Rita not only founded Butterflies, but has been a faculty member in the Women’s Studies Unit, at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and was also the Founder Member of MASHAL. In 1990, Rita was appointed Consultant to UNICEF New York and Nigeria to assist on what is now known as Child Protection. From 1988-1992, Rita also served as the Director of the Board of ChildHope International. Rita was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1993 and has authored several books on children’s issues. She was also the Vice Chair of the Board of Family for Every Child.

The goal of Women’s History Month is to raise awareness and empower women by discovering, documenting and celebrating women's lives and achievements. What topics do you think should be highlighted for this month in 2022?

I think we should document the achievements of women in the marginalised communities who against all odds have been empowered to bring about change in their own lives and that of their families and communities. I think it’s worth celebrating, highlighting and documenting their achievements as these women often remain invisible while others get the glory. They often experience double the challenges due to lack of economic resources, political and cultural settings they live in. They are also frequently marginalised by their race, religion and in India due to caste. When we speak of women, I think we should highlight these courageous women who were able to overcome all these challenges. In the women’s movement, I always felt that the inequalities, injustices experienced by women are not necessarily the same for all class of women. The challenges and struggles are multi-fold for women who are on the margins of society. They have to challenge cultural and societal norms for the right to education, professional skills, economic independence and political rights at every step.

The theme for International Women’s Day 2022 was: “Break the bias – Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow. A world where differences are valued and celebrated”. How does this theme resonate with you in terms of your work and life experience in general? 

To me, what has resonated loud and clear in our work, is that when you give the space and support, women will be able to fight their own battles. We work with diverse communities from different religious groups. An example within the Muslim community was where the girls were going to Madrasas (religious schools) and we were able to dialogue with the parents over a period of time on the importance of girls coming to our learning centres. Then, slowly the girls were able to convince their parents that they would like to go to regular schools and many of them truly excelled academically and even went on to study in Delhi university. These girls are changing the narrative for their community and overcoming all challenges thrown their way – that’s what I think of in terms of breaking the bias. Many times, the only way out of generational disempowerment is education.

Education also opens up the communication within their families, giving them the space to negotiate for themselves.

Sustainability in itself is very complex. It means many things, one of them being the struggle experienced within patriarchal societies. To move forward, we need to democratise families. The man has to understand and recognise that sharing decision making power with all members of the family will result in positive bonding, respect and harmony in the family. This process has to begin with the family, with the fathers taking the initiative. From there, the community follows and slowly society as a whole. But it needs to start within the family. We need to reflect the way we bring up our own son and daughter. Some of the harmful social norms have to be questioned and addressed which perpetuates patriarchal values. The change begins with us; we have to be the change maker. It is for us women to recognise and claim our agency.

Sustainability also refers to the environment – the food, the clothes etc. As a woman, can I make choices as to what I eat or wear to not harm the environment? Can I repurpose my clothes and everyday articles I use? How can I make my life more sustainable for our environment? Can I make more sustainable buying choices, my life style, my mode of transport, conservation of water and fuel, use articles/products that are re-usable? As women we can make a difference.

As a woman in International Development, what are some of the most significant barriers you have had to overcome? 

I would say I only experienced this in the very beginning of my career. At the organisation I worked at, I realised the boss would get threatened by my ideas and suggestions and therefore would not include me in senior management and Board meetings, or make a presentation to them. He would prevent me from going to meetings with higher-ups in the organisation. As he felt it should be he, who should present a new idea or thrust of a programme. The belief was that as a woman I should only do as I was told. However, this only happened at the very beginning of my career. After that, I chose the organisations more carefully, e.g. how many women in leadership they employed. I wanted to be in a space where I was encouraged to be creative, build on ideas and be respected for my professional work. Another key reason this never happened again was that I learnt to negotiate. I had discussions with the organisation and understood what is expected; I then developed a viable, feasible proposal in their strategic area of work, which was women’s empowerment. My proposal was, “How can we initiate women’s collectives of local businesses/enterprises to economically empower marginalised women”.This proved to be helpful as my supervisor was in sync with the contours of the programme and what my key responsibilities and expected deliverables were. As a person I respect authority, I have no issues with supervision, open to critique of one’s work, to new ideas.

