Lynn Sherr sits down with Kavita Ramdas, the president and chief executive officer of the Global Fund for Women. Born in New Delhi, then educated in India and the United States, where she is now a citizen, Ramdas describes herself as a “social venture capitalist.”
LYNN SHERR: The annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly here in New York this week has generated the usual blend of diplomatic activity and traffic jams, as well as an ever-increasing number of conferences and summits held around it.
The biggest and best-known has become the yearly meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, former president Bill Clinton’s effort to get the public and private sectors working together on such worldwide issues as poverty, disease and hunger — now with a special focus.
BILL CLINTON: According to the United Nations, women do 66 percent, two thirds of the world’s work, produce 50 percent of the world’s food — a factor which would stun people in this country given the way agriculture is organized — earn 10 percent of the world’s income and own one percent of the world’s property.
LYNN SHERR: President Obama picked up the theme when he spoke to Clinton’s group.
BARACK OBAMA: I first saw it in my mother. She was an anthropologist who dedicated her life to understanding and improving the lives of the rural poor, from Indonesia to Pakistan. Whether working with USAID or the Asian Development Bank, the Ford Foundation, Bank Rakyat in Jakarta or Women’s World Banking here in New York, she championed the cause of women’s welfare and helped pioneer the micro- loans that have helped lift millions from poverty.
LYNN SHERR: What we’ve heard all over town this week is that increasingly, government and philanthropy are being joined in the effort by big business. Among those who’ve been leading the way is my next guest.
Kavita Ramdas is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Global Fund for Women, the largest grant-making foundation focused exclusively on women’s rights issues. The Fund has given more than $71 million to thousands of organizations in 167 countries.
Kavita Ramdas was born in New Delhi, then educated in India and the United States, where she is now a citizen. She describes herself as a “social venture capitalist.”
Welcome to the Journal.
KAVITA RAMDAS: Thank you. It’s very nice to be here.
LYNN SHERR: Let me start with what’s going on in New York this week and around the world, which is all this focus on girls and women. Why now? Why girls and women?
KAVITA RAMDAS: And I think there is a growing sense that with the challenges that are facing us on climate change, on growing militarization of societies, on the security front, you simply can’t address this with a sort of a business as usual strategy. And I think women and girls have moved from a place of sort of being, “There, there, dear, that’s nice.” On the side. Toreally being seen as an engine for change in other critical world areas of making a difference and making an impact in the world. And that’s why I think this is our moment.
LYNN SHERR: Just tick off for me, if you would, what you think the biggest challenges are that women around the world are facing right now.
KAVITA RAMDAS: So, I think ongoing war and militarization is a huge challenge for women. The ongoing violence against women, which sort of, you know, comes out of this culture of violence. And the fact that essentially violence against women continues to be condoned on some level. That is, completely understandable for so many of us. Why is it that you have statistics like a woman being raped every six minutes? In this country, in the United States.
LYNN SHERR: Proving that this is not just a problem in developing countries.
KAVITA RAMDAS: Absolutely.
LYNN SHERR: We’ve got our own issues here.
KAVITA RAMDAS: No, violence against women cuts across class, it cuts across race, it cuts across income levels, and it cuts across different civilizations and cultures. And it is an area in which we could make a global compact to make a difference. I mean, I think that’s the advantage is that we have this chance to make a difference.
I think the issues of poverty. I mean, you cannot meet a woman anywhere in the world and not be faced, again, with the fact that women are 70 percent of those who are the poorest in the world. And that’s true, by the way, in the United States, again. Women are the majority of who’s poor in this country, along with their dependent children.
So, I think we’re going to have to make some real investments around how we see— if we want to have these open, tolerant, stable, democratic societies. And that’s the vision of the world that we have ahead of us.
LYNN SHERR: I just had a conversation with Rory Stewart about Afghanistan. And we talked about the challenges there. You have said in the past, and I want to quote. “That highly militarized societies in almost every instance lead to bad results for women. The security of women has not improved and in many instances it actually becomes worse.” Are you seeing examples of this in Afghanistan?
