Outgoing UNFPA Representative Ritsu Nacken¬†
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative Ritsu Nacken who recently completed her stint says Sri Lanka has made significant achievements in terms of overall health indicators but opined nutrition indicators continue to lag behind.¬†
In an interview with the Daily FT, she emphasises the importance of designing holistic, inclusive, comprehensive and agile solutions and more importantly, solutions that bring everyone together to achieve a common goal in terms of social and gender or harmful social issues.
‚ÄúWith the high-level capacity and potential of the country, Sri Lanka can indeed envision being one of the top countries not only in the South Asia region, but in the Asia and the Pacific region and beyond,‚ÄĚ she says.¬†
Nacken also believes that Sri Lanka needs to foster an environment where women leaders can come to the forefront, be able to exercise their leadership capacity, and tackle challenging situations such as this ongoing pandemic.
Noting that Sri Lanka has yet to embrace the idea of diversity in unity, she says it is important for the country to work on peace and security for sustainable development. Whilst tracing some of the key achievements and initiatives during her tenure, Nacken also shares her insights to what more Sri Lanka should do to address challenges in strengthening the access to sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence services.
Her exit from Sri Lanka also coincides with Nacken leaving the UNFPA after seven and a half years. ‚ÄúI am moving back to my home country Japan to join UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. I am excited about this new opportunity, and know everything I have learned in the past 4.5 years in Sri Lanka will be useful for me both personally and professionally,‚ÄĚ recalls Nacken. Here are excerpts:
Q: You completed a relatively long tenure in Sri Lanka. Can you highlight some of the most impactful initiatives completed during your stint?
I remember I was so excited to arrive in Sri Lanka as a first-time Country Representative and it‚Äôs been an amazing 4.5 years with so many fond memories of great milestones achieved as a team. One of the most impactful initiatives I can recall was our campaign to raise awareness on the prevalence of sexual harassment in public transport ‚Äď something we did in partnership with the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC). This campaign stemmed from a UNFPA-commissioned study which found that 90% of women and girls have endured sexual harassment at least once in their lifetime on public buses and trains, with only 4% reporting it to the police.¬†
Using this campaign as a springboard, we continued our policy advocacy efforts to end gender-based violence. With funding from the Government of Canada, we were then able to complete the first-ever gender-based violence (GBV) prevalence study ‚Äď (findings of this study will be coming out this year). We also partnered with the Colombo Fashion Week and designer/fashion label Amilani Perera to further raise awareness on this, using fashion as a platform of advocacy. This is an area that is very close to me as I believe that even one woman suffering from GBV is one too many.
Sri Lanka has made significant achievements in terms of overall health indicators. However, nutrition indicators continue to lag behind. Evidence demonstrates that better nourished girls are more likely to stay in school. If women and young people are also provided with comprehensive knowledge and access to services on sexual and reproductive health (SRH), they will be better informed to adopt healthy lifestyles and protect themselves from human rights violations such as GBV. So in 2018, UNFPA partnered with the World Food Program (WFP) in Sri Lanka, and we worked with the Ministry of Health to support 8,000 women and adolescents in six districts to improve access to information and services on SRH, nutrition and food security.
I visited Thanamalwila, one of the project sites, with the former WFP Representative in Sri Lanka. I was moved when I met several families who told us how much they have benefitted not just from the tangible support related to nutrition and reproductive health, but also due to opportunities to openly discuss roles played by women and men. The project demonstrated beautifully the inter-linkages of various issues ‚Äď nutrition, sexual and reproductive health and gender equality.¬†
That same year I remember UNFPA hosted a series of policy dialogues titled ‚ÄėAgeing Without Limits: Enhancing Policies. Maximising Potentials‚Äô to mark International Day of Older Persons. This was an interesting series as we brought in policymakers from the¬†Government and Academia and also experts from Malaysia and even my home country Japan, to share experiences on how countries can reap the benefits of the second demographic¬†dividend.¬†
As Sri Lanka‚Äôs population is rapidly ageing, it is very important to raise awareness of this population transition. I believe our collaboration with the University of Colombo has been very fruitful on this particular issue. Looking back, there have been so many wonderful moments but these are a few that come to mind now.¬†
Q:¬†During your time here, SL has faced quite a few emergencies (Aranayake landslide, floods, Easter attacks, COVID-19). What role has UNFPFA played in responding to these crises?¬†
You mentioned the Easter attacks; what an absolute tragedy. But it made us realise once again how important it is to work on peace and security for sustainable development of the country. The UN and other development partners have been supporting the Government of Sri Lanka to make progress on peace and reconciliation for many years. Yet, these attacks made it clear that there‚Äôs more we must do. The country has yet to embrace the idea of diversity in unity in my view. Right after the attacks, besides providing support to refugee women and children in partnership with UNHCR, we stepped up our efforts to help young people enhance their potential and role in peace-building ‚Äď an important area UNFPA works on, both locally and globally.¬†
When it comes to emergency contexts, be it a natural disaster or a public health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, women and girls and older persons are often the most left behind. Their needs and wants are very unique and so often the standard response plans don‚Äôt necessarily address their specific needs. For example, pregnant women risk facing life-threatening complications without access to delivery and emergency obstetric care services. Women and girls may lose access to family planning services, exposing them to unplanned pregnancies while facing elevated risks to violence, exploitation and HIV infections.
