Dr. Suchi Gaur is the Lead, Global Engagement and Strategic Communications at the World YWCA, based in Geneva. She joined the World YWCA in 2018, after working in communication, gender, health and community mobilisation in India and South-East Asia. In this interview, she talks about what young women have in common all over the world, and what it means to ‘walk the talk’ for a global feminist organisation.
You moved from a regional role in South-east Asia to an international organisation in Geneva about a year ago. What advice would you give your past self about this big move?
One of the best decisions I have made in my life has been to make this move to a global position in Geneva, the hub of international NGOs. The advice I would give my past self would be to be more open and prepared for people from different cultures coming together and the implication of this on the way of working, including the cultural difference being in Europe. Working with international organisations comes with learning the art of managing the challenges around global teams. For anyone who wants to make this transition, my suggestion would be to have an open mind to challenges. There are a lot of cultural differences. Geography, food, environment, language — and everything affects you, so unless you are open to challenges, things might not be as pretty as they seem.
What are you most proud of that you’ve achieved so far?
When I joined the World Office, there were these amazing communication channels, but they missed the common thread of being strategically aligned. The office was undergoing transition. One of the things that I'm proud about, is that I have been constantly pushing everyone, including myself, to link communications and engagements in terms of enhancing our movement’s global brand value along with creating more entry points for young women to join the vision. I've been consistent in helping the office shape a vision towards making communication more effective. Change is never easy and it never comes smooth. But with change comes the ease of enhancing impact in the current global development environment.
Earlier this year, we sent a callout to start a global communications group and we now have 20 plus national member associations representatives, with more to join. Previously, each of the 109 member associations working with us globally did so without us having a one on one, group based link to any of their communication point of contacts, which meant that they were not engaged well in our branding activities. Now, we are consulting this group, asking them what will work and what is not working. From a brand perspective, one thing I am proud of is that we are now engaging the movement more into the process of developing the brand rather than just implementing it. We are also starting a young women’s social media champion group where young women are going to work with us and receive training in movement building, campaigning, through social media. Because it’s an organisation for young women, we are involving young women in the very fabric of creation of messages, selection of issues and doing campaigns and collaborations with others out there.
When you're working with young women across so many cultural contexts, what commonalities do you see?
All young women I have worked with, met and spoken to have stories to share. They have stories of success. They have stories of failures. They just need the right platforms to share them, advocate the issues around them, in a way that impact can happen. We have a young woman from Nepal who is working with us very closely. She has these stories of child marriage and runaway child brides from Nepalese villages, and how they have successfully gained a new life, with support of the local YWCA, that you're mesmerised listening to them. Another young woman from Kenya has shared many stories of FGM (female genital mutilation) impact on survivors with us. I have met women from Sri Lanka with inspirational stories of young women working in tea plantations. Despite all the global gaps and cultural and regional divisions, these stories are connecting us to each other because they evoke something in every young woman. This is the driving force behind the need for change. The YWCA movement is full of such stories of success and challenges. Through our upcoming ventures, the World YWCA is trying to see how to map them, connect these young women for consultation and sharing experiences, and then convert these into evidence-based advocacy work.
It can be difficult to work within a networked organisation — what skills do you see leaders needing to do this kind of work, and what skills do you have that have made you successful in this context?
There are a number of skills that complement each other in this context. Networked organisations like the YWCA movement are a very diverse system to function with. A mind-set of inclusivity in leaders is extremely important. Being compassionate, understanding and accepting of the differences yet goal oriented is a must when working in different parts of the world.
The other skill set needed, especially with youth-based organisations, relates to intergenerational collaboration. It is a big strength to have different age groups working in an organisation to keep the mission relevant while integrating generational wisdom.
My biggest learning as a leader has been that while it is important to make your voice heard, it is also critical to remain goal oriented to the larger vision. What happens easily in feminist organisations is that the goal is lost, because everyone is trying to be inclusive. How you work those dynamics is a big challenge, and I try to bring my feminist principles and my leadership principles together under the responsibility of ensuring that everything aligns to a key initiative or goal.
Which aspects of the YWCA global conference, the upcoming World Council in South Africa, are you looking forward too?
It is an exciting time with 300-500 global women and young women coming together. Everyone is super excited about the theme i.e., Young Women Transforming Power Structures for Gender Equality and the location — South Africa, which is so rich and culturally known for women’s movements. The World YWCA is looking forward to some amazing young women-led and focussed consultations and workshops, where we will be bringing great suggestions on how to further implement the bold transformative Goal 2035.
The Council will be a platform where young women will be leading the process of furthering engagement and integration of young women into the processes rather than just given spaces to share voices at the podium.
Feminist organisations always face the challenge of walking the talk. How are young women integrated into the work of gender equality, not just as project managers and beneficiaries, but as decision-makers, do-ers and driving forces? For example, young women together are designing our feminist research methodology which will be shared at the World Council. They are the ones defining how we should consult amongst each other for not just what thematic areas to focus on, but also how. This means, young women are not being seen as mere participants but are driving the processes as they see it making sense for the young women.
You recently returned to work after having your first child and which you have written about. This is an experience so many people have, but our society still does not do a good enough job supporting young families. How has this experience informed your work?
The day I found out I was pregnant, the first thought in my mind was that I have to warn my potential new employer in case they would prefer someone else to take on this role. But my current boss, our General Secretary, Casey Harden reassured me that YWCA is a feminist movement and that pregnancy is such an important phase for a woman which we need to embrace and support. It just strengthened my commitment towards this role because World YWCA made that commitment too — I realised I have to work harder, I have to work smarter, I have to give this more than my 100%.
Even though I applied for day-care while I was pregnant, I haven’t yet been assigned a facility by the Canton of Geneva. Process in Switzerland are very centralised and so, access to daycare facilities aren't easy. This is a problem for working women like me who want to smoothly move back into their jobs post the exhausting process of giving birth. Now, my daughter and my husband come along with me to work. We share the responsibilities of raising our daughter. My colleagues help me and take her on their breaks too sometimes. Constantly breastfeeding in the office is not easy, but there is an element of comfort because my team regards it as normal. It is very important for women to have such a supportive work environment. Women work spaces need to be supportive and conducive to the different roles played by women. This is what walking the talk means at the end and I am extremely lucky that our General Secretary and the whole World YWCA team has been supportive of this process.
We are in a movement where anything we are doing is actually showcasing and setting standards for the outside world to see that things can be done differently. As a women's movement, what you do, and how you walk the talk is actually how the world will look at you and your organisation. This experience has not only made me more receptive to the needs at work space but also the flexibility has helped me become more committed to making my work productive. I juggle at times but I balance it with defining what work will be done when. Feminist workspaces like these showcase that good work cultures mean more than just 9 to 5 work hours, and are aimed at productivity and embracing challenges to make work possible.
When I share with friends and professional colleagues about how the office has been so supportive, the immediate reaction is that “that is so amazing, it is a dream for us women to work in such environments”. This is a reminder that we have a long way to go till we make work spaces for women conducive for them to grow and embrace their challenges.