ADB: Asia Women Leaders Program comments by Wenny Kusuma, UN Women Nepal

Date: Monday, October 17, 2016

Author: Wenny Kusuma

Good morning. I’d like to start my comments with a personal story.

At the start of 2010, when I was then-UNIFEM’s country director in Afghanistan, I found myself one day in the middle of a complex rocket and ground attack on my hotel in Kabul.

Wenny Kusuma, UN Women Representative for Nepal Country Office

It was an attack that lasted perhaps six hours where, together with about seventy other people, hotel staff and guests, I huddled in a basement shelter, listening to rockets land overhead in the midst of gunfire and the thick and rancid smell of the building above us burning. At one point, I moved into a corridor to seek a toilet and was abruptly pushed backwards by two men dragging a dead Afghan soldier, his blood on the tiled floor, it was slippery. Just then the ground shook from another rocket, and I remember being confused.

Two concerns I had that morning were, firstly, that I needed to account for my UNIFEM colleagues, their whereabouts and wellbeing, and secondly, that I needed to reach my mother in Malaysia to say I was sorry, that I might not see her again.

Afghanistan was a turning point for me. This was certainly not the only attack in my time there, but it was a defining moment in my personal and professional growth. I think nothing compels urgency like a proximity to death. In the years since then, I have had many occasions to think back on the questions and observations I had while in Kabul.

Questions like: How do I advance development and gender equality in the midst of war? Questions like: What qualities must I individually exhibit in a context of persistent chaos and unknowns? How do I lead an office of 100 personnel when I’m not sure when the next strike will be? And most relevant perhaps to this conference today was the observation I deeply understood that there was no amount of book learning or classroom training that could have adequately prepared me for the leadership tests I faced, that all was theory until the messiness of real life forced me to make decisions that amounted to, in retrospect, a trial and error that is the immutable basis of experience.

After that attack in Kabul, I wrote an essay in which I said, “I see leadership as a competency in progress.” What I meant was that the development of leadership is a life-long process for which there is no finish line. Leadership is a process, not a product or a certificate you receive upon completing coursework, it’s not like an academic degree where once you’re a graduate, you’re always a graduate.

Leadership is not a credential you receive upon gaining certain employment. You can be a top boss and still be a terrible leader. In this regard, leadership is not a role, it’s a function.

In my view, it’s about the How you are in relation to others, and much less the What you are.

It’s a bit like governance. Most of us in this conference today work either in government or for governments. But none of us were born in government and thus, we each have turning points in our individual careers that led us here. While Afghanistan presented extreme challenges in my case, in fact, we are all asking the same question: How do we best advance development in the midst of our country contexts using our respective lenses of finance, planning, agriculture, infrastructure, or any other specialization that we come with? More specifically, how do we advance development that’s good for women? What is it in our practice of leadership that we need to exhibit in this endeavor? How do we practice inclusion as both a personal value and a professional, technical methodology? How do we embody that SDG imperative to Leave No One Behind?

I say leadership is like governance because both are about working in relation to others. Both are about managing the human needs and encouraging the human potential of others. Which means that both leadership and governance are necessarily other-centered where the question is consistently one of, How are people are doing?

Wenny Kusuma, Representative for UN Women Nepal

This implies a commitment to the wellbeing of others that is preceded by and predicated on a necessary curiosity: to exercise leadership in government on gender equality and women’s empowerment, this curiosity is expressed in the simple but vital question: Where are the women? And How are they doing? We cannot simply assume that women benefit widely from development that is gender blind in its planning and implementation. What we know from our results and evaluations is that women and men are impacted differently, and that their starting points in their development trajectories are not equal. Leadership is intentional. To undertake steps for transformation takes intentionality. We will not correct inequalities by accident. So we can and should be asking these fundamental questions of Where are the women and what is their status from each of our entry points, from the perspective of each of our ministries, each of our offices.

In all of this, there is no need to reinvent the wheel, we are not starting from scratch—no matter where you sit, we have frameworks and tools, frameworks such as CEDAW, the BPFA, the earlier MDGS, and now the SDGs, and tools for the design, the implementation, the monitoring and evaluation of gender responsive programming from both the UN and ADB. Let me take time now to walk through the SDG framework from a gender perspective, to illustrate the types of points and questions we should be advancing in our programmes, to elaborate on the leadership curiosity that promotes GEWE.


  • Gender as both a Stand-Alone Goal and as a Cross-Cutting Priority
  • Universality
  • Leave No One Behind
  • On Women in Politics: Case Point

Earlier in my comments, I raised the point that leadership is a function and not a role. Yet, when we speak of women’s leadership or women in leadership, what we are typically referring to is women in decision making positions—whether elected or appointed. So position does matter because as an indicator, we understand that the number and proportion of women in parliament can tell us something about attitudes, about the empowerment of women, and about progress made towards gender equality in a given country.

The key then, as women leaders, is to find that match between our ambitions to be agents of change, and the opportunities to pursue them. One objective as individual leaders is to find the match between our personal leadership ethics and aspirations, and the employment scenario that gives us the greatest authority and creative independence in which to exercise our personal leadership aspirations.

It is here that I must admit to being especially challenged in standing before you today, asserting the need for women’s leadership when the UN has just selected another man to serve as our next Secretary General, despite the candidacy of very accomplished women. In 2016, after holding wide consultations on the SDGs, after asking us to envision the World We Want – the UN is still needing to convert all the visioning into a reality where we as women can Live the World We Want, where we as women can Lead the World We Want. Within the UN we too are asking, Where are the women and what is our status?

In the context of gender inequalities, why does women’s leadership matter? We seek a more accurate representation of our populations in our leaders. Enabling the direct voice of women in decision making leads to more gender-responsive policies and budget decisions. Additionally, evidence from around the world has shown that the presence of women in leadership and representative positions results in positive benefits to society as a whole. Countries with more women in public leadership positions rate higher on assessments of the quality of governance such as in educational systems, infrastructure investments, and perceptions of corruption. There is a correlation between countries with greater levels of gender equality and their development levels. The potential of any country lies primarily in its human resources, its human capital, and investments in half the population—those who get left behind first—is only a winning proposition.

In closing, let me observe that leadership is auto-biographical. Even as leadership is premised on a care for others, you cannot be a leader without involving yourself in the very growth and development you seek to foster. So each of you has your story, just as I shared a part of mine at the start of this session. This is a feminist perspective, that your story and our stories together make up the history, in real time, of our progression towards gender equality, worldwide and in this region of the Asia Pacific.

I started on a personal note, and let me now end on a personal note, to encourage you too to make yourselves an active part of our regional and global story for gender equality and women’s empowerment. For the first fifty years of my life, I focused on acquisition. My acquisition. I acquired knowledge, experience and position on the basis that my gains would benefit others. The premise was: My power is your power. And in my fiftieth year, I experienced a shift, where I became acutely aware of being much more interested in supporting an acquisition by others. Today I want other women and most especially younger women, to acquire knowledge, experience and position such that my premise now is: Your power is my power, and my role is to support you in acquiring more because through you, I and others will thrive. Your power is my power.

For more information:

Please contact: Monica Upadhyay
Communications Officer, UN Women Nepal Country Office.