Woman Leadership Boosts Rotary Movement

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Some lucky people get a few special moments in life that becomes cherishing memories throughout their lives. During my professional life I have had the opportunity of encountering some important dignitaries who have made history in their own sectors. Some I met to interview them as a journalist like Benazir Bhutto, several Nepali Prime Ministers, and international celebrities in the political and other sectors. Some I worked with like Ela Bhat, and Prof Mohammad Yunus, among others. I had the opportunity, once, to introduce the award-winning Editor Walter V Robinson who with his investigative journalist team the Spotlight was able to make history by uncovering the Catholic Roman Church sex scandal. This made his team a source of hope and justice for several people especially children. Later his work was turned into a Hollywood film The Spotlight.

Recently, during her current visit to Nepal from December 4 to 8, I have had the pleasure of introducing Jennifer E Jones, to a gathering in Kathmandu. Jones has broken one more glass ceiling by becoming the first female president of Rotary International (RI). For the first time in the 115-year history of the Rotary International (RI) a woman has been elected as the first woman President. Jones - founder and president of Media Street Productions Inc. - an award-winning media company in Windsor, Canada, has finally succeeded to change the face of the leadership of RI, which has a membership of 1.4 billion people with over 46,000 clubs globally!

Breaking barriers

During her address to a gathering of more than 400 Rotarians from in Kathmandu recently, she said that it was very important to have diversity and equity and break barriers in RI. She stressed on the fact that as a business community there was need to reflect on various aspects of why markets crash or how business could flourish better. Inclusion and diversity everywhere would improve the performance everywhere. 

She emphasised that in order to have a society that we want, we need to work to make it exist. In Rotary she emphasised that "we bring leaders and groom them to be better leaders.” She talked about her passion right from her student days to work for the society and get involved in development work. 

The attempts within the Rotary movement to help create drinking water facilities around the world and end polio were some of the aspects that made her active in the Rotary activities. She shared that working together to change lives and make a difference in the community to create a healthy, safe and happy society was what every Rotarian should work towards. During the same event Jaya Shah the first and so far the only female District Governor from Nepal expressed her delight to welcome Jones to Nepal and admired the qualities that Jones had which helped her to climb the ladder of leadership in Rotary movement and make her the first President of RI.

During this event a book including stories of 100 women leaders from Nepal was also launched by RI President Jones. In 1905, Paul Harris - a Chicago-based lawyer - organised the first Rotary Club. Although the purpose of Harris then was to have a club for professionals and businessmen, he realised that he should steer it towards more meaningful work and RI quickly grew on to become a global humanitarian organisation.

Women’s participation

Until 1989, the Constitution and Bylaws of Rotary International stated that Rotary club membership was for males only. According to the Women in Rotary site, in 1978, the Rotary Club of Duarte, California, USA, invited three women to become members. The RI Board withdrew the charter of that club for violation of the RI constitution. The club brought suit against RI claiming a violation of a state civil rights law that prevents discrimination of any form in business establishments or public accommodations. The appeals court and the California Supreme Court supported the Duarte position that Rotary could not remove the club's charter merely for inducting women into the club. The Supreme Court of United States upheld the California court’s verdict indicating that Rotary clubs do have a "business purpose" and are in some ways public-type organisations.

There are several examples in different clubs in various countries where women started defying the men-only provision within the club. The change to the RI constitution was made at the 1989 Council on Legislation, with a vote to eliminate the "male-only" provision for Rotary clubs and districts all over the world. Since then, women have become members and leaders of clubs and districts throughout the world. The struggle of women to reach the top position in any organisation is still ongoing all over the world. With Jones in the RI driving seat, the Rotary movement has succeeded in giving out a strong message that women are able to lead everywhere.

(Namrata Sharma is a journalist and women rights advocate.  namrata1964@yahoo.comTwitter handle: NamrataSharmaP)

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