Interview by Dr. Dakshina Gammanpila
Dr Rebecca Reichmann Tavares is President and CEO of BrazilFoundation. She previously worked under the United Nations Secretary General as Executive Coordinator of his Every Woman Every Child initiative. A UN diplomat, development and philanthropy professional, Rebecca was former Regional Representative with UN Women in Latin America and Asia for nearly 10 years.
A Native Californian Dr Reichmann Tavares graduated from Yale University and holds a doctorate from Harvard University. She has spoken and published widely and sits on numerous advisory boards. In 2019 Rebecca received the Yale Women of Impact Award.
To set the scene this interview was conducted over a period of time and concluded on March 19th in the wake of happenings in the US and UK it seemed very timely indeed.
Dakshina Gammanpila (DG): Above are some of Rebecca’s credentials to introduce her to you; as well as having a deep professional respect for her work as a leader in women’s rights and gender equality, I am lucky enough to call her a dear friend. In an international diplomatic lifestyle where you make intense friendships and are then forced to say goodbye we were both fortunate to have two back-to-back (and unusually long) postings in Brazil and then India.
I invited Rebecca to speak about her UN role, Gender and Violence Against Women when I was President of a Women’s Organization in Brazil a decade ago, she was (and is) superb.
DG: Hello Rebecca, it is a true privilege to have you as our inaugural trailblazing interviewee, your formal achievements are so impressive and I am keen for our readers to learn more about a woman in leadership.
I know you first and foremost as a friend, mother and a fellow traveller in this weird and wonderful international life. We have known each other for over a dozen years when our families lived in South America and then in South Asia. To have that continuity on two continents and seeing our children grow up has been a blessing, especially in this ex-pat existence.
Could you tell us a little about your professional background?
Rebecca Reichmann Tavares (RRT): Let me first say how honored I am to be part of your column. I was always an avid reader when I lived in Brazil and Delhi and I am so happy to be able to be one of your interviewees.
I first started working in economic development in Peru after one year of graduate school. I was a volunteer in a rural area, the Mantaro Valley in the highlands, and worked with an organization that supported indigenous women’s cooperatives to raise sheep, pigs and chickens. The wool was spun and woven then knit into sweaters for sale in the tourist market. I worked with the cooperatives on health information. From that time forward, I knew I wanted to work internationally and be of some kind of service to economic development and social justice.
I worked with Acción International, a microprise development organization in Latin America for several years, then with the Ford Foundation in Brazil, and more recently served for ten years with UN Women in Latin America and South Asia. I am so happy now to be leading BrazilFoundation to advance human rights and social justice in the country that is so much a part of who we are as a family.
DG: What brought you to India? And how long were you here for?
RRT: I went to India with my family in 2013 with the United Nations, and we left in 2018. We loved every minute, but as I reflect on our years in India, I confess that one never actually can “know” India. India is like the Gnostic idea of Yahweh (God). In Gnosticism, the more you know Yahweh, the further the understanding of God recedes. India is so very vast, ancient and complex, that the more granularity in our understanding of it, the more we are convinced that we know almost nothing.
DG: You came with your family; what was their initial reaction to the idea of relocating to Delhi?
RRT: Everyone was excited. India is magnificent and we all looked forward to the adventure. Ricardo (RRT husband) had already worked in India with the telecoms community and had had a great experience there. So he was the first to say, “Let’s go!”
DG: Had you travelled to India previously? What were your first impressions?
RRT: I first went to India in 1992 and spent several weeks traveling around northern India. When we arrived in 2013 I was stunned at how much more infrastructure was in place, how Delhi had mushroomed, and I was shocked by the air pollution.
DG: What were the highlights – professionally and personally?
RRT: For me, the highlight of my years in India were the lasting bonds built with the incredibly sophisticated and passionate social sector activists and advocates, as well as with the academic community.
DG: And the challenges?
RRT: The pollution, and the traffic.
DG: How was the difference culturally, to anywhere you had lived (and worked) prior to your India posting?
RRT: Very, very different. I had lived and worked mainly in Latin America, a physically expressive culture. I remember clearly upon arrival in India, leaning in for a cheek-kiss with a female Indian acquaintance, which is totally expected in Latin America, but the body language I immediately sensed was….no! After that, I stuck to the traditional greeting of clasping my hands together over the heart in a Namaste greeting.
DG: You and I have managed to spend family time together and time as just two women friends, both in Brazil and India between tightly packed schedules. In terms of family what was your favourite place in India and Delhi?
RRT: One of our favorite places was Goa, because we are beach people. We also loved Ladakh—so majestic and intriguing historically. In Delhi, Lodhi Gardens. What was always so special about Lodhi Gardens was the huge variety of people, dogs, children…all the activity that spanned the full spectrum of Indian society. And, amidst the bustle of the current day, the sense that one walked where for centuries temples, palaces, burial grounds and battles had taken place. I was also acutely aware of the Moghul architectural overlay on traditional Hindu structures—just endlessly fascinating.
