Marie Claire Malaysia sat down with the formidable Anupama Rao Singh, the former Unicef Regional Director for East Asia and Pacific, to talk about her experiences and the knowledge she’s gained from over 30 years with Unicef.
Anupama has been instrumental in her work with children, especially in looking at how global crises affect children, family welfare and wellbeing. As a UNICEF EAPRO Regional Director, Anupama has addressed the impact of the global financial crisis and the amplifying effects of the food and fuel price crises on children and families.
She led Unicef’s East Asia & Pacific Regional Office in organising the Economic Crisis Conference in 2009 together with the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
It’s not so much what issues children face, as much as what values UNICEF can bring to address those issues that changes significantly. The issues that remain common, I think, are the facts of disparities; there are always pockets of poor, vulnerable kids, where the disparities come for a number of reasons. Then despite economic status, depending on which part of the world you’re in, countries are still very susceptible and vulnerable to natural disasters and therefore, how do you help countries build the capacity for disaster risk, preparedness, prevention and mitigation once disaster strikes? And I would say protection issues for children – sexual abuse, neglect – know no income boundaries, and issues with domestic violence or violence against children are equally prevalent.
The Convention of the Rights of the Child has truly transformed the way children are looked at: it’s an international instrument that has been ratified by the largest number of countries worldwide. Children are no longer objects of welfare, but are seen as individuals with inalienable rights, whose rights are not automatically fulfilled by fulfilling the right of the adults in their family.
Reacting to the current economic crisis, I think UNICEF has been able to build a case that investment in a country’s social services actually helps create jobs at a time where the economy goes down, because you need more workers and more teachers if you want to build more schools, depending on what you want to do. Through educating people, you create the building blocks for more purchasing power to evolve between the countries themselves and therefore more national demand for services and goods. Most of the countries here, which are very dependent on exports or tourism, can diversify their economy and therefore their future growth becomes less vulnerable to external shocks, and develops the potential to be more resolute.
What UNICEF wishes to see is an improvement in women’s effective access to reproductive health services – the control over their bodies to decide when and how many children they will have. It is the root of many of the subsequent health issues of maternal mortality rates, and again, it’s linked to reproductive rights and to what extent a woman has control over her body.
In terms of gender in the Asia Pacific, we could say that a significant improvement is needed in the level of women in decision-making powers. If you look at it in terms of senior government, cabinets, and parliaments: we’re way, way below what is considered to be the international standard. Interestingly, it’s not because people are not competent to do it, because even at higher education level, you don’t see that much disparity, but when it comes to real decision-making in politics, we have a long way to go. And on reproductive health issues and reproductive health rights on the gender dimension, we have a long way to go – but it’s pretty good on the other dimensions.
For women, the empowerment to make their own decisions does come largely from economic self-reliance. If you are economically dependent on somebody else, you don’t have a job, you don’t have an independent bank account, you don’t have an independent income, and you are dependent either on your parents, or your brother, or your husband, the chances that you can strike out on your own in terms of other aspects reduces trust. Economic self-reliance: it’s a very necessary – and certainly, important – element of empowerment.
Every part of my career has been exhilarating, but I would say my time in Iraq has been the most challenging. I was there before the 2003 invasion when Saddam Hussein was still in power, and the country was under full sanctions, which was very, very difficult for many of us to understand. Our heads understood why the sanctions were in place, but our hearts knew and we were able to see from the evidence the horrible and drastic effects of the sanctions. They wiped out the middle class; you had university professors who drove their cars as taxis in the evening, hoping to get some extra cash.
The formulation of policies has to be followed with the investment of resources to have programmes in place, and to implement the policies. It’s not just resources – you have to invest a lot in changing the attitudes and behaviour not only of the people who are responsible for delivery of services, but also parents and community members. I would say that perhaps the most challenging element is in bringing about the changing of mindsets.
I would like the gender situation to improve across the whole Asia Pacific region, in much more of an equity lens of whatever is done in terms of development, just to arrest and – hopefully – narrow disparity, and also contribute to social cohesion.
I look back in satisfaction at my work in the Asia Pacific region because it’s so dynamic. I think UNICEF this year is very different to what it was in the past, or to other parts of the world, because it’s been a very solid, soul-searching process – that’s to say, we can actually add value to the ideas, the resources, and the capacities that are already available in these countries. I think I have been challenged, but I like challenges – and of all the things, I think that my mind is the strongest asset, as it were.
Text: Renyi Lim
Transcribed by: Liyana Shazreen
Image: Courtesy of UNICEF