Why this UN woman leader gave up her dreams of becoming a journalist

Shoko Noda, the UNDP Resident Representative in India, started her career at the UN two decades ago. Had it not been for a vacation to the Philippines where she had a life-changing experience, Shoko would have become a journalist.

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative in India Shoka Noda wanted to be a journalist till her fourth year in college. But while on a vacation to the Philippines with friends as an undergraduate student in Japan, she experienced something that changed her life. Shoko saw children on the streets begging for money, something she had never seen before in a self-admitted privileged life.

“I had seen them on TV, but seeing them in person, it just broke my heart. What surprised me was that my friends didn’t really care. They continued to talk about their business; that also kind of hurt me and I was very disappointed. At that point I thought maybe I would like to work in the area of development,” Shoko says.

There was no looking back for Shoko, who started her UN career 20 years ago working across the globe. She moved to India recently to take charge of UNDP in the country. 

Image Courtesy: Shoko Noda's Twitter feed

HerStory caught up with the woman leader to talk about her journey, the challenges, and opportunities that India presents, and what feminism means to her. 

During the interview Shoko also reveals her personal experience with sexual harassment and how she dealt with it.

HS: One of UNDP’s sustainable development goals is to completely eliminate discrimination against women and girls. This is a tall order, especially in a country like India where discrimination unfortunately still not just exists in rural India but in urban India as well. What are your thoughts on the various challenges this poses?

SN: I have met some very wonderful, capable women in India, so they do exist. Even in my office we have a lot of capable women team leaders from various levels.But when you look at the statistics, it’s still a long way to go. When you look at the ratio of parliamentarians between men and women, I think women are only 12 per cent, whichis very low. That is half of the world average and this really needs to change in India.

HS: The discrimination against women in India is a deep-rooted cultural issue that has existed since forever. It is obviously something that will take time to be uprooted. By when do you see India realistically becoming a completely gender-neutral country?

SN: I think there's still a long way to go. It will take some generations. When we see how India has been eradicating poverty, it is already a good record. Ten years ago, it was about 50 percent; now it has gone down to about 26 percent. So India can do it and if she succeeds, the world can succeed because India is one of the biggest countries.

I think the discussion needs to start at home. We already have a good system in place, but unless people’s minds change it will be difficult because it’s not only about the legal system or quota, but it’s the attitude, the behaviour of women and men. From the women’s side, it has to come with confidence that women can do, girls can do; on the men’s side, they also have to acknowledge that women are as good as them. 

I think at home parents always give this subtle message, a difference between girls and boys and that’s where everything starts so I would say bring change from family.

HS: According to the National Family Health Survey, 30 percent women in India in the age group of 15-49 have experienced physical violence. Six percent women in the same age group have experienced sexual violence at least once in their lifetime. About 31 percent of married women have experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence by their spouses. These are very worrying stats. Of course, there are laws in place, so is stricter law enforcement the way forward? But then again a lot of these cases go unreported. What should be the next effective step towards addressing this?

SN: So there are a few issues. I was checking the percentage of female judges in the High Court, it’s only 11 percent. I think there is no space for those women to speak up, to go and seek support and that is something we really need to change. How can all male judges fully understand what happened?I think it’s frightening to talk about what happened, in front of all male judges. So we really need to look at the judiciary and also have more women in the court as well as female lawyers.

Another point is to create a safe space to speak up. I think globally when we talk about one-third of women in one way or another being harassed that means we have them all over.

I am no exception - I have also been harassed in the train, in Japan, on the street and also in a park, in the dark. I am sure there are so many of them who have experienced this. Have I spoken up? Not really, because I just didn’t until the #MeToo movement came out.

Just before this interview, I was discussing with my colleague what to say and it triggered that I have to say I am one of them. Not like being raped, but harassment definitely. If a person like me also has a bit of hesitation, just imagine those women who would be so scared to speak up. I think that really affects the confidence or behaviour and the future of the girls who are experiencing a difficult environment.