KAVITA RAMDAS: Absolutely. I think there is no question about the fact that when you flood a country with weapons, either small arms weapons, or just simply the presence of large numbers of primarily male troops. The multiple ways in which women’s safety is compromised just increases dramatically. And I say that both because the presence of foreign troops provides a wonderful and convenient excuse for local militias. The Taliban. Everybody who claims that they’re doing this to resist the foreign invader.
And hence the bombings, hence the suicides, hence the rapes of women, because it is to teach them a lesson. On the other side, the extraordinary poverty of Afghanistan, which continues unabated. When I was last in Kabul, which is almost five years ago the stories I heard from woman after woman after woman, saying, “Young girls are coming down from villages where there are drought conditions. And sleeping with foreign soldiers for a loaf of bread.” I mean, this is what we call survival sex.
And I think, to think that you can have 150 thousand troops in any place and not have women’s bodies literally on the line— everything in our experience has taught us otherwise. The women in Korea, who service American servicemen. The women in Japan, in Okinawa. The experiences with rape and the experiences with sexual violence of different forms. In the Congo, one of our activist colleagues said, similarly, it’s different with a knife. You can maybe rape one woman. With machine guns, you can take out a whole village.
I think what is profoundly different, Lynn, is the scale that we’re talking about. That you can have literally tens of thousands of women and girls be in positions of such, you know fragile vulnerability in terms of their bodies literally being on the line.
LYNN SHERR: It is also said that in modern conflicts, 90 percent of the casualties now are civilian. A number I heard the other day, 75 percent of them—
KAVITA RAMDAS: Of them.
LYNN SHERR: —are women and children.
KAVITA RAMDAS: Women and children. Yep. Yep.
LYNN SHERR: So, women and children are the first victims really of these situations.
KAVITA RAMDAS: Absolutely. And I think not only that, because, you know, to be— to die in an attack or in violence is one thing. To be maimed, to be injured, to be forced to leave your home. Women are 80 percent of the world’s refugees. And I think those circumstances then put a whole other set of trials on women and the children who they are responsible for.
LYNN SHERR: The human side of the story is agonizing, as you’ve just been describing. But I want to take it to a slightly larger picture, and ask, do you see a connection between your work on women’s issues and our national security?
KAVITA RAMDAS: Oh, absolutely. And, Lynn, I would say that I just have simply stopped using that term “women’s issues.” I really don’t know what that is. What issues should 51 percent of the world check out on? Do we not care about peace and security? Do we not care about health and education? Do we not care— I think what we are talking about is the right of every human being, including the 51 percent that hasn’t had much voice for the past millennia, to be at the table to make decisions about the changes that we want to see in the world. And in that sense, I think women have everything to do with national security and safety and, you know, a future in which we really are all more secure.
LYNN SHERR: This is precisely the point that has just been made by Melanne Verveer. She’s the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues in the State Department. Appointed by the Obama Administration and Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State. Let’s listen to what Melanne Verveer said, this week, at the Clinton Global Initiative.
MELANNE VERVEER: One of the problems has been that we look at women’s issues as women’s issues. Soft, nice, check the box on the side. We have got to integrate these issues in everything we do. We’ve got a major food security initiative that the United States is putting forward. Women are going to be a pillar of that initiative, because the great majority of the small holder farmers, 60 to 80 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, are women.
LYNN SHERR: Okay, so, women want a place at the table, a seat at the table, national issues. How is that going to change things, do you think?
KAVITA RAMDAS: In country after country, whether it’s the women of Colombia, working to deal with the incredible displacement that has been caused by the militias both from the rebels, as well as government militias.
Whether it is something like Jerusalem Link, which, you know, even through the toughest times of Israeli, Palestinian, sort of break down in negotiations, you have, you know, Israeli Jewish women and Palestinian activists on the other side, talking to each other. Trying to keep links of communication alive. You know, demystifying this notion that the other is something horrible, something un-humane, something different.
