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Originally published on ADB Avenue, 6 March 2017

Unsung gender equality heroes: Irum Ahsan

In celebration of Gender Month, we are honoring Asian Development Bank (ADB)s


unsung gender equality heroes. Through their work, they have proven that anyone can
advocate for gender equality, even without a formal title. Office of the General Counsel
(OGC)'s Irum Ahsan discusses why gender equality is her passion, as well as her work on
legal literacy for women.

Why do you advocate for gender equality in your work? Why does it matter
to you personally?

I come from a country where gender equality is a great challenge. Although it is a


challenge in many places, it is particularly so in my country because religion has been
used as a tool to legitimize several barbaric actions by
the feudal society. Prior to joining ADB, I assisted my
firm in preparing a human rights petition against the
custom of swara in Pakistan (a custom where
women/girls are given as compensation for murder
committed by a male family member). The Supreme
Court banned the custom and ordered the release of
women who were kept as swaras. The turning point in
my life was the moment when I saw an 80-year-
old swara woman kissing one of the lawyers forehead
for her release and when she told with teary eyes that
she was given as swara at the age of 11.

Being an educated and privileged woman, I cannot justify my existence unless I can
do something for women who are not as privileged as me. Therefore, raising my voice
for gender equality comes straight from my heart I neither consider it a job or an
obligation but just something I must do!

How do you go about doing this in your work?

I am a public sector lawyer at ADB and my work involves providing legal support for
ADB-funded projects and to manage law and policy reform projects. I am also a
strong advocate for gender equality through legal literacy. To start with, I try to sign
up for projects across different countries and in diverse sectors with potential
benefits for women. This gives me an opportunity to actively pursue work on gender
mainstreaming, I also try to draft strong gender covenants ensuring that gender action
plan is implemented effectively. With my passion weighing stronger, I also provide
gender-related design inputs most of the time to the project team. This is always in
addition to my core responsibilities but, like I said, when your passion is part of your
work, it never feels like extra work.

I have recently secured funding to process a gender equity technical assistance (TA)
project in difficult terrains like Afghanistan and
Pakistan under which we have a two-pronged
approach to tackle the issue. One is to build
capacity of service providers (who provide
services to women) on gender sensitization and
legal issues. These include police, magistrates,
judges, mediators, media, etc. Our efforts focus
on providing confidence building and legal
procedures training to women.

We also focus on men, boys, and religious


scholars and educate them by using historic text from Quran and sayings of the
Prophet which are extremely pro-women. We hope that this will help us in bringing
the mindset change in a structured manner. Second, we are working on a positive
media campaign to highlight success stories of underprivileged women through short
movies, songs, puppet shows, picture books, etc. These will be used as empowerment
and training tools for women.

What challenges do you face? Can you give us an example of a successful


advocacy on your part to get gender integrated into a project
notwithstanding the difficulties?

We all know that gender equity is a problem both at the institution level and in
projects yet this issue always seems to be at the back burner
and the challenges continue. Be it convincing a project leader to
include a powerful gender covenant in the loan/grant agreement
or finding funds to do a gender project.

I would like to share how hard it was for me to start the TA for
legal literacy for women. Gender Equity Thematic Groups
Imrana Jalal reached out to me for doing a TA in Islamic
countries and I instantly jumped at the idea. We prepared a
concept which was appreciated by everyone and yet when we
requested for support and funds, we were not successful. We
then went to see a few gender champions in the bank for
seeking their advice on what was wrong with our proposal. We
were told that we are not going to succeed if we use empowerment and women in
the TA title (previously title of the TA was Legal empowerment of women). We then
softened the proposal and named it Legal Literacy for women. This time, it got much-
needed support but still no funding. Finally I went to OGCs management. They have
extremely low budget for law and policy reform work and yet they instantly gave me
some funds to initiate the project with full support. It took me 3 plus years to put
together a TA and find funds for a much needed cause.

For the first time in 7 years we will be unlikely to meet our 45%-at-entry
gender mainstreaming in operations target in 2016. What is your view about
this?

I strongly believe that unless we change the way people think, the problem cannot be
solved. At ADB, there are multiple schools of thought. Some believe that women
cannot be good professionals due to their family obligations; some think women
should only be hired if they are highly qualified, extremely smart, and not too
confident (which is not the criteria to hire a man); some think that they should be
preferred at all costs. Given the gender disparity in ADB, unless we start believing that
temporary measures are absolutely required to prefer women over male candidates,
this problem will not be resolved. As a trend we are also witnessing women continue
to exit the work force despite all the past efforts. This trend, if not dealt with head-on,
will further complicate the situation. Efforts are needed at all fronts on a war-footing:
Hiring more qualified women, retaining women, guiding existing staff on promotion
opportunities and training them for skills gap, analyzing the reasons why qualified
women leave, as well as making sure more women reach management positions. This
is 2017 after all. Time for stronger action to match our words.

Any other comments?

Thank you for the recognition. If I can leave behind one parting thought for the
readers, I would like to quote Maya Angelou, .equal rights, fair play, justice are all
like the air: we all have it, or none of us has it. That is the truth of it.

Irum Ahsan is Senior Counsel, OGC, ADB

Learn more about how ADB supports gender and development.