In conversation: Deputy Representative Nafisa Binte Shafique

On International Women’s Day UNICEF Sudan's Deputy Representative reflects on gender equality in the workplace and gives advice to future generations

woman holds baby

09 March 2020

After being a role model to countless women, during her 20-year-long career working with women and children across the globe, Deputy Representative Nafisa Binte Shafique reflects back on her role models and how she has overcome the obstacles that come with being a woman in the workplace. 

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day “I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights” is related to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which embarks on the 25th year. The declaration was adopted in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women in China, which is recognized as the most progressive roadmap for the empowerment of women and girls in the world.


Why is it important for UNICEF to celebrate International Women’s Day?

Gender equality and equity are at the heart of our organizational mandate. Whatever we do it must contribute to realize rights of girls and boys. International Women’s Day (IWD) is to celebrate women’s as well as girls’ achievements in different spheres of life like social, economic, cultural, and political. IWD is also an important tool for advocacy to influence policymakers striving towards gender equality. For UNICEF IWD celebration could have two aspects; first it gives us the opportunity to reflect on progress made, to call for change and second to celebrate our women workforce. Especially those who did not necessarily walk the same path as our men counterparts to come to this level and contribute to achieving the mandate of UNICEF. 

The theme this year is I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights, how does the UN address gender equality in its work?

The UN addresses gender equality through everything we do and advocate for. Our policy, guidelines, programmes all are geared towards ensuring gender equality and equity. For UNICEF our mandate is upholding child rights irrespective of sex, age, and other variables. The theme of this year’s IWD is related to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which embarks on the 25th year. The declaration was adopted in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women in China, which is recognized as the most progressive roadmap for the empowerment of women and girls. This is also integral part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as 1325 on women, peace and security. In 2000, UN Security Council Resolution 1325 asserted that peace is inextricably linked with gender equality. The UN facilitates the process of advancing gender equality worldwide, it also advocates at country, regional and global level on what needs to be done to achieve the goals by taking stock of progress made for women’s rights since the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action. 

What does gender equality mean to you?

Gender equality to me means human rights! It is the state of equal access to resources and opportunities regardless of sex, including economic participation and decision-making. In other words non-discrimination.

Gender equality to me means human rights!

What barriers have you faced, as a woman, in becoming successful in your field? How did you overcome them?

The barriers are at different levels. At an individual level – where I grew up knowing and thinking I am not equal to my male counterpart and it takes a lot of strength and courage to overcome that. At family level in every step I was reminded that I am a girl/woman and I have a boundary, that I should not cross. At societal level it was almost a stigma and shame to take up a full-time job or becoming an international staff as I left my husband in Bangladesh, when I took up an IP post. Most interestingly, although the UN promotes gender equality, I have faced numerous challenges and discrimination at the workplace. Every time I shattered a glass ceiling to realize there is another one, which is much thicker. We have a long we to go as UN to walk the talk, it is unbelievably male dominated and patriarchal! I tried to overcome all these barriers by staying focused on my goal and nurturing my passion to make this world a better place for girls and women. There are always positive deviances and my husband is one of them, without his support and sacrifice, I would have never come to this stage. 

What advice did you receive early in your career that has stayed with you?

One of my mentors told me not to lose my passion and commitment also never stop chasing my dreams, this was the best piece of advice. I was also advised that it is a man’s world, but I should know I have the exact same rights to create my own world – a world which is Just, Fair and Impartial!   

Can you tell me about a female role model who has inspired you over your career?

I have several role models and almost all of them are females. I grew up observing my grandmother, who was the headmistress of a primary school in Dhaka. She was a phenomenal woman, who used to help girls and women of the neighborhood socially and economically empowered by her talks and handicraft training. I always wanted to be like her. I was very fortunate to work with a few extraordinary women Representatives after I joined UNICEF - Aichatou Diawara-Flambert, Gillian Mellsop, Hanaa Singer. They are emotionally intelligent, caring, nurturing, empowering and extremely passionate about the mandate of the organization. Interestingly, all three of them believed good leaders create more leaders not followers!  I am fortunate to be mentored by them and I mentor a number of young female colleagues, so the circle continues. 

Why do you think diversity is so important in the workplace?

Diversity in any organization fosters innovation and creativity. It brings tolerance and acceptance of different cultures, views, orientations consequently a sense of 'belongingness' and equality. 

Lastly, what three skills do you think are essential to be a great leader?

Being empathetic, nurturing/caring and to rise beyond one’s ego.