to come out of it. I can’t wait to share it with the world. I really can’t.”

And just what are the themes that are moving Belinda’s music these days?

“I’m in a place where I don’t want to write about negativity,” Belinda states matter-of-factly. “I think this album’s direction should be about enlightenment and empowerment. It doesn’t matter through what type of music – it could be reggae, it could be folk – I’ve chosen pop-electro for this one. The message will be parallel in every song. It’s going to be positive and it’s going to be powerful. How do you feel within? It’s going to drive that light from inside. I’m so excited just talking about it. I’m going to be writing a lot this year, and that will be the common thread — positive music, positive lyrics.”

Belinda mentions a particular song she wrote, You’re So Amazing, that highlights her own state of mind as well as connects to the sense of inner power she wishes to evoke in her audience. “I was inspired by my mother who is my hero. To see how she’s gone through her challenges and her triumphs in life just inspired me to write this song. Here’s a few lines I wanted to share that a lot of women can relate to:

She’s a mother, a teacher, a healer too.

She’s not perfect, but she’s always true.

She’s a hero I see in you.

The higher she climbs, the further she soars . . .

“You see,” Belinda mentions, “the higher she climbs, the further she soars. That is the life of my mother. And a lot of women can absolutely relate to that. The higher you climb, the further you soar. Just don’t give up.”

Traveling her own path as a singer and songwriter, Belinda has chosen not to take the easy road to success, and giving up was never an option. Along the way, she’s recognized that to be truly clear about your purpose, a woman has to discover her authentic self.

“Go back to the core and really work on that,” Belinda emphasizes. “If it’s through inspirational books or inspirational tapes, if it’s by praying and giving total gratitude to a higher power, whoever your higher power is, you’ll find the answer. I promise you that. When we continually give gratitude for even the little opportunities in life, it will erase the fear. It will open the door to the light for us to understand our true self.”

And, as Belinda affirms,”We can then plan an enlightened life, an empowered life. That is the message.”

******
Find out more about the artist and her music at BelindaBrady.com
All photos used by permission.

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      When you give women power, you are assuring the progress of humanity.                         — Former Governor General of Canada Michaëlle Jean   

Almas Jiwani

Jumpstarting the progression of women’s rights throughout the world is no easy task. Gender equality is a cool and clinical term for a fundamental and essential right –- the right for women and girls worldwide to live free of discrimination, violence and poverty. Championing the challenge, UN Women has been in the forefront working throughout the world to secure women’s equality and empowerment.

The National Committee for UN Women Canada is an independent, non-governmental entity that supports the mission of UN Women. The organization is definitely making landmark strides in supporting the United Nations in its efforts, not only in Canada, but throughout the world. Almas Jiwani, President of UN Women Canada, exemplifies inspiration in action. A renowned humanitarian and enterprising entrepreneur, she is dedicated to the advancement of women’s rights at home and throughout the world.

As Almas relates, her resourcefulness and desire to serve a greater good developed early in her life. “I immigrated to Canada with my family in my early teens from Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We were leaving a region where political, humanitarian, and democratic institutions were collapsing. Arriving in Canada, we began rebuilding our lives, learning to navigate Canadian culture and practices and to integrate our own culture and faith.”

Almas also mentions that as newcomers and minorities, her family faced challenges but also experienced great opportunities. “At that time of my life, I realized that many communities in the developing world were apathetic towards women and did not allow them an environment for their social and intellectual growth. I also realized the importance of making a difference in the lives of the underprivileged, alleviating poverty, and uplifting women in society. This realization inspired me to begin volunteering with initiatives to promote women and advocate for their empowerment. I then became very involved with the Aga Khan Council for Canada with their various projects and portfolios. As a young teenager, facing the challenges of integrating into a new community, I made a commitment to do all in my capacity to ensure that women live as equals.”

Eventually, when Almas was making a presentation to community members in Vancouver, the president of a corporate company approached her and asked, Did you know that you have a hidden selling talent? “I felt offended, believe it or not, and he was actually trying to compliment me,” she remarks. “Then he called me a trooper—I didn’t know the meaning of the word trooper at the time—and introduced me to someone who was involved in a multimedia business. I remember being told, ‘You know what Almas, you will knock on ten doors—cold calls are extremely difficult—but eventually a door will open.’ I always remembered that message and use it in my speeches with regard to empowering women. Even if you’ve knocked on ten doors, don’t give up because the eleventh door may open for you.”

