Spotlight on Women & Foreign Policy with Kavita Ramdas

March 8, 2017   Reading Time: 12 minutes

Reading Time: 12 min read

Image Credit – Courtesy of Kavita Ramdas

To mark International Women’s Day, LKI sought out Kavita Ramdas, the former President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, to hear her views on women and foreign policy. The interview was conducted by LKI Research Associate, Rapti Ratnayake, and is part of LKI’s Spotlight Series, which features interviews with experts around the world on contemporary international relations.

Ms. Ramdas is currently an independent philanthropic adviser and consultant, and the founder of KNR Sisters. Prior to this, she worked at the Ford Foundation, both as the senior adviser to Ford’s President, Darren Walker, and as its representative in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

From 1996 to 2010, Ms. Ramdas headed the Global Fund for Women. Under her leadership, the fund’s assets more than tripled, giving women in more than 170 countries access to capital and broadening their financial opportunities. The Global Fund for Women is now the largest grant-making foundation focused exclusively on women’s rights.

Ms. Ramdas is a graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, where she completed a master’s degree in Public Affairs with a focus on International Development. She received her bachelor’s degree in Politics and International Relations from Mount Holyoke College in the United States.

See below for a lightly edited transcript of the interview.

Ms. Ratnayake: Kavita, you have been a prominent figure in protecting and promoting women’s human rights. You served as Ford Foundation’s representative in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and also drove much of the success of the Global Fund for Women. The Global Fund for Women is now one of the world’s largest organisations focusing solely on women’s rights and has provided assistance in over 170 countries.

To begin with a more personal question, what motivated you to work in the field of women’s rights?

Kavita Ramdas: I was drawn to this issue at a very early age. I’m the eldest of 3 sisters and grew up in a country where people would tell my parents that it was a pity they did not have a son. There was this constant feeling of not being enough – a ‘less than’ sign on our foreheads so to speak. I think that in early conversations with both my parents, and also through watching their reactions to those comments, they always responded to it by saying they did not feel as though they were missing anything.

My father would think that ‘any of my daughters was better than any of your sons’. Oh great Dad, no pressure… I think that I was very curious about the ways gender inequality was constructed – within the family, our immediate extended family and in the surroundings around us. In my family, my parents seemed to be absolutely committed to trying to overcome what was otherwise a sort of accepted state of affairs in the rest of society. So I think that probably set the earliest roots.

This was later enforced by spending time at a women’s college. I was a junior transfer to Mount Holyoke College in 1983. I think being surrounded by very strong, very capable and very confident women, doing everything from running the school newspaper to being President of the College, gave me a very strong sense that a different world was possible and it was in front of my eyes. This I would like to see not just in one institution, but in the world as a whole.

Ms. Ratnayake: Thank you for sharing that. You touched on many of these issues in your Ted Talk titled ‘Radical Women, Embracing Tradition.’ In the talk, you mentioned that you met a Filipino activist who said, and I quote, ‘How do you cook a rice cake? With heat from the bottom and heat from the top.’

You then went on to say that the protests and marches in defence of women’s rights are the heat from the bottom . You compared this to the influences of Malcolm X, the suffragists and gay pride parades. This is a pertinent point in light of the recent women’s rights marches that have been taking place across the world. However, you did also mention that you need heat from the top , and that in most parts of the world that the top is still controlled by men. So, the next question I’d like to ask you is this:

In what ways do you think we can increase the number of women in national decision-making and leadership positions? More specifically, what you think needs to be done to increase the number of female leaders in the area of foreign policy?

Kavita Ramdas: You have indicated this incredibly important need, and there are a couple of ways in which we can begin to make and shift the participation level of women at the highest levels of decision-making. I think that because everything is controlled by men, for the most part, what is required is the ability to be very effective at converting some of those key players – who will most likely be men in higher positions – to being active supporters, advocates, and activists for gender equality.

This is the strategy that many of us in the movement believe we need to be working on. It’s incredibly important that we find ways in which to ally with men who strongly see themselves as feminists. An encouraging point is the increased presence of male feminists who are part of the women’s marches, who are part of our struggles, and who certainly may find themselves in positions of power where they can work to bring more women into higher positions. By that I mean, men in positions of power in the private sector. For instance, there is a push in European countries stating that they need 30-40% of women in boardrooms, on the board of directors, in public and private companies.

In the case of political power, there needs to be a very clear commitment. I know there’s huge resistance to the idea of “quotas” but pushing to set aside a number based on gender is actually a very powerful way to change people’s understanding. Part of the reason people do not even think about a woman in power is because people have never had the experience of seeing a woman in that position. India has a very good example of having used quotas successfully in the context of village panchayats or the village councils. Once women get a chance to be in higher positions as a result of quotas, then they can begin to be elected in their own right. This is similar in places like Rwanda, where women have over 60% of the elected legislature.

