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Human Rights Watch recently awarded Japan ‘A Gold Medal for Sexism’ after the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee President Yoshiro Mori complained that “women talk too much” in response to a query on increasing gender diversity on the Japanese Olympic Committee board.

The Olympics Body claims that “Sport is one of the most powerful platforms for promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls” and yet when Mori makes statements such as “If we increase the number of female board members, we have to make sure their speaking time is restricted somewhat, they have difficulty finishing, which is annoying,” this contradicts the very essence and values of the organization. 

After mounting pressure on the Olympics Committee and several hundred petitions later, Mori resigned a week after, although initially expressing no intention of stepping down. What this incident shows is the male-dominated boys club’ within the Japanese society and the patriarchy that continues to exist. His resignation may also seem tokenistic but it still sends a message that such sentiments cannot and must not be tolerated, whilst also making a strong case for a need for structural and policy reforms to ensure gender equality in all parts of Japanese society. 

Countries like Japan and Sri Lanka cannot be compared. Yet, sadly, attitudes like Mori’s and such patriarchal sentiments are all too common, not just in Japan but world over – including in Sri Lanka. This is particularly visible in the recent uproar against the appointment of Ms. Bimshani Jasin Arachchi as the first Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of the Sri Lanka Police. 

Both these examples have one thing in common; it shows that sexism is very much prevalent both on and off the courts, and we have a long way to go to reach gender equality. 

If we do not have open conversations about these structural inequalities with both men and women, we will never be able to change the mindset of societies at large, and as a result, women will never be able to be in positions of leadership or power without constantly challenging their way through the glass ceiling or being questioned by others. Worse, women ourselves tend to underestimate our own capacity under social pressure, limiting our own potential. 

This means we need to cultivate a conducive environment so the next generation can have a better understanding about gender equality and more broadly, social justice. If children understand the true meaning of gender equality, it not only prevents them from having gender discriminatory attitudes, but also frees them from harmful gender norms, such as ‘boys don’t cry’. This helps children accept who they are, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity, and thrive as individuals. In today’s polarized world, we need our children and young people to be able to understand the universality and inter-linkages across our society. 

Women also need strong support systems to back them up. With the lack of such systems in place, we know women also have the triple burden to bear – a burden that we have seen a far increase in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This triple burden of paid work, unpaid domestic work and care work exerts enormous physical and emotional stress on women, and deprives them of opportunities to pursue education and skill development. It also takes a toll on women’s emotional wellbeing. In cases where women ‘bosses’ also have to manage large offices and a cadre of employees whilst balancing their home life, this could take an even greater toll. 

We also need to be cognizant that leadership is not just about being a CEO or a Head of an Organization/ Department. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed incredible leadership of healthcare workers including gender-based violence service providers operating within women’s organizations that run shelters*, and other first responders. Their dedication, sense of mission, and care for others are exemplary as leaders in the context of crises and emergencies. In our work at UNFPA, those who work to support survivors of violence are part of these ‘undiscovered’ leaders.

We all know someone like this – undiscovered leaders in the making who show true leadership qualities. They may not have an impressive job title, or a dominant leadership style. Nevertheless, leaders in their own way. We need to embrace this diversity in leadership beyond the traditional and authoritarian leadership style, both for men and women. As the former first lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama once said, “Strong men – men who are truly role models – don’t need to put down women to make themselves feel powerful. People who are truly strong lift others up. People who are truly powerful bring others together.”

This International Women’s Day, let’s explore how we can create a more conducive environment for women and girls to take on more leadership roles on an equal ground with respect and dignity. As nations race to recover and respond to this ongoing crisis, this is the moment to envision and implement transformational change. The moment we can truly reset how we operate, not just for ourselves but for all aspiring young girls and boys. If we want to thrive in the new normal, we should make sure women have the space and opportunities to be in positions of leadership. Wherever they may be and in whatever they may choose to do, one thing is clear – there is no place for sexism on or off the court!

This Opinion-Editorial is authored by Ms Ritsu Nacken, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative of Sri Lanka and Country Director, Maldives. Ms. Nacken is a Japanese national with close to 20 years of experience in working within the United Nations across several countries. 


*The Jaffna Social Action Centre, Women in Need and the Women’s Development Centre are three organizations that operate around the country to provide safe shelters for women and girls experiencing violence. These shelters are also supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) through the PROMISES, a project funded by the Government of Japan. Through this project, UNFPA is working to strengthen local shelters with comprehensive service provisions with the hope of empowering survivors and victims of sexual and gender-based violence.