Still in all, Almas’ initial media endeavor didn’t last too long. “Being young, and having no clue . . . My dad passed away when I was eleven years old . . . I was like a one woman show. I had no idea who to talk to or who to confide in. I was doing everything on my own. It was a huge risk.” But being a risk-taker is Almas’ forte. She then ventured into international trading for a while until turning down her current road — President and CEO of Frontier Canada Inc., a corporate communications company.

Accomplished in both business and in the humanitarian field, Almas has also offered her volunteer efforts at the international level for the past nine years. “As I mentioned, I was involved with the Aga Khan Council and one of our mandates was to settle Afghan Ismaili refugees who were arriving in Canada and help the people integrate into the community and society. I was the national settlement vice chair. During the course of this, I had to attend a couple of government meetings and I guess people began to notice me. Eventually I was elected to be a member of the Board of Directors of UNIFEM Canada, and after several years, I undertook leadership in June 2009.”

Almas Jiwani and Michaëlle Jean

The efforts of both Almas and the Board has taken UN Women Canada into new territories, expanding their efforts to promote gender equality in more sections of Canada than at any other time in the organization’s eighteen year history. Almas especially notes that in 2010, a year after becoming president, she had the honor of presenting the prestigious UNIFEM CANADA Award to Her Excellency Michaëlle Jean during her term as Governor General of Canada . . . the ideal candidate because of her extensive involvement in advancing the issue of gender equality in various capacities around the world.

And just as Almas reorganized the National Committee in Canada, the United Nations also restructured its efforts to establish women’s rights around the globe by creating a new, overarching entity:  UN Women.

“UN Women — United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women — is charged with advancing gender equality,” Almas states. “It was established by a General Assembly Resolution in 2010, and became operational on January 1, 2011. We had our first official launch on February 24th in New York. Now, UN Women is operating under the auspices of Under-Secretary-General Michelle Bachelet (former President of Chile).”

As Almas notes, the creation of UN Women came about as part of the UN reform agenda. Its main objective is to connect resources and mandates for greater overall impact and to accelerate progress towards the goal of gender equality. This includes increasing women’s economic empowerment and leadership as well as bringing women to the center of peace and security issues. UN Women is the result of the cohesive merging of four previously distinct parts of the UN system:

  • Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW)
  • International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW)
  • Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI)
  • United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)

“UN Women’s work today builds on the strong foundation of these four parts and represents a movement to put gender equality on par with other development priorities,” Almas explains. “It represents a stronger voice for women in the United Nations and a greater advocate for larger financial investments to support gender equality initiatives. UN Women will serve as a dynamic and strong champion for women and girls and we will provide them with a powerful voice at the global, regional, and local levels.”

As one of UN Women’s independent, non-governmental National Committees, UN WOMEN CANADA (previously UNIFEM Canada), founded in 1993, is a volunteer-driven organization. As Almas explains, UN Women Canada’s key strategies of advocacy, awareness and fundraising are implemented through the following initiatives:

  • Executing advocacy and media campaigns
  • An annual Award Fundraising Gala
  • Collaborating with public education platforms
  • Public speaking opportunities
  • Building membership drives and campaigns
  • Partnering with private and public sector funding
  • A Youth Development Conference

“This year, we have hosted five successful launches in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Papineau, QC, and Winnipeg to raise awareness of UN Women, and more launches are planned,” Almas informs. “We are also putting together a prestigious black tie fundraising gala and a youth conference to engage and empower young Canadians in actions that will advance the gender equality mission. The bottom line is we want to raise awareness and ensure that everyone knows what UN Women is all about and what our goals are.”

One of these goals, women’s economic empowerment, is of primary importance to Almas. Without it, many women continuously face a vicious cycle. “Women bear a disproportionate burden of the world’s poverty,” Almas asserts. “Statistics indicate that women are more likely than men to be poor and at risk of hunger because of the systematic discrimination they face in education, health care, employment and control of assets. Poverty implications are widespread for women, leaving many without even basic rights such as access to clean drinking water, sanitation, medical care and decent employment. Being poor can also mean that they have little protection from violence and have no role, absolutely no role, in decision making.”

According to some estimates, women represent 70 percent of the world’s poor. They are often paid less than men for their work, with the average wage gap in 2008 being 17 percent. “Women face persistent discrimination,” Almas remarks, “not only in developing countries but also in the developed world when they apply for credit for business or self-employment. They are also often concentrated in insecure, unsafe and low-wage work.”