And I think the International Women’s Commission that the Israeli and Palestinian women formed together is an example of why women’s voices need to be at the table. And I think the opportunity here, with the U.N. looking at things like 1325, the resolution to have women involved with peacekeeping forces — and other such efforts — is really to be able to say, it isn’t just looking at women as victims of war and violence. It’s also that women have really creative ideas about how to change the terms of reference. And how to get ourselves— extricate ourselves out of wars that we’re already in. And to prevent wars from happening.
LYNN SHERR: Let’s talk about something that is affecting the entire world right now, which is the economy. We are in a global economic crisis. Women and children seem to be hit by this harder than anybody.
KAVITA RAMDAS: And not surprisingly. I suppose, given that they are at the bottom of the economic pyramid, and that they are often the first to be fired and the last to be hired. But also more importantly, in part, because they bear the burdens— study after study has shown that steep increases in male unemployment strongly correlated with spikes in domestic violence. When men are out of work, dispirited, don’t have options, are drinking more, the only place where they can express their frustrations is often on again, women’s bodies. So, you don’t only see women paying the price in terms of a direct economic price, which they are also experiencing. But you also see women paying a much higher price in terms of increases in domestic violence.
The one thing I do want to say, though, is that in sort of this doom and gloom scenario, it is important to point out that women are also holding solutions to these problems.
LYNN SHERR: And that brings up where we are now, I think, in all of this, which is the sudden interest of business in investing in women, investing in women and children, investing in programs that will make a difference. What do you think suddenly has brought business to this issue?
KAVITA RAMDAS: Well, you know, last year I was here in New York. We were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Global Fund for Women and honoring a long-time corporate partner of J.P. Morgan. It’s not as well-known as the 10,000 Women initiative of Goldman, but certainly it’s been—
LYNN SHERR: Goldman Sachs’ program, to get business degrees for 10,000 women—
KAVITA RAMDAS: For 10,000 women across the world.
LYNN SHERR: Right.
KAVITA RAMDAS: And I think what’s interesting is business leaders are beginning to recognize that the ability to truly be invested in the full resources, the full human capital resources, if you will, of a society, means that they must understand and must engage with women, not just in terms of their philanthropy.
And this is what I found so interesting at J.P. Morgan. J.P. Morgan has had a whole program around a women’s leadership process within the company. Increasing the numbers of women in leadership positions. And a recent study mentioned that banks that had 30 percent or more of women in senior leadership actually had much lower risk rates and had a much lower rate of having any of the kinds of bad loans that were made in other banks. I find that very interesting.
LYNN SHERR: And the suggestion is that women are somehow good business. I want to now listen to the Goldman Sachs Chairman and CEO, Lloyd Blankfein —
KAVITA RAMDAS: Blankfein.
LYNN SHERR: —this week at the Clinton Global Initiative, had a very interesting comment about what they’re doing. Let’s take a listen.
LLOYD BLANKFEIN: We have to do whatever it takes to attract and retain the best people. And oddly enough, this is a recruiting tool for our firm. We — and by the way, it’s a retention tool for the firm. If you want to know where Goldman Sachs uses our people to in the middle of their career, frankly, it’s public service. We have to go out and convince them that you can accomplish a lot of your personal objectives. And the world and societies objectives, through the platform of Goldman Sachs.
LYNN SHERR: Is it for the sake of the women and the children? Or is it for the sake of doing better business at the firm?
KAVITA RAMDAS: I think it’s both, actually. I mean, I think there is— sometimes I think we have this feeling that there is, you know, this real tradeoff between sort of, equity and efficiency, if you will. You know, and my colleague, Geeta Rao Gupta at the International Center for Research on Women would say, the thing is that if you invest in equity, you actually get more efficient outcomes.
And so, while maybe there are sort of baser, you know, self-preservation instincts. And business is about the bottom line. And maybe this is being driven by the bottom line. I think we actually as women’s rights advocates and as feminists, we shouldn’t care. On some level, we should be glad that there are people who are coming to the table. It doesn’t mean you don’t keep pointing out that women are not just a means to an end.