You have to learn to negotiate. Be a good listener, understand the core vision and mission of the organisation, so that what you propose is in alignment with the organisation’s work. You learn to say what you want to say by including others in the discussion, so that there is a consensus or support and include other thoughts and ideas to the discussion you initiated. Communication is key. Furthermore, you should be a learner, keep yourself abreast with the latest concepts in the social development field.

What can we do to empower more women to come to the forefront and lead the change? 

I think it’s important that women remember that they do not have to imitate a male leader. You can be a leader and yet keep your core value as a woman – empathy, sensitivity and multi-tasking! We need to think of how we can be different to male leaders. We need to bring our core women’s instincts to leadership and utilise them to empower others.

So, women need the space to grow, make mistakes and learn from them – we need to give them that space. Women, and men for that matter, need to accept their mistakes as an opportunity to learn, not a failure. The willingness to learn and accepting you don’t know everything doesn’t take away from you, your leadership. A key leadership quality is listening to what others have to say and learning from them.

There are many opportunities to develop leadership skills. You can lead in your own community, your own space and take a stance. Have the courage to put your position across in a way that isn’t offensive while not minimising what you are trying to say.

Do you think women in International Development still experience bias today?

Not as much anymore, in the UN you find many leaders who are women. Yet, I believe it was a major struggle for them to get into that position, they oftentimes had to work double as hard to get there compared to their male colleagues. Unless we can take on risks such as working in conflict zones, we will always be pushed behind. So I don’t think there’s as much of a bias anymore, it has massively improved in the last two decades, at least in the UN.

However, I sometimes feel the International Development sector is being gendered. Sometimes, it seems like men prefer working in the corporate, technological world to this sector, where we work with topics such as poverty, women and children, misery, marginalisation and more. I don’t know if this is the consensus, if it really is seen as a gendered profession, and I may also be wrong - I’d love to see a study on this topic.

What changes, if any, have you seen in the sector over the years? Positive or negative? 

If you look at the community level, you find that women take on more of the leadership role when it comes to nutrition, health, children etc. At the same level, when you look at the men they are found more in political leadership. You will not find many men working in early education or childcare. Why have we not been able to change that narrative? There’s much more work to be done.

What should the future look like for equality for women? 

We need to work at all levels. Beginning with the family itself – how do we give women agency within this environment. We need to think about how we raise our sons – as women, we play a role in defining a notion of masculinity to our boys. We need to break the narrative of boys needing to be strong and not show emotions. Boys are much less likely to speak about sexual abuse out of fear of not being believed or being told they were weak for letting it happen. We as women need to redefine the concept of masculinity for our sons. Those changes are in our hands, we need to make a beginning, we have to change first.

Teachers and schools also play a key role in this. We need to sensitise and educate teachers to display those values. That’s where the child is growing up so that’s where we will see the changes, a generational transformation. The future has to start in the family and community.

We also should look at media – it reemphasises these gender roles and needs to be tackled. This includes the entertainment industry – movies, songs, etc. Advertisement – who models what, why does a woman need to model kitchen equipment? And all other communication channels such as social media. International development is connected across all those sectors; we need to change the narrative across all areas. It’s a long road.

What advice would you give to young girls who want to get involved in International Development in the future?

I would say that you must go for it. If you want to make the change, you are in the position to do so. Go for it, you can look at programs in a more neutral sense – it is not ‘for men’ or ‘for women’. The change takes place in the development sector. It’s where we work towards transforming societies, it’s hence important to have women in the sector. It’s key to join the international development agencies to move forward – we cannot just talk about change without being instruments of change ourselves.


A huge thank you to Rita for taking the time to sit down with us to share her thoughts and experiences in the light of Women's History Month.