And just how does the present economic crisis affect women in the work arena? What special difficulties does it present?

“The current financial crisis is likely to affect women particularly severely,” Almas maintains. “In many developing countries where women work in export-led factories, or in countries where migrant women workers are the backbone of service industries, women’s jobs have taken the greatest hit. When there’s a recession, women are the first to be laid off.”

And the proof is in the statistics. In 2009, the International Labour Organization estimated that the economic downturn could lead to somewhere around 22 million more unemployed women, jeopardizing the gains made in the last few decades in women’s empowerment. In addition, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) forecasted that women’s unemployment would accelerate at a faster rate than men’s throughout 2010 as the crisis continued to affect female-dominated industries such as manufacturing and tourism.

So that leaves us with getting down to the basics: A fundamental ingredient to advancing women’s human rights and economic stability lay in obtaining monies for the endeavour, as well as initiating awareness that investing in women creates a win-win situation. “Financing for gender equality is more than just securing resources and funding for institutions such as national women’s organizations and gender equality projects,” Almas recognizes. “To accomplish sustainable and deep-rooted changes, financing for gender equality must recognize women as active economic agents that are central to a vibrant economy.”

Empowering women fuels thriving economies, spurring productivity and growth.

Almas explains that gender-responsive budgeting can make a huge difference in how governments allocate funds. “A budget is the most comprehensive statement of a government’s social and economic plans and priorities. In tracking where the money comes from and where it goes, budgets determine how public funds are raised, how they are used, and who benefits from them.”

Although women’s empowerment is the focus, Almas emphasizes that gender-responsive budgeting is not about creating separate budgets for women. “I believe a gender-responsive budget should recognize the ways which women contribute to society and the economy,” Almas adds, “including through their unpaid labor in bearing and rearing children and caring for the people in the country—that’s my perception. I also feel it’s important that people see the benefits that can be derived from supporting gender-based budgeting. Seeing the benefits will encourage further support.”

Yet, it appears the most lucrative changes will occur when those power brokers steering the world economy start practicing as well as implementing changes to purge a system beset by imbalance and corruption. Nothing short of corporate catharsis will do the trick. Those sitting on top of the economic stockpile need a dose of gender equity to help provide balance in how, where, and how much funds are allocated and if women’s rights are part of the picture.

To that end, Almas relates that when making a presentation at the World Bank, she was confronted with a question regarding the prevalence of corruption within governments worldwide. “I answered by saying, ‘Let me present a counter question: How many women are sitting on your Board making decisions?’ They were silent. ‘Zero . . . that’s the answer. You want to prevent corruption, have more women on the Board. Give them the power to influence the policies and you’ll see the difference.”

In addition to supporting gender-responsive budgeting initiatives, UN Women also works to strengthen women’s rights to land and inheritance. Almas describes the struggles women face when these rights are denied.

“In many countries around the world, women’s property rights are limited by social norms, customs and at times legislation,” Almas states, “hampering their economic status and opportunities to overcome poverty. Even in countries where women constitute the majority of small farmers and do more than 75 percent of the agricultural work, they are routinely denied the right to own the land they cultivate and which they are dependent upon to raise their families. Ownership of land and property empowers women and provides income and security. Without resources such as land, women have limited say in household decision-making, and no recourse to the assets during a crisis. This often relates to other vulnerabilities such as domestic violence, HIV and AIDS.”

In other words, in most countries in the world, property rights provide protection and security. Often denied these rights, women fall victim to rejection and destitution. “In regions of conflict, the impact of unequal land rights has particularly serious consequences for women — often the only survivors,” Almas notes. “In conflict and post-conflict situations, the number of women-headed households often increases sharply as many men have either been killed or are absent. Without their husbands, brothers or fathers — in whose name land and property titles are traditionally held — they find themselves denied access to their homes and fields by male family members, former in-laws or neighbors. Without the security of a home or income, women and their families fall into poverty traps and struggle for livelihoods, education, sanitation, health care, and other basic rights.”

International agreements already underscore the importance of women’s land and property rights. The Beijing Platform for Action affirms that women’s right to inheritance and ownership of land and property should be recognized. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has addressed it as well regarding rural women’s rights to equal treatment in land and agrarian reform processes. In addition, women’s property rights are essential to realizing the Millennium Development Goals, specifically the goals of eradicating extreme poverty and achieving gender equality.

