Sunday, March 20, 2016

Farewell Shireen Lateef

from the Fiji Times:

Tribute to 'warrior for women'

Vanessa Griffen
Sunday, March 20, 2016
SHIREEN Lateef spent her early years in Fiji at St Joseph's Secondary School before going to Australia for further studies. She gained a PhD in social anthropology and education from Monash University and lectured at Melbourne University for nine years before joining the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Manila, Phillipines, in 1992 as a social development analyst. She made a name for herself as a major advocate for gender equality and women's rights. On her retirement in 2015, she was senior adviser on gender in the ADB.
I remember Shireen less clearly in her early days of studying for her PhD when she came in and out of Suva. I recall her gaining her PhD and working as a lecturer in Melbourne. Then Shireen joined the ADB and the rest, as they say — or should say — is history.
Shireen was a feminist academic who had done her own social analysis and history of Fijian women of Indian descent. She entered ADB as a social development officer in a development bank whose core business was dispensing loans in millions of dollars, often as mega projects to countries in the world's most highly populated region — Asia.
In the ADB, she faced development projects on a large scale. Shireen would regale us with stories of her response when many projects did not recognise women's existence or lives. Raising her voice in telling of the story or in ADB, she would say, "Hey," with a pause for emphasis, "do you know when you do x (an agriculture project or a water project), This is what it's going to do to the women?!" Her outrage was sometimes comically presented, but absolutely grounded.
Her examples of negative development impacts on women were actual, important, vital, and on impacts too "small" to notice — unless you were a feminist analyst. Shireen could recount what development projects could mean to women in Nepal, or Pakistan, or elsewhere. That is where she travelled.
Shireen was way ahead in her on-the-ground understanding of development bank projects and their gender impacts, for a long time.
In 1995, I went to Asia when I joined the Asian and Pacific Development Centre (APDC), co-ordinating its regional Gender and Development Program in Kuala Lumpur, where I stayed for seven years. Shireen was in Manila. I knew Shireen was there, and knew she had done excellent Pacific case studies also from ADB.
She was known in many circles as a - if not "the" only critical gender voice in the ADB. In large Asia or Asia Pacific women's meetings, she attended as "a funder" or spoke as a representative of development assistance, which is how feminist or women's NGOs tended to categorise feminist women working in institutions.
Shireen had no illusions about her role and its working difference from NGO advocacy. At her desk, she had an insider view of development decisions made for country after country, with replication of minor or major development projects often involving large amounts of development loan money.
There, she was always a watchdog for women's rights, livelihoods, survival mechanisms, health, safety and economic empowerment in country development projects. It was only as a feminist that she would have seen — and truly seen — the impacts on women's reproductive work of changes to water supply, or the backbreaking additional work that a huge agriculture or infrastructure development project would bring to women's daily lives.
Shireen built up a critical gender voice in the bank on its core business - loans. Using a team of staff and regional and international experts, she helped to develop a gender policy for ADB on how to pursue, monitor and advance gender equality and equity in all the bank's operations. She also contributed to the incredibly useful but often unused Country Gender Assessments (Fiji has one). The ADB Gender Policy leaves no room for top management to ask vacuous questions about how gender equality and equity could be put into bank practice. It has its blueprint.
Our paths did not cross often, because APDC, although an intergovernmental organisation, did a lot of its Asia Pacific gender program working with women's NGOs, and through networking, advocacy, policy research and information dissemination on key women's rights and gender equality mandates.
Only later, after I had left the Asia region and then returned as a member of ADB's External Forum on Gender, while also heading the United Nation's Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific's Gender Section, that I fully appreciated Shireen's work at the rockface of a massive development bank. Seeing her on her own turf and having read all the documents on ADB's Gender Policy, I appreciated just what a foundation Shireen had established in a rather monolithic-type institution.
The Forum on Gender met over two-three days and I remember being amused and then immensely admiring, of Shireen's position. At the forum, all bank section heads presented on progress in implementing the ADB gender policy in their areas. Shireen sat to the side at the top of the table, while other ADB staff and the chairperson presided. She was always herself, straight talking, with targeted interventions on gender equality outcomes in the bank's operations.
When a gender position was finally created, Shireen was not appointed because of a management decision to use it as a holding position for a male colleague with no gender knowledge whatsoever. Ever the professional, she continued giving support to ADB on gender.
After one forum session it was clear to me, Shireen was the elephant in the room — to use that phrase nicely! One could pretend she was not there, but she was. All the gender knowledge in ADB rested with Shireen and her forum.
I was very moved by Shireen's functioning as such a strong critical feminist voice (as she certainly was) in the ADB.
From what I observed over the years, I felt much of ADB's gender policy work was because of Shireen's drive. I once said this to her, but she immediately replied: "No, there were a lot of people involved, there were always others to help."
Shireen loved her work in ADB, and did a great deal as one person, one woman, in one place. She handled work beyond the scope of many of us in the Pacific or other multilateral bank officers would know. I recall her being concerned about a large Mekong River project. If she could not crack ADB's decision-making, the fault was the core of development banks: economic decisions made without care for social equality impacts.
Shireen recently passed away, after a battle with cancer. A heartfelt tribute issued immediately by the Multilateral development banks' Working Group on Gender, showed her impact went well beyond ADB: they said she was a "warrior for women" (not usual development bank language) and that through her work in ADB, "millions of women around the world benefitted".
One evening as I was leaving ADB's External Forum on Gender with Shireen, our footsteps echoing in one of ADB's vast entry halls — huge spaces with high ceilings and marbled floors — it struck me, a stranger to the place, that Shireen had been there most of her life, and had made a massive statement through her work on gender equality and women's rights in such a hard environment. There we were, just two women from Fiji in an empty ADB hall.
While she returned to her office to do more work, I turned and walked back to Shireen. There was something I wanted to acknowledge. I know my footsteps echoed in the vast space again, as I came back and I kissed her on the cheek and said: "I am so proud of you."
A little expression came over her face and she didn't joke or brush it off, and neither did I. I hugged her again and said firmly: "I just wanted you to know." One does not get mushy in the halls of the Asian Development Bank. But I was glad I said that to her.
Shireen Lateef was a wonderful force for herself, for women, for gender sensitivity and analysis, and an end to gender blindness in a development bank.
She stayed the course and made a path.
We are proud of her, we mourn her loss, we know she has left a legacy.
Farewell Fiji feminist friend, fun loving person, and great achiever for women's rights in development, in a hard place.
* This was initially prepared for the Fiji Women's Rights Movement tribute to Shireen Lateef and Peni Moore on International Women's Day, March 8, 2016.

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