To think that 50 percent of the world’s population or actually maybe larger, 51 percent of the world’s population, are not worth investing in because of their core humanity is obviously something that didn’t need a business argument.
LYNN SHERR: Give me then the business argument. What is the return on investment for women?
KAVITA RAMDAS: Well, I think the business argument is you, one, from the corporate perspective, you retain these people who are sort of feeling like, “What am I doing manufacturing widgets or selling bonds or, you know, am I doing anything to really change the world?” Giving them that sense of purpose, you know, Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo speaks often of this sense of purpose. So, you give them that sense of purpose.
But also, I think it’s about looking forward to a world in which we’re going to have a different bottom line. And I think in that, women and girls to me is not unlike the environmental push, right? ‘Cause you’re thinking about — and Al Gore referred to this. He said, you know, you have to build in the cost of carbon to your business. And I think there’s something about building in the costs of neglecting or failing to include half of the world that businesses are beginning to suddenly take a look, you know, stepping back and saying, “Wow, what happens in a world where women are going to be making more decisions? Where more girls are educated?” Because I don’t think—
LYNN SHERR: And the answer is?
KAVITA RAMDAS: And the answer is, I think, we need to have them be interested in what we do. And we need to have them be buying our products. And we need to have them— the other thing is I think on strategies, I think more and more in business strategy, you look at all of the— I look at management suggestions. It looks like sort of the stuff most women know instinctively.
LYNN SHERR: By running households.
KAVITA RAMDAS: By running households. And by managing budgets in very, very tight ways. They’re excellent at figuring out how to do that.
LYNN SHERR: Right. Is there in fact a bottom line on this? Can these corporations make money by investing in women and women’s issues?
KAVITA RAMDAS: I think they absolutely make money by investing in women, in their own firms, for example. And I think—
LYNN SHERR: In terms of productivity?
KAVITA RAMDAS: In terms of productivity. In terms of more flexible, more creative work environments. I think it’s interesting, I went from a meeting at Google this week in New York, to a meeting at J.P. Morgan/Chase. And although Google is full of, you know, a lot of male engineers, it actually has the kind of flexibility and the sort of space and the environment, which you begin to think of as being kind of a more feminine environment, a more flexible, moveable environment.
And I think the companies of the future are not going to be these gargantuan companies, where, you know, you can only do business in a certain way. They have to be nimble. They have to be able to change. They have to be able to have people working part time and then coming back into the workforce. So, I think the opportunity to invest in women and the way in which women can offer them a different way of organizing their business, is really an opportunity that businesses would be, I think missing the boat if they didn’t jump on it right now.
LYNN SHERR: Well, let me ask you. You run a fund that has a lot of money. And gives a lot of money away, investments. Give me your pitch. How do you get someone to invest in the Global Fund for Women? To invest in one of your projects?
KAVITA RAMDAS: So, here’s my theory of change. Women are an incredibly under-utilized asset and resource. To have successful societies, you need independent, civil societies, not just good business and good governance. So that independent citizens can hold their governments accountable. And philanthropy, good social change philanthropy can be a ripple of change that spreads out, catalyzing women’s voices on all issues of importance in their society.
LYNN SHERR: Will I make money out of it?
KAVITA RAMDAS: No, you won’t make money right away. But you will have a society in which you will be much more able to make money, because it will be stable, peaceful, and you’ll have an educated and willing workforce.
LYNN SHERR: Give me some specifics about how investing in women and children is actually making a difference.
KAVITA RAMDAS: One, in Afghanistan. An early investment that the Global Fund for Women made, $10,000 in the Afghan Institute for Learning. Today the Afghan Institute for Learning, which was then running underground schools inside Taliban-led Afghanistan is reaching 350,000 women, girls and boys, across the country. Running human rights workshops for women in Afghanistan. And running some of the best maternal health clinics that are around.
Another example, Cambodia. About eight years ago, we made a grant to a young, determined woman, doing an anti-trafficking program in Cambodia. Soon after that, she used her experience as a community organizer in that area to run for and be elected. She was Minister of Women’s Affairs in Cambodian Government. Her name is Mu Sochua. She now heads an opposition party.