With regard to the question of foreign policy, it’s not that different. Foreign policy has been dominated by an apparatus that I would call a military-security apparatus. This has made it much more challenging for women to be inside that space because the people who are looked at as foreign policy experts are also intimately tied up with security concerns, security assessments, and security backgrounds.

The minute the military-security focus begins to change to more of a trade and a development focus, you will have a chance of moving women into foreign policy spaces. Much of that change will depend on being able to push forward and legislate and also to influence key players who are currently in those spaces. This would bring forward the varied perspectives of women into those decision-making structures. This is something that women will have to push and advocate for. Women need to be able to have the kinds of backgrounds and education that position them well to step into those places.

Ms. Ratnayake: I would just like to take this point further. You did touch on this before when you mentioned militaries and security, but unfortunately women have not been in commanding positions within the military. In turn, they are absent from discussions and debates on critical security issues.

How do you suggest we increase the number of women as members of the military in the ranks of security, and within discussions on security issues?

Kavita Ramdas: Well, I must confess I have very mixed feelings about this. I think the world absolutely needs to move away from militarism and move away from the mentality that what we need are more militaries, armies, and security. I think we need exactly the opposite. We need to sort of dismantle our militaries, securities and apparatus.

We need to dismantle our entire way of thinking which is this military-industrial complex of believing that we need militaries and we need security apparatus and we need weapons. I am of very mixed feelings about the fact that women have fought so hard to be able to be part of those structures or those sectors, because I actually think, in some much more radical vision of how we transform the world, women actually need to be leading the push for disarming and dismantling the structures of militarism.

That said, I am appreciative of the fact that if you are not at the table, people are making decisions without you being there. That is a huge challenge with regard to structures like the military, because they are fundamentally non-democratic, extremely hierarchical, and in many ways, unquestioning structures of obedience and authority. In fact, women mostly need to be in positions where they can question those structures and authority.

Women should question the patriarchy that basically underlies military structures and the notion that conflict can only be resolved through military minds. So I am deeply torn on this issue. I understand that having women in the military gives women the opportunities to do what they might want to do. Maybe there are women who might feel very strongly that this is a calling and that is what they most want to be – for example, a fighter pilot. I certainly do not want to have a world which discriminates against them.

The radically transformational power of the women’s movement is to actually question the whole assumption underlying the way in which we have structured human relationships and national and international relationships, which are based on this notion of power and domination. It is being able to challenge this with a different view of the world – with a view of the world that says that there is a different way to live with one another; that there is a different way to resolve conflict and that there is a different way to simply positing who has more might – whether that is measured in muscle or in number of tanks or nuclear weapons. That is what I would really much prefer to see.

We have a long way to get to that point, and in the meantime, I don’t think that we can simply ignore the fact that there are more and more women present in militaries across the world, that women have been a part of liberation movements and struggled in both armed struggles of resistance and in the armed forces of countries. So the question is, can we have a strongly pacifist women’s movement and can it interact with women in these structures that are inherently part of a different, very patriarchal and militaristic framework? I don’t really know the answer to that question.

Ms. Ratnayake: There are a lot of international measures such as U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, which reaffirm the importance of women’s participation in peace and security issues and call for increased representation at all levels of decision-making. Mozambique is an example of a country that has a steady and impressive number of women in the parliament – about 40% of the parliament is women. However, there are arguments that this level of representation does not necessarily lead to improvements on the ground. Within Mozambique, there are still high levels of gender-based violence and female economic disempowerment. So even though there are a large number of women, that has not necessarily led to the progress we would expect.

Let us for a second assume that we can reach a good number of women in leadership positions. How can we make sure that the female voice in foreign policy issues actually leads to development policies that incorporate women’s rights and perspectives?

Kavita Ramdas: Well I think for one thing, it is very important for us to realise that women are not of one particular mindset in terms of their ideologies, or their politics or their vision of the world. This is very important for us to recognise. It is wonderful to have the concept of a global sisterhood. This month of March, in the United States, we celebrate ‘Women’s HerStory Month’. There are lots of reasons for us to celebrate a different way of thinking.

Believing that women, to some extent, share some particular world view is not just by virtue of our gender or of our sex, but by the virtue of the fact that we have been an excluded minority. So some of our sensibility to thinking about the ways in which we do business differently, comes from our experience of having been outsiders, or of having been denied access to certain privileges, and therefore being able to put ourselves in the shoes of others who have similarly been denied those privileges. To say we are for women’s rights and then to say we don’t care about ‘Black Lives Matter,’ or we don’t care about immigrant rights or we don’t care about LGBT questions a different issue. That’s why the Women’s March, for example, has made such a strong effort to create what we call a more intersectional understanding of feminism.