At home and also in school we have to have proper education for both girls and boys to talk about it and make sure the teachers also do not dismiss or underestimate the potential of girls.

HS:The UNDP has been doing some grassroots work to skill women for the workforce in India through Project Disha since 2015. I believe you have already helped employ over eight lakh women. What’s the target like for the next couple of years?

SN: The Disha project is one of my favourites, because I am very passionate about women’s empowerment. We have reached out to one million women and girls. But that doesn’t mean all of them will come into the workforce. It is so difficult for them to first speak to their parents and get the so-called permission to come out and go through training. So far, that we have reached out to one million women at also means we have reached out to two million parents and their brothers and sisters. This programme provides career guidance and also imparts leadership skills, something that has not been done in India before. 

The project aims to fill the gap for them to become much more relevant in the job market and be more confident.

HS: Across the world and across all sectors women’s leadership continues to be underrepresented. You have UN Women to address this issue. Could you talk about the steps that are being taken to fix this globally and in India?

HS: Let me take the example of UNDP, my organisation. Now at the reps (representatives) level we have 50 percent women and 50 percent men. That was possible because our administrator and all senior managers were committed to doing this. So political will, the top management, and determination are key. Also, when you look at the UN as a whole, the Secretary General is committed to gender parity so now within his cabinet there are more women than men. Among UN resident coordinators, the ratio is 50:50. So in the end it’s a matter of determination. I think for that to apply to the private sector, to start having more women at senior level so that they can also mentor the younger generation to come out, women should probably learn to network better and nurture the culture of supporting other women.

HS: UN Women has been running the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence since 1991. Could you outline how much has changed on the ground through this over the last three decades?

SN: I think social media has really changed the nature of the campaign. I must admit that when I first started my career in the UN career 20 years ago I did not know about the campaign but for the past 10 years or so it has really picked up and with social media anybody can really talk about it and participate. 

HS: Speaking of social media, while there are positives, there are several downsides as well. A lot of women tend to get abused on the platform. What are your thoughts on this?

SN: I was once a victim of a social media attack. It is very difficult; it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman. But I do feel women can become victims more than men. This is again the culture of tolerance that we need to grow and that comes from school, from home, and we really need to have a holistic approach to change it.

HS: Could you talk a little bit about your journey till now, about your life and how you made it to a leadership role in the UN?

SN: I actually wanted to become a journalist for a long time until my fourth year in university. I actually went to Cebu in the Philippines for diving and for the first time I saw street children without shoes begging for money.I had seen them on TV but seeing them in person just broke my heart. What surprised me was that my friends didn’t really care. They continued to talk about their business and and that also kind of hurt me and I was very disappointed. At that point, I thought maybe I would like to work in the area of development. I also come from a relatively privileged family in Japan, so I would really like to devote my life to some good cause.

HS: What drives you as a person?

SN: At the end of the day when I meet our counterparts, community people, and listen to their lives and how hard it is, and also how committed, resilient they are and trying to live their lives everyday, that’s where I feel I would also like to make my very small, humble contribution.

HS: What does feminism mean to you?

SN: I really don’t think of the word feminist very often. What I am always trying to do is encourage the younger generation, our colleagues, to speak up and make sure that their voices are heard equally as male colleagues.

HS: Who are your inspirations in life? 

SN: I had one woman boss who actually helped me build my confidence 10 years ago. Until then I thought I would never be able to become the head of organisations. She encouraged me to enroll for a few courses and also read some books about women’s leadership and is my role model. Working with her for two years really changed my perspective.

HS: Can you tell us a little about your move to India and how it’s been? 

SN: I am loving India. I have worked in Nepal, Pakistan and the Maldives, so am familiar with the region and was waiting for an opportunity to work in India. My colleagues, counterparts, and all my Indian friends have been very generous with their warm welcome. 

(Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan)


Updates from around the world