LYNN SHERR: Let me get to a little bit of the bad news. You have said that there is, in fact, a backlash from some of these programs from some of the push that’s being given to women and children around the world. Give me some examples.
KAVITA RAMDAS: I think no change comes without resistance from those who’ve had the power before. And I think although it would be nice to say that, as I think the case that we’re trying to make is as women’s advocates, that this change is good for all of us. It doesn’t necessarily feel that way in many, many different parts of the world. And so, I do think this is a time of incredible turbulence. Developing societies are trying to do what the West did in 500 years, we’re doing in 60.
And I think that sets up some real pressures against which women — in which women become sort of the fulcrum. And I think that there’s a reason why women’s rights have become the point of losing connection between both conservatives here in this country and progressives. I mean, I think—
LYNN SHERR: Are there some specific examples where—
KAVITA RAMDAS: Absolutely. In a place like India, where the growing pressure to sort of be part of this succeeding middle class has come side by side with an increase in dowry deaths, or these bride burnings as they are called. Not what you would imagine. Similarly a steep increase in female feticide. Using ultrasounds to be able to determine whether the fetus in utero is a girl or a boy, and then selectively aborting girls.
LYNN SHERR: Because?
KAVITA RAMDAS: Because of sons being seen as being more valuable. As sons being seen— so, I think there is certainly— as cultures in which traditional roles of men and women are being challenged. And women are playing more and more of a different role.
I think the acid throwing in Afghanistan is an example of backlash. Girls who want to go to school, determined to go to school, parents who are committed to sending their daughters to school. And then, you know, having acid being thrown in your face, because somehow your going to school is a slap in the face of tradition.
LYNN SHERR: Sum it up for me. Where we are right now. Are we at a critical mass? Is this the time? Is it going to make a difference, finally?
KAVITA RAMDAS: Yes, it is. I think this is— I think the 21st century is our century. And I think women are not just waiting to be filled up with resources, but they’re ready to put their resources on the table. To be able to lead towards a different world.
LYNN SHERR: KAVITA RAMDAS, thank you so much.
KAVITA RAMDAS: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
LYNN SHERR: This isn’t the first time as a reporter that I’ve covered what’s been labeled, the year of the woman. Make that, years of the women.
1984 — Geraldine Ferraro becomes the first woman to run as vice-president on a major party ticket.
GERALDINE FERRARO:By choosing a woman to run for our nation’s second highest office, you send a powerful signal to all Americans: There are no doors we cannot unlock […] If we can do this, we can do anything.
LYNN SHERR: 1992 — Women help sweep Bill Clinton into the White House, and the Senate boasts a record six female members.
2008 — One woman runs for president; another for vice president. Actually, no one called that the year of the woman.
The United Nations expanded the concept to the International Women’s Year — then requested more time with the Decade for Women and a series of global conferences — 1975 Mexico City, 1985 Nairobi, 1995 Beijing.
HILLARY CLINTON: If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.
LYNN SHERR: Each of those events laid the groundwork for the new momentum. But after all those so-called years of the woman, I’m just the teensiest bit wary about seeing today’s moment in time as the final one. Still, I’m full of hope, because the concept is correct — empowering women may be our only chance. And the tactics have changed. The mantra today is not “giving” but “investing” — a recognition that investing in women and their families is not only right, but will reap profits for everyone.
We just heard that this 21st century is our time. Century of women — not bad. Let’s hope it takes less than the whole one hundred years. We can’t wait that long.
That’s it for this week. The Journal continues online on our website at pbs.org. Click on “Bill Moyers Journal” for more information on the state of women’s rights around the world. You can also learn more about Rory Stewart and his experiences in Afghanistan.
And you can still see Bill Moyer’s web exclusive essay on Dick Armey and the recent anti-health care protest in Washington. That’s all at pbs.org.
Bill will be back on the next edition of the Journal. I’m Lynn Sherr.
This transcript was entered on April 6, 2015.