Indian High Commission hosts panel discussion on women’s empowerment


(L to R) Wendy McGuinness (moderator), Minister for Tertiary Education and Skills Penny Simmonds, Indian High Commissioner Neeta Bhushan, and Natraj School of Dance founder Prabha Ravi at the panel discussion in Wellington (Photo supplied)

Venu Menon
Wellington, March 13,2024

The High Commission of India hosted a panel discussion to mark International Women’s Day in Wellington.

The discussion, titled ‘Invest in women: Accelerate Growth’ and held at the High Commission premises on March 12, featured High Commissioner of India to New Zealand Neeta Bhushan, Minister for Tertiary Education and Skills Penny Simmonds, and management consultant and Director of the Natraj School of Dance Prabha Ravi. McGuinness Institute Founder and Chief Executive Wendy McGuinness was the moderator.

Work-life choices

Minister Simmonds, the first-off-the-block, spoke of women marrying young, having families, and then realising in their 40s “that they have a whole lifetime ahead of them.” She said having the confidence to move on and “do something for yourself is incredibly empowering.”

As the first woman High Commissioner of India to New Zealand, Neeta Bhushan was asked what challenges she faced in her journey and what motivated her to keep going.

“I will not say it was an easy journey,” High Commissioner Bhushan said.

She recalled being drawn to public service “from a young age.” Her motivation came from growing up in a family that practised gender parity. “Once I got married, I always felt equal to my husband,” she noted.

But High Commissioner Bhushan hastened to make it clear that a homemaker’s role was also challenging. “It is a difficult and selfless job, because you are working to make everybody else’s dreams possible, except your own.” She sought to strike a balance between public service and family.

High Commissioner Bhushan was inspired by the first woman foreign service officer of post-Independence India, C.B. Muthamma.

Prabha Ravi recapped the trials and tribulations she faced as a new migrant trying to set up her dance school in Wellington some 25 years ago. She recalled accosting fellow migrants on the streets to muster a student roll of 15 before starting the school.

“That was the easy part. Sustaining a dance school was the hard part,” she affirmed. With two little children in tow, and since “art cannot put food on the table,” Ravi juggled livelihood and the pursuit of art.

Ravi’s engagement in international education, promoting New Zealand as a study destination, took her to 47 countries over the past two decades. But her passion to teach the classical dance form of Bharatnatyam never dimmed.

The travelling meant that her husband “hardly saw me.”

Minister Simmonds traced her commitment to rural communities back to her childhood. She was driven to politics by her concern about how New Zealand was “depopulating our rural communities.”

She said it was especially important for women to have access to education, health and employment opportunities in rural communities “because, I think, women can get isolated in rural communities.”

She recalled telling her dad as a young girl that she would “never give up my name, even if I get married.”

“I was very sure that I was going to be representing women, and being strong for women, in the rural community.”

Source of inspiration

All three women declared their mothers to be the role models in their lives. High Commissioner Bhushan also included astronaut Kalpana Chawla, India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Seetharaman and boxer Mary Kom in her list of inspiring Indian-origin women.

Character traits

“I think any woman brings honesty to the table,” High Commissioner Bhushan remarked, and added that women brought balance and empathy to their decisions.

Minister Simmonds stressed the “emotional intelligence women bring to a role.” She said women understood that often “the fastest way from A to B is not the straight line.” It’s about taking another route “that involves other people and takes people with us.”

The minister acknowledged Indian women as being gracious but also having “steely resilience and determination.”

Prabha Ravi added the quality of inclusivity to the mix. “Women use both their hearts and minds when they make big decisions. Logic doesn’t work in every decision,” she added.

Creating space

Women were underrepresented in the work space.

“Public sector boards [in New Zealand] have 53% women, while private sector boards have just 26%,” Ravi noted.

High Commissioner Bhushan added: “I have tried my best to mentor my younger colleagues in the foreign service wherever I have been posted. Just before coming to New Zealand, I headed a division of Central Europe. I had two women officers and five or six male officers [on my team]. I would take time out to listen to them and help them through crises.”

High Commissioner Bhushan recounted approaching the Indian Foreign Secretary with the request to “give good postings” for women.

Minister Simmonds noted that, as the chief executive of the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) for 23 years, she made sure that women were a majority on her senior management team. “I didn’t put them there because they were women. I put them there because I saw the potential that they could be the best senior manager in that role.”

The session wrapped up with the panellists engaging with the audience. Wellington Indian Association (WIA) President Manisha Morar stressed the need for women to focus on “self-care so that they were not burdening themselves.” Immigration lawyer Kamil Lakshman observed that young women were under undue pressure to perform and excel, that the pendulum had swung too far in this regard.

The event was organised by the High Commission of India in collaboration with EmpowHer, a “non-judgmental platform for women to connect and empower each other by sharing knowledge, experiences, tips and tools.”

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington

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