NFIA Hosts Signature Event on Empowering Women and Girls

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September 24, 2014

By Geeta Goindi

September 24, 2014

By Geeta Goindi

Lighting the traditional Indian lamp to begin the NFIA women’s seminar on an auspicious note are seen from left to right: Raymond Vickery, former Assistant Secretary of Commerce; Sohan Joshi, President of NFIA; Satheesan Nair, Secretary of NFIA; Mrs. Angela Anand, Vice President of NFIA; and Maryland Delegate Aruna Miller

Vienna, VA – Delivering the keynote address at a women’s seminar-cum-conference organized by the National Federation of Indian-American Associations (NFIA), Fatema Sumar, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, underscored that “women and girls are at the center of America’s security strategy and foreign policy”.

It is noteworthy that under Secretary of State John Kerry’s leadership in the State Department, six assistant secretaries are women including Nisha Biswal who heads the South and Central Asia desk.  “I think this is his sign of bringing more women to the forefront”, said Sumar.

Noting that women invest more than 80 percent of their income in families and communities, she pointed out that the US administration has “made it a priority to invest in women’s education and give them opportunities to access credit, and to start a small business”.  Quoting President Obama, she said, “When women succeed, nations are more safe, more secure and more prosperous”.

In a move that would inject even more impetus in bilateral ties, Sumar told the audience, “We are very excited about launching the US-India Women’s Empowerment Dialogue, led by (US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues) Catherine Russell, in the coming months”.  Already, “We have launched South Asian women’s networks to connect women in these countries”, she said.

Students of the Kuchipudi Dance Academy (center), founded and directed by Lakshmi Babu, are flanked by artistes of the Natananjali School of Dance headed by Lakshmi Swaminathan, a devoted exponent of Bharatanatyam

The State Department official gushed, “What a great and exciting time this is in the US-India bilateral relationship” with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to New York and Washington, next week.  When the two leaders meet, “they will discuss their mutual interest in collaborating for a stronger future”, she said.  “We can forge a stronger, more prosperous path for people all around the world.  That is the spirit in which we are approaching this relationship”.

Lauding the role of the Indian Diaspora, she thanked all members on behalf of the Obama administration for the critical work they play in strengthening the India-US partnership.

For the fourth consecutive year, NFIA, under the able stewardship of Vice President Mrs. Angela Anand, held its signature event on empowering women and girls at the Diya banquet facility in Tysons Corner.  It’s an issue that’s always timely, ever-important.

Little wonder then that the seminar draws distinguished and knowledgeable speakers and this year was no exception!  Together with Sumar, the panel featured: Maryland Delegate Aruna Miller (Democrat) who represents District 15 of Montgomery County; Raymond Vickery, former Assistant Secretary of Commerce – Trade Development, and a leading advisor on India-US relations; Jyoti Singh, actress and activist; Susan Markham, Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID); Dr. Priya Basu, Manager in the Financing Department of the World Bank; and Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

The event, on a lovely Friday evening for late Summer, began with a powerful rendition of the American and Indian national anthems by Shreya Bhatia, a supremely talented young singer who is making waves throughout the Washington area and beyond!  This was followed by enthralling Indian classical dance performances by students of: Natananjali School of Dance, founded and directed by gifted Bharatanatyam dance exponent Lakshmi Swaminathan; Nrityaki Dance Academy, headed by Shweta Misra who is accomplished in Kathak; and the Kuchipudi Dance Academy under the able leadership of Lakshmi Babu.

Students of the Nrityaki Dance Academy, headed by Shweta Misra, performed a Kathak Tarana at NFIA’s annual seminar on empowering women and girls

The opening dance was in praise of Lord Ganesha in the Kuchipudi style, followed by Saraswati Vandana in Bharatanatyam form and a Kathak Tarana.  These dances, seeped in rich traditions, set the stage for inspiring speeches.

Delegate Aruna Miller, a regular and popular participant in the NFIA women’s seminar, thanked Mrs. Anand for her “leadership and commitment to women’s empowerment”.  In an articulate address, she cited statistics which are alarming to say the least: One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime; one in six will be raped.