We also have to be cognisant of the fact that even if we did have more women in all of these positions, that as you said, we would not necessarily have an outcome that automatically moves us towards a more progressive, or more liberal, or a different understanding of how the world could look like. It is important for us to understand that is not just a question of women’s representation, but it is a question of how we envision the world and what is our view of the kind of world to live in.

I would just remind all of us to be cognisant of the fact that for a long time in the world, women were key to the peace movements around the globe. In the aftermath of 9/11 in the United States and to a certain extent in Europe, there has been this phenomenon of what we might call ‘The Security Moms’: people who are so terrified of ‘the other’, and people who believe that the way in which they can protect their children and their way of life is to go for more militarisation, more lockdowns, fewer civil liberties and less freedom. So I’m a little bit cautious of the notion that simply having more women in higher positions will get us the outcome that we want.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that we should have more women in those positions, I believe that very, very much. But we should be conscious about the fact that what we also need are people to have a shared vision and a shared ideological commitment to a vision of the world. Hence, it is more important to me that you identify as a feminist than that you identify as simply a woman.

Ms. Ratnayake: Just before we end, I have one final question. We have been speaking with you to mark International Women’s Day, which has become a significant day on national and international calendars.

In your personal view, what do you think is the significance of this day globally? Are there ways in which governmental, non-governmental and private sector organisations could make it more effective?

Kavita Ramdas: There is a lot that can be said about International Women’s Day. I think I am always struck by the fact that in the United States, very few people knew about it until about ten years ago, and part of the reason was this conscious decision by the leadership of the United States to make it disappear. The first real observance of International Women’s day was February 28, 1909 in New York, and it was organised by the Socialist Party of America in remembrance of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

People do forget that it was linked to the struggles of working women. It was linked to the terrible experience of a fire that happened in 1908 when so many female immigrant workers in a textile factory were burnt to death because they had been locked into their place of work with no escape when the fire broke out. In subsequent years, the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen, Denmark became the first socialist celebration of working woman.

It was sort of blacklisted in the United States because although the United States had, for a while, a strong communist movement, by the end of the early 1950’s, with the whole issue of the Cold War and the McCarthy Era, it became a bad word to be communist or a socialist in this country. It has taken a very long time for this country to recover from that. You know, it was probably amazing that Bernie Sanders even ran because he called himself a Socialist. For me, the significance of the day is that we have reclaimed it from that point so that the United States at least honours it as being International Women’s Day.

The other problem is that International Women’s Day doesn’t understand the inequalities of class, race and the geopolitics of the North and the South. So you can be like, ‘Oh yeah, women in Afghanistan, women in Africa, women in you know poor countries,’ but there hasn’t been much recognition of the fact that there are huge struggles for women’s rights and justice in the United States.

In some ways, Hillary Clinton’s run and the experience of how misogyny came right out of the closet and was in our face, has made this International Women’s Day particularly important and sobering. Perhaps, it is a turning point for all of us. Again, I would like to point to the fact that the first active set of resistance against Trump’s administration really came from the women’s movement and from a new set of players within the women’s movement. The organisers of the Women’s March were not your traditional feminist organisations. This gives me a great amount of hope.

The potential for us to kind of be doing, thinking, and using this day and month as a way of being able to mobilise the power and the force and the alternative visions of a feminist movement, has a lot of hope and potential. But I really do think we have to literally reclaim our ‘Her Stories’ and situate it honestly in the struggles of working class women. This is what we celebrate at Mount Holyoke College when we sing “Bread and Roses.” The reason we say “Bread and Roses” is our way of honouring those working women. That is the history of International Women’s Day and I hope we do not lose that history and our commitment to the struggle for fairness, equality, decency and a more socialist vision of how our world could look like.

Ms. Ratnayake: Thank you very much, Kavita, for all your insights. We hope that one day soon you would be able to come to Colombo and visit the Institute.

Kavita Ramdas: Well, I think Sri Lanka is one of those parts of the world that has had an experience of what a different world can look like despite all the struggles and dilemmas of the recent civil war. You have had one of the first female heads of state – the first in the world, and you have had remarkable gains in women’s education and empowerment and a strong women’s movement. I am really honored to be a part of it and I send my salaams to everyone. Thank you very much.


*The opinions expressed in this transcript are the interviewee’s own views and are not the institutional views of LKI.


  • 2017


  • Rapti Ratnayake


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