In situations like this, world-over, UNFPA is the go-to agency to provide emergency support services to women and girls through what we call a ‚ÄėDignity Kit‚Äô. Dignity Kits help women and girls maintain proper hygiene after being displaced and are a critical component of UNFPA‚Äôs humanitarian response. In disaster-prone countries, we maintain a stock of kits so we are ready, should a disaster strike. The basic kit contains 10 key essential supplies such as underwear, menstrual pads, toothpaste and toothbrush, soap, flashlight, whistle, etc., but we customise them based on the local need. We even adapt it to suit other vulnerable groups such as transgender women, older people, and people with disabilities.¬†
In 2020, UNFPA Sri Lanka distributed over 11,000 prepositioned hygiene/dignity kits along with maternity kits. Beyond this, we also worked around the clock to ensure that shelters that are run by our partners such as Women in Need, Women‚Äôs Development Centre and Jaffna Social Action Centre are adequately resourced and operational, so they can continue to provide a safe haven for women and girls experiencing violence in the midst of this pandemic.¬†
I am happy to note though, that over the years, our Government counterparts and other partners have been paying more attention to the unique needs that women and girls face during emergencies. This shows their understanding and willingness to integrate SRH and GBV-related perspectives in emergency preparedness and responses. I think this is a major achievement for women and girls in Sri Lanka.
Q:¬†We have seen and heard many examples of how globally, women leaders‚Äô approach to responding to COVID-19 has been far more impactful. Any thoughts on this?
This is an interesting question, and certainly we have clear evidence that shows, where OECD member states are concerned, women leaders have been more effective in handling the pandemic response at least in the first year or so. In my view, it is true that the characteristics that are most often associated with female leaders (e.g. adaptability, collaboration, empathy, inclusiveness, multi-tasking, etc.) play an important role in effectively managing the pandemic. This means that male leaders with these ‚Äėfeminine‚Äô characteristics could be performing well in the current context.
I would like to bring in two perspectives based on research. First is the research by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, which revealed that women score higher than men in most leadership skills based on an analysis of thousands of 360-degree assessments. If this is the case, we can presume that the COVID-19 pandemic offered an easy-to-measure context to assess effectiveness of the world leaders, where female leaders demonstrated their competence, as it would have been also the case in a non-pandemic context.
Interestingly, another study by the University of Nevada shows that it is not so much the gender of the leaders, but the culture of the country that determines the effectiveness of the pandemic response. In their research, countries with more egalitarian societies ‚Äď which naturally means have less of a gender gap and a greater likelihood of having a female Head of State ‚Äď tend to do better during crises. This makes sense to me because we need to look at this issue from a systems perspective.¬†
If a society embraces values such as gender equality and has a short power distance between the rich and the poor, for example, it means that ‚Äėleaving no one behind‚Äô and working towards the best interests of the collective would be a more widely accepted approach. This would help control the spread of the virus because people would tend to think not only of one‚Äôs own safety, but everyone else‚Äôs safety.
In short, I believe that we need to foster an environment where women leaders can come to the forefront, be able to exercise their leadership capacity, and tackle challenging situations such as this ongoing pandemic. Across the board, we have too few female leaders, not just as the Head of State but at different decision-making levels, in a world where we all know this pandemic will not be the last one we face.
Q:¬†Going forward, what more should Sri Lanka do to address challenges in strengthening the access to sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence services?