“While women make up 51 percent of our population, we are still the 51 percent minority when it comes to our economic, reproductive, legal and political rights”, she said.  Furthermore, women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, and they represent only five percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.  As things stand, “It will not be until 2085 that women are on equal ground with men”, she said.  “The persistent denial of equality to over half of the world’s population is an assault on human dignity”.

Delegate Miller averred, “We must teach young girls to be strong, bold, fearless, think outside the box and speak their minds”.

She dwelt on the need for paid parental leave in order to change obsolete workplace policies.  “We are the richest country in the world and we don’t have paid parental leave”, she said, which forces women to either choose a career or start a family.

Shreya Bhatia, a talented young singer, rendering the Indian and American national anthems at NFIA’s annual seminar on empowering women and girls

Raymond Vickery declared at the outset that he is “strongly committed to this issue” of empowering women and girls.  “There must be a recognition in government, the private sector, academia, that women and girls are equal to men and boys in their rights to education and other achievements”, he said.

On a personal note, he recalled growing up on Park Street in Vienna, VA, in the 1950s.  His mother noticed that there were no pre-schools for early childhood education, no kindergartens in the Commonwealth of Virginia at that time, he told an attentive audience.  “So, she started a school”, he disclosed.  “Today, my mother is still running that school for girls and boys in Vienna.  This is the 58th year she has done it”, he said, to much applause.  “She is 96 years old.  She works every day.  She has 150 kids and 28 teachers”.  There was an unmistakable pride in his voice and an awe among the listeners – here was a true story of empowerment!

In the same vein, Jyoti Singh shared myriad real-life anecdotes of pain, hardship, struggle and making a concrete difference which struck a deep chord with the audience.  There were no policy statements here, just true travails which touched the soul!

Traversing down memory lane, Jyoti remembered how blessed she felt to migrate to America, the land of opportunity!  Back in India, her beautiful young friend was burnt alive by her husband.  “I knew then that dowry was such a big problem”, she told the audience.

“I always wanted to help people”, she said, and realized that volunteering was her best option.  Jyoti got her first opportunity in 2004 in the aftermath of the Tsunami which struck southern India.  It was there that she saw first-hand the humanitarian efforts led by Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, simply known as Amma (mother), who is revered as a saint.  It had a profound impact on her and she has remained a strong believer and follower of this spiritual leader and guru.

Together with her husband Sumeet Verma, sister Gauri Singh Puri and friend Kausar Hassan, Jyoti founded a non-profit organization, Rajmata Vimal of Patiala, a charitable undertaking designed to help people in need.  Jyoti told the audience at the seminar that one of the beneficiaries is a woman who was married at the age of 13 to a 60-year-old man.  He used to beat her so much that, today, she is physically challenged.  “Our organization aids such victims”, she said.

At the NFIA seminar on empowering women and girls are seen from left to right: Divya Burton, President of GRIDS Consulting; organizer Mrs. Angela Anand; and Jyoti Singh, actress and activist

Susan Markham pointed out that USAID has focused on empowering women and girls ever since it was founded in 1961.  “The equal participation of women in the political, economic and social system of a society is essential to the mission of USAID which is to end extreme poverty and promote resilient democratic societies”, she said.  “Without empowering women, the work that we do overseas would not be as successful or as sustainable”.

It is interesting to note that USAID is implementing a program, ‘Delhi Safe City – Free of Violence against Women and Girls’, in India’s capital city.  Among the goals of this ongoing initiative are to help prevent gender-based violence and sexual harassment in public spaces.

While drawing attention to the evils of domestic violence, gender-based violence, women not having any say over their reproductive rights, Priya Basu insisted it is important to “include men and boys in the conversation”.

Lisa Curtis noted that, according to statistics, women make up less than 30 percent of senior positions across foreign policy and the national security establishment.  “The reason is attributed to men being able to network better than women”, she said.

Among the challenges faced by women in India, she pointed out the adverse sex ratio.  “Despite economic development, the preference for sons remains high”, she said.  “According to the 2011 Indian census, the sex ratio is 940 girls for every 1,000 boys which is 40 points below the world average”.

Looking across the room, Curtis told the NFIA gathering, “When I was invited to this event, I thought there would be women only.  I am delighted to see so many men present here tonight.  We cannot make progress in women’s empowerment without men involved in this process”, she said, to much applause.


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