Almas also describes how globalization has contributed to an increasing flow of migrant workers from countries with limited economic opportunities. Women migrant workers, whose numbers have been increasing, now constitute 50 percent or more of the migrant workforce in Asia and Latin America.

“By creating new economic opportunities, migration can promote economic independence and status for women workers, who are often sustaining communities at home,” Almas states. “Studies indicate that migrant women workers contribute to the development of both sending and receiving countries — remittances from their incomes account for as much as 10 percent of the GDP in some countries. In 2008, remittances were estimated by the World Bank at US $305 billion. These monetary investments — used for food, housing, education and medical services — along with newly acquired skills of returnees, can potentially contribute significantly to poverty reduction and the Millennium Development Goals.”

But migration is also a risky endeavor for women, many of whom end up at the lower end of the job market. “Female migrants often work as domestic workers and entertainers — a euphemism for sex workers — in unregulated informal sectors that do not fall under national labor laws,” Almas states. “Migrant women routinely lack access to social services and legal protection and are subjected to abuses such as harsh working and living conditions, low wages, illegal withholding of wages and premature termination of employment. The worst abuses force women into sexual slavery.”

For these reasons, UN Women focuses on promoting safe migration for women around the world. It works with governments and civil society to eliminate trafficking and establish laws that protect the human rights of women migrants as well as strengthen migrants’ organizations. Since due to economic stress, women are venturing all the more to obtain livelihoods in countries other than their own, national poverty reduction programs in their homeland, including the advancement of women’s rights and ability to procure a decent living would be actions well worth pursuing to remedy the problem.

So it appears that for lasting change to take hold concepts of women’s economic viability need to change. How are women’s equality and their economic empowerment connected to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals?

UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet visiting with the women of Panama

“The statistical data at the UN reveals that the majority of Millennium Development Goals such as literacy, alleviation of poverty, access to maternal health care, reduction of childhood mortality, environmental sustainability, and the eradication of HIV/ AIDS and Malaria are all inextricably tied to gender equality and women’s empowerment,” Almas declares. “I believe that the investment in gender equality is an essential characteristic of secure and efficient societies. Presently, women and girls make up more than half of the world’s population. Yet most women are discriminated against, mistreated and deprived of their basic human rights. For this reason, gender equality needs to be regarded as a moral imperative and an urgent priority in all regions. UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, consistently emphasizes the necessity for the empowerment of women. The notion of gender-based budgeting and investment in international development projects is no longer a concession but a compulsion.”

In addition, Almas emphasizes that in societies where women have equal access to economic assets, decent livelihoods and a voice in decision-making, the economies are stronger, maternal mortality rate drops, and child nutrition improves. “Therefore, gender equality lies at the core of this issue,” she stresses. “If we want to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, we need to mainstream gender equality in developing countries. Without accomplishing this on a global scale, we will continue to ignore the plight of almost half the world’s population.”

There also appears to be a direct link between women’s economic security and an individual country’s peace and security issues. “We can clearly notice that in countries where gender equality has been mainstreamed into economic, political, social, educational, and literary arenas, such as in the USA, UK, and Canada, the economic progress of those countries increased by significant margins. Also, case-studies that include Afghanistan, Iraq and Rwanda reveal that when women are empowered economically, the country’s economy and state structure flourish. Yet, we also can see that when war and insecurity plagues these countries, any reforms or gains toward gender equality deteriorates . . . and the abuse of women’s human rights increases immensely.”

With regard to post-conflict situations, Almas notes that in Rwanda, women now make up more than 70% of the Parliamentarians. In that climate, the status of women’s economic opportunities rose. “After the resolution of the Hutu-Tutsi tribal violence in Rwanda, the United Nations and the Rwandan Government worked together to ensure gender equality, and the proper representation of women. Thus, in this time of peace, we observe a significant presence of lucrative economic opportunities for women.”

Throughout all the losses and gains, women’s groups large and small have been coming to the fore around the world in amazing numbers. Almas takes a look at the phenomenon and its effect on the progression of women’s rights. “Years of advocacy by the global women’s movement have been instrumental in the creation of UN Women,” Almas recognizes. “Civil society, in particular women’s organizations, play a vital role in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment. Strong relationships between UN Women and partners from all over the world are crucial in working towards achieving these goals. So together, we can become a much stronger voice and make a more powerful impact.”

