The Power of Volunteering for Gender Equality


[Originally published on UNV website, 18 April 2024]

Illustration: UN Women/Putra Djohan
Jamshed M. Kazi, Senior Advisor for UN Women’s Regional Office for Asia-Pacific & Liaison to ASEAN has also served as the Representative for Indonesia. Illustration: UN Women/Putra Djohan

Looking back on his experience of working with and managing dedicated UN Volunteers for more than 25 years, Jamshed has more than one story to tell of his encounters with volunteers as national change agents, first responders, women rights advocates and above all, agents of change. My first engagement with UN Volunteers was as a manager in UNDP offices in Ethiopia and Lao PDR, and what impressed me from the beginning was their dedication, resilience, and creativity in moving our work on advancing the SDGs forward.

In 2007, I came to the United Nations Volunteers Headquarters in Bonn. I was a Senior Programme Specialist for the Asia-Pacific, Europe, and CIS (APEC) responsible for UN Volunteer management, joint programming, and humanitarian support. This was one of the most rewarding and inspiring assignments of my UN career because I interacted with and directly supported hundreds of (mostly) young women and men worldwide who demonstrated passion and commitment to serve others less fortunate through volunteering with field-based UN agencies.

One of the most memorable initiatives I was involved in for UNV was Teach India, a joint campaign by UNV India and the Times of India. We realized that many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were providing education to children who needed access to the publicly funded school system across urban India. The capacity and funding for many of these NGOs were stretched, and one of the challenges was identifying and retaining teachers for the classes. Many of the urban youth and professionals in some of the major cities in India were concerned about the poverty and deprivation that they witness daily in their midst, and they wanted to help beyond charitable giving and in a more sustainable manner. They were looking for a reliable and convenient modality to contribute.

Teach India was born to address urban illiteracy by enlisting the support of hundreds of thousands of volunteers, including college students, professionals, corporate leaders, retirees, and homemakers, to teach at underprivileged urban schools. It was launched in 4 major cities in India, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers signed up within the first few months.

For many of them, it was their first volunteering experience, which taught them valuable lifelong lessons. For the many underprivileged kids in the urban slums, they became role models and mentors, enabling them to dream big and use education as an important stepping stone towards upward social mobility. After all these years, Teach India is continuing and showing success.

During my time with UNV, I also witnessed two significant disasters striking Asia: Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and the devastating earthquake in Sichuan, China. time, The UN in Myanmar had around 20 national and international UN Volunteers, including communication officers who regularly provided indispensable situation updates and contributed to the needs assessment for the entire UN system in real-time. Other national UN Volunteers were civil engineers and provided invaluable expertise in rebuilding low-cost shelters for the most vulnerable communities.

Similarly, in China, during the earthquake in Sichuan, UN Volunteers were among the first responders. They joined early relief missions of doctors and medical staff as communications specialists and field interpreters.

Over the past four and a half years, I have had the privilege of serving as UN Women’s Representative in Indonesia and Liaison to ASEAN. At UN Women we engage community volunteers with women at the forefront of the action. They support communities in conflict prevention, safe and fair migration, and for economic empowerment. I met some of them during a recent visit to Sinduharjo village, one of our Peace Villages with the Wahid Foundation, to promote peaceful and resilient communities led by women. I also ensured UN Volunteers were included in our larger team. Last year, we had five international UN Volunteers and two national UN Volunteers out of approximately 35 staff at our office, which is a good proportion.

I commend and admire our UN Volunteers—they have always gone above and beyond the call of duty to support UN Women's mandate in Indonesia and our work with ASEAN. They bring fresh perspectives and insights that enrich the quality of our discussions and help to shape the direction of our programming to keep a focus on the most marginalized groups. They are genuinely "inspiration in action."

Investing in volunteer programmes dedicated to gender equality ensures these initiatives receive the resources they need to flourish. From educational campaigns and skill-building workshops to advocacy and empowerment projects, volunteers are on the front lines, creating change where it matters most.

In a world grappling with complex challenges such as gender-based violence, limited economic empowerment of women and girls, unequal access to education and employment opportunities, and discriminatory cultural practices, we cannot overlook the indispensable role of volunteers. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we recognize the critical importance of investing in volunteers as catalysts for transformative change."

In conclusion, Jamshed summarizes the critical value-added and opportunities for UN agencies and governments to collaborate with UN Volunteers.

Engaging UN Volunteers is an investment in diversity and innovation for the United Nations-wide system. They bring diverse perspectives, skills, and experiences to their roles, infusing gender equality initiatives with fresh ideas and energy. By directing resources toward UN Volunteer-driven projects, UN agencies tap into a vast pool of talent committed to driving positive change."

Gender inequality is a global issue that demands collaborative solutions. Governments can strategically invest in the UNV Fully Funded Programme to amplify the impact of their efforts by funding volunteers to lead programs and initiatives at the national level or worldwide. By fostering international cooperation, we create a more interconnected and supportive global community dedicated to advancing the rights and opportunities of all genders."

Investing in volunteers is a strategic move with the potential for lasting impact. It's time for all governments and UN Agencies to recognize the invaluable contribution of volunteers and commit to investing in their efforts to build a world where gender equality is not just a goal but a lived reality.

A Day in the Life of UN Volunteers and UN Women Representative in Indonesia