DG: Looking more deeply into your work as Head of UN Women in India and the region. Tell us a bit more regarding gender equality and violence against women
RRT: Most UN member states now have laws and policies in place. However, cultural norms and policies have not changed.
DG: Yes, I hear you, working as a barrister and academic showed me that only too clearly; it is all about implementation and who (institutions and individuals) is responsible for that.
RRT: We thought that by achieving the legal frameworks the laws would be enforced and societal change would follow. But violence against women and gender inequality are still epidemic and universal. Data shows that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. In some countries physical and/or sexual violence is up to 70%
DG: Domestic violence globally is much more prevalent than we think. I recall how shocked our audience was when you gave your presentation in Brazil. What about inequalities for girls?
RRT: Every 3 seconds sees a child bride in the world. Between 2010 and 2020 39,000 girls under 18 will be married a day.
DG: We are both mothers of sons and daughters. These figures hit home hard. I recall my daughter interviewing you at your home in Delhi when she was 13 about girls education in India and days lost specifically by girls due to attitudes and inadequate facilities. You inspired her and were such a mentor. So important for girls and young women
RRT: I loved it and enjoyed her extremely intelligent poise and articulate control of the interview. She is a powerhouse! For girls in India continuing in education is a problem as there is a dropout rate at puberty because of lack of safety and toilet facilities to deal with their periods. There are also issues of mercy, vigilante and honour killings. So in addition to changing laws, we work with religious leaders to change attitudes.
DG: In 2016 I worked as consultant on a documentary about sex workers, their children and trafficking. It was an eye opener but hopeful too. In what ways was UN Women working in this area?
RRT: Amongst other things we work with police commissioners, police training academies and military trainers to protect women from violence and especially trafficking.
DG: With so much incredible work in the area of gender, can you share a memorable achievement?
RRT: We worked with the Indian Army to train female officers from all over the world for senior posts in UN peacekeeping missions (that is one of the accomplishments of which I am most proud).
DG: It should be stressed that attitudes and inequalities are not confined to the East. Just today I saw an interview with an MP who was speaking on national news about gender inequality and violence who stated that following the broadcast she knew she would receive hate messaging. Added to that is the upswell of feelings and protest following the murder of Sarah Everard, putting the spotlight on violence and women’s rights and safety and in the US with violent attacks and murders in spas in Atlanta clearly targeting women.
RRT: Yes British parliamentarians previously stepped down due to violent and hateful social messaging and threats of intimidation.
As for the current crisis gripping the UK, the police violence against demonstrators (who are protesting the murder of a woman at the hands of a member of the police) is too surreal. How deeply misogyny lurks in our society.
DG: Misogyny has been put forward as a hate crime in legislative proposal in the House of Lords but as we said earlier it is the implementation of the law or guidelines that is the problem. Legislation may be reactive rather than tackling the issue of how women are treated on a systemic and societal level. Education of all genders seeks to change behaviors and attitudes towards women and girls. I conducted research in the mid to late 90s into police occupational culture and was ‘on call’ in police stations there was certainly a distinctive police behaviour and mindset towards women and girls, both on the beat and in court.
DG: In Southside Stories I have written that the brunt of Covid falling on women, and gender inequalities further compound that. The consequences of that will be experienced for years, perhaps even generations, to come. Domestic abuse of all kinds can have far reaching repercussions beyond the home and impact the nation on human and fiscal levels.
RRT: Yes lost productivity for domestic violence range from 1.2 – 2 per cent GDP across surveyed national economies. UN Women has worked to provide women’s shelters, legal assistance and job training. What is positive is that the women’s movement is strong in India. The problem is implementation on the ground.
DG: So to conclude turning back to your time in Delhi. What do you miss about India?
RRT: The vast natural wilderness, full of wildlife and villages bursting with activity.
DG: And what do you miss about Delhi?
RRT: The dozens of friends and colleagues, many of whom I am still in touch—passionate activists, advocates, artists, educators and humanitarians. I miss them deeply!
DG: Asking you the question from your own UN speech Are Women’s Rights Universal?
RRT: If we are, we are far, far, away from women’s full realization of their individual rights!’
DG: What is your wish, thought, hope for International Women’s Day?
RRT: That we have no more need for ‘Women’s Day!’
DG: I couldn’t agree with you more. I could talk to you for hours (as we did!)
DG: Finally what track, poem or book do you love or brings you inspiration?
RTT: The poem I love most is WH Auden For the Time Being. My favourite author right now is Marilynne Robinson. Her work speaks to a mid-Western sensibility that rings true to me because my mother was brought up in that environment.
DG: Many, many thanks Rebecca. Can’t wait to give you a hug in person. What an inspiring journey championing the rights of women and girls globally over a lifetime, an absolute pleasure to share your Trailblazing tales.