Almas refers to the current predominance of women’s rights groups flourishing around the world as a “ripple effect.” In many places, whether in the developing world such as in South or Central Asia, Africa and Latin America, or in the developed Western countries, the issues of gender equality and the progress being made in the realm of women’s rights has really struck a chord with most women.

“As a result, we have noticed exponential growth in women’s grassroots movements on the ground in the developing world,” Almas informs, “whether it’s regarding a battle for land rights, access to health-care, alleviation of poverty or a host of other social justice issues. And in the developed world, where we have overcome the core issues such as poverty and land rights, the women’s rights movement is more focused on parity between women and men in the workforce, women’s access to education, and eradicating the issues of domestic abuse . . . So I personally think that this rippling of women’s equality movements in large numbers is a positive sign. These movements also indicate that more and more women in contemporary society have the opportunity to mobilize together and champion their rights for equality.”

Throughout the years, whether volunteering or in her present sphere as President of UN Women Canada, Almas has found inspiration through her spiritual beliefs as an Ismaili Muslim, as well as from those prominent individuals who have influenced her work.

His Highness the Aga Khan

His Highness the Aga Khan

“I’ve gained much inspiration over the years from many individuals and entities that drive me forward and make me who I am as a leader,” Almas conveys. “Since my childhood, His Highness Aga Khan IV, the Ismaili spiritual leader and humanitarian, has been a huge inspirational source for me. His humanitarian ideals for empowering the underprivileged, educating women, and using civil society as a force for positive change and international development in order to foster an ‘enabling environment’ for those less fortunate is the catalyst that humbles and motivates me to serve the unprivileged women and girls of the world.”

Almas mentions other influential figures that have affected her leadership. “Emily Murphy of the Famous Five and the out-going Governor General of Canada, the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean are exemplary women that I have consistently looked up to for inspiration. These visionaries inspire me with the legacy of women’s equality present in their public service work.”

In addition, Almas also recognizes the Government of Canada and its consistent devotion to the cause of gender equality, as well as UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet and Outreach and Business Development Advisor, Mr. Antoine De Jong as important sources of encouragement. “When I see that our hard work, our time, and our knowledge is impacting and making a difference in the world, it just encourages and inspires me to do more. I want to be that drop in the ocean that makes a big difference.”

Certainly her contributions are worthy of admiration. Almas has brought her whole self to the task, including her spiritual beliefs, her culture, and a CAN DO philosophy that’s extraordinary in measure. In short, Almas Jiwani has recognized that uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction. Her fearless drive has served to motivate others in their own work toward women’s empowerment.

That personal stance is reflected in a quote from the poem, The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost which Almas finds especially meaningful.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less travelled by.

“I’m a firm believer in taking the road less travelled,” Almas conveys. “Many career women today face a number of obstacles while trying to shatter the glass ceiling. In lieu of these challenges, some women lose hope through the realization of there being no ‘easy’ way out. However, it is only through the trials and tribulations faced on the road not taken that my own inspiration and success has been nurtured. And so, I urge all women and young girls to also embark on this journey. As a result of an innovative and non-traditional approach to life, beset with challenges, I’ve become a stronger woman.”

Of that, we have no doubt.

A number of years ago in Nairobi, at an international business conference where she was a speaker, Almas addressed the audience with words which ring just as true today, embodying the spirit of her approach to life, business and the women’s movement.

“It turned out that I was the only Indian woman speaking at the conference,” Almas relates. “There were seven speakers and I was the last one. I listened to all the other presenters before me and when my time came to talk, I told the audience, I’ve decided I will not read my speech today. I will speak to you guys from my heart. I will tell you how I got myself where I am today — about my challenges and experiences, and with no background education in the field that I’m in. With no training, no guidance, and nobody to tell me what to do. Today, I am here because of perseverance . . because of this passion . . . because I want to make a difference. If I can do it, you guys can do it.’’

The story of her life is the story of her leadership.

Perhaps we can find our own strength by taking those words of encouragement to heart. For those of us questioning whether we have the power to act, we can stop wondering. Just take the plunge, as Almas did, and give it all you’ve got.

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All photos used by permission.

front cover.inddArticle written by Angelina Perri Birney, author of the blog, Powerful Women Changing the World, dedicated to women’s influence on world affairs. Angelina is also coauthor of the novel, PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation, available in print and as an eBook on Amazon, Amazon (Canada) Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple.


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