¬†Life as we know it has completely changed with COVID-19. As countries race to respond and recover from this pandemic, it also presents an opportunity to rethink how we want to move ahead to achieve our collective vision of a sustainable tomorrow. This is the time ‚Äď when everything is in reset mode ‚Äď to undertake this task of analysing the mistakes of the past to do better and differently for the future.¬†
Going forward, it is important to design holistic, comprehensive and agile solutions, and more importantly, solutions that bring everyone together to achieve a common goal. For example, achieving zero maternal deaths cannot just be the effort of the health sector as it also has economic, social and other implications. Most maternal deaths are in fact preventable, but what women lack is access to high quality and tailored care in pregnancy, and during and after childbirth, and other essential support services that go beyond just the medical sphere.¬†
I also believe that more needs to be done to seriously address the issues that harmful social and gender norms can have on the life of a girl child. UNFPA, and many other organisations, have been focusing a lot on policy change to improve access to SRH/GBV information and services for women and girls. This will certainly continue because laws and policies are an important part of the value systems of a society, and can prevent/respond to hardships that people are/will be facing, if implemented properly.¬†
However, in order for these policies to be more effective, there also needs to be a shift in the way communities perceive and behave based on social and gender norms. For example, there is a taboo around menstruation in many societies including Sri Lanka, which prevents women and girls from fulfilling their potential. Addressing a taboo topic like this is often considered as disrespecting traditions and cultures. But in fact, traditions and cultures are always evolving ‚Äď shifting along with the needs and interests of people and the broader socio-economic environment.¬†
Sri Lanka has come a long way, but we can all do more in challenging these harmful social norms if we are to achieve higher level ambitions. With the high-level capacity and potential of the country, Sri Lanka can indeed envision being one of the top countries not only in the South Asia region, but in the Asia and the Pacific region and beyond.¬†
Q:¬†Sri Lanka is your sixth duty station while you worked in the UN system. What did you find special about Sri Lanka? Any particular new learning you gained during your tenure?
¬†Sri Lanka‚Äôs post-conflict context is very special to me ‚Äď yes, it has come a long way since the end of the near-three-decade conflict, and yet it is still in the process of fully recovering from the conflict, which ended only 12 years ago. I sense that there is a strong need for continuous healing across society and communities. The country is yet to take full advantage of the values and strengths that diversity can bring into society.
Another aspect is the country‚Äôs relationship with the United Nations. In Sri Lanka, due to misunderstandings about the UN, I found that the relationship was not always seen in a positive light, and this was something new and challenging to me. It is not well understood that Sri Lanka is part of the UN, as one of the member states, and made significant contributions to multilateralism through the UN fora in the early days of the UN‚Äôs establishment.¬†
The recent publication by George Cooke, ‚ÄėSri Lanka and the United Nations ‚Äď Relations with the UN General Assembly‚Äô, presents these contributions in a comprehensive manner. Nonetheless, UNFPA and the rest of the UN agencies, continue to support Sri Lanka in every way we can, because ultimately, we are here to serve the people of Sri Lanka and ensure no one is left behind.¬†
In terms of learning, I would say, it‚Äôs the experience in tackling the so-called last mile challenges. For example, if we take maternal mortality ratio (MMR), going from 30/100,000 live births to zero/100,000 is harder to achieve than going from 500/100,00 to 50/100.000. To ensure zero MMR, we cannot use the same approach that we have been taking so far, but instead, we need a different mindset and must adopt innovative approaches. I am confident that the country has the aim and the potential to ‚Äėzero‚Äô down on maternal deaths and many other health indicators.¬†
At a more personal level, my biggest learning has been the concept and practice of trust. Before I arrived in Sri Lanka, trust was a somewhat simple and easy idea for me. Through the last 4.5 years here, I learned how complex trust actually is, how elusive it can be, and how differently people consider and practice trust. It was not an easy journey to finally reconstruct the concept of trust in my mind, but this learning will have a lasting impact on my life.
Q:¬†What‚Äôs next for you? and what will you miss the most from Sri Lanka?
¬†Very sadly, I am not just leaving Sri Lanka but also leaving UNFPA after 7.5 years. I am moving back to my home country Japan to join UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. I am excited about this new opportunity, and know everything I have learned in the past 4.5 years in Sri Lanka will be useful for me both personally and professionally.¬†
My family and I will miss so much from Sri Lanka ‚Äď the delicious Sri Lankan curries, beautiful nature, and the wonderful friendships we have developed over time. One of the most remarkable memories I have is when I visited Anuradhapura ‚Äď what an incredibly powerful feeling as I walked around Jetavanaramaya in the gorgeous evening light. I could feel the power of something beyond us, something profoundly beautiful and spiritual.¬†
I will forever cherish this and all the other wonderful moments from Sri Lanka. While I am sad to leave, I am confident that I leave behind a strong, dynamic and passionate team who I know will continue to carry on our important work for the most vulnerable in Sri Lanka. Sayonara Sri Lanka, until we meet again!