A Tete-a-tete with Chandni Joshi

Features Issue 77 Jul, 2010
Text by Anuja Upadhyay

First Impressions
A warm smile welcomed me the moment I exchanged greetings with Chandni Joshi, the grace-ful Regional Program Director of UNIFEM (UN Development Fund for Women) in her New Delhi office. As I was settling in we were interrupted by a helper piping hot Nepali tea. I instantly felt comfortable and let my eyes wander around the room adorned with bric-a-bracs and family photographs (second nature to a Nepali).

Her Journey
For the next half an hour I chatted with this calm and elegant lady as she effortlessly answered my questions. From an innocent girl born in Nepal’s Palpa District in 1946 to the tactful and subtle diplomat, the change was gradual. She was born at the time her grandfather was in exile during the Rana Regime. “It is ironic,” she says. “Here the Ranas were living a life of exclusion”—her mother belonged to the Rana family. “At home we referred to Kathmandu as ‘Nepal’ and often wondered about the Ranas’ lifestyle there. I moved to Kathmandu when I was 13,” she reveals. Chandni’s father, Jung Bahadur Chand, a learned man, believed in educating his daughter, but held traditional views when it came to wanting her to work. Her mother, Rajeshwari Devi, was supportive both of her education and of having a career. She nurtured the dream of becoming a lawyer. “But, as one of my colleague in UNIFEM has pointed out: ‘Its good you did not become one as you would be fighting the case of only a few women and not millions’.” So very true. Eventually she dedicated her career and life to the cause of women.

In 1965, having completed her education in Kathmandu, Chandni began teaching English Literature at the all-women’s Padma Kanya Campus. In 1968 she unconventionally married Mohan Raj Joshi, a commoner, after shunning proposals from various aristocrats and royals. In 1971 she became head of the English Department in Padma Kanya Campus, and in 1975 she joined the Home Ministry as English Editor in the government’s Training Material Production Program and became its chief. In 1981 she was appointed Joint Secretary and Chief of the Women’s Development Division. While there she initialized the Production Credit for Rural Women (PCRW), a grassroots program that was successfully replicated and institutionalized nation-wide within a decade. Her work in Nepal brought her fame and contact with donors and diplomats, and eventually led to her to the position of Regional Program Director of UNIFEM in 1990.

I was taken aback when I found out that she had lost her husband and daughter in the crash of the Thai Airways plane heading to Kathmandu from Bangkok in July 1992. I realized that she had gone through the most trying moments but emerged out of them a stronger woman.

Her Feats both Professional and Personal
Chandni Joshi is responsible for having set up the South Asian Regional Office of UNIFEM in Pakistan and India. Her work throughout South Asia involves lobbying with the governments for gender auditing, linking women’s voices with policy-makers, promoting learning and sharing among countries and adding to UNIFEM’s knowledge base. UNIFEM works for women’s human rights and human security, reducing poverty and exclusion, eradicating violence against women (including human trafficking), and with HIV/AIDS prevention and promoting good governance.

Chandni says that she is proud to have been able to bring women’s voices to the fore, be it in national development plans, policy making or on budgets, or in the laws in South Asia. “UNIFEM has been emphasizing national ownership, capacity building, sustainability and recognition of people’s work from the very beginning,” she says. “The work of UNIFEM has always been that of a facilitator in relation to the United Nations system of development cooperation, strengthening collaboration with governments, bilateral donors and civil society partners who work for the advancement of women. We have never taken credit for what we have done.”

“I feel very proud when women in difficult positions take leadership and voice their concerns or formulate laws and policies,” she says. “It is very empowering.”

Indeed, 30 years ago women did not use words like ‘empowerment’, and one thought twice even mentioning ‘human rights’ of women. Chandni Joshi’s leadership has greatly contributed and facilitated UNIFEM’s mandate in building that environment and bringing various governments, gender advocates and researchers together in common platforms along with SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). This has been one of her greatest achievements. UNIFEM has always been part and parcel of processes that have happened.

The Nepal Program Office has also been able to bring women together in one platform in Nepal from 53 different districts and countries like India, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, and others, even when Nepal was going through turmoil. This led to the formation of Shanti Mallika, an NGO network whose women have worked on a 10-point agenda that is being carried on even today. Their focus is human rights of women, election process and building the constitution, and the needs of women in a very strategic manner.

Personally, Chandni feels that being able to balance and juggle her professional and family life, being a single mother and raising children and providing a normal life situation to them has been her greatest achievement. “Neither has my profession been a hindrance to my personal life nor the other way around,” she says.

Her Inspiration

When asked about any special incident or people who inspired her in her
career, she points out that it has been a combination of people and a series of incidents. “One such incident was when I successfully contested with 11 other people for Nepal’s Public Service Commission, where only two seats were available. Working in Nepal during the mid-60s, starting with teaching, also inspired me. It was not merely teaching English Literature but trying to understand the concerns of young adolescent women—what wearing a uniform meant, what they aspired to be, and so forth,” she says. While in Palpa watching pretty young women prisoners from close quarters, and being told that they were there as a result of “bad karma” motivated her to work for gender justice.
There were also institutions like the Self Employment Women’s Association (or SEWA, an NGO of poor, self employed women workers and a trade union based in Ahmedabad, India), and women like Kamal Rana who also contributed. Her family was also very supportive. Her mother, in spite of being illiterate, felt all her children should be equally educated, with no preferential treatment given to her sons. Chandni’s late husband was equally cooperative in supporting her work, though it required a lot of travel and time away from home. Her children were extremely accommodating, too. Her belief in learning what she does not know and also taking opportunities were also inspiring. Looking at development modules suited to Nepal’s context helped. Ultimately, it is her faith and belief in women, and their’s in her, that tops the list.

After Retirement Plans
Chandni Joshi has recently been relocated to Nepal as Global Advisor, and will be retiring from UNIFEM towards the end of this year. She strongly feels that she has taken so much in terms of getting opportunities, trainings and professional exposure that it is time to pay something back. “I will definitely start writing and it will not be fiction or speeches—it will be a How-To’s,” she says. She wants to devote more time in retrospection and do a lot of writing. “Women in Nepal are looking at how to go about doing things. I am also looking at running an institution based in Nepal, more of an intellectual ‘Think Tank’ that will be broad and knowledge based,” she concludes.

She feels that improving the situation of women has to be looked upon from a combined social, political and economic aspect. Development workers should have self-motivation and the patience to listen to women. A baseline and a target as to what one wants to achieve is necessary. National policies should reflect the voices of women and women should be given 50% of processes like the peace accord or rebuilding of the nation, and invited to forums. The representation of women  should be real representation; i.e., of women from all levels of society, especially from the grassroots.

Chandni loves travel, music and reading (especially autobiographies), and spending quality time with her children (son Pranay and daughter Shristi) and grandchildren. “My two grandsons constantly keep me entertained. I believe spending time with them leads to longevity,” she says. She enjoys cooking, too. Her hospitality is well known and one frequently finds her house buzzing with guests, many of whom are there for a sumptuous Nepali meal. She is also passionate about knitting. About travel, she says she especially enjoys going to picturesque locales. “I loved San Marino near Italy. The undulating roads there reminded me of Palpa. I also loved Victoria in Canada, a place for students as well as retired people with vast expanses of greenery’, she reflects nostalgically.

Message for Women of Nepal and South Asia
Realizing that 30 minutes has already flown by, my chat with Chandni Joshi concluded with a message from her for the women of Nepal and South Asia. She encourages all women to have a principle in life and stick with it, whatever the circumstances, to work hard in spite of risks involved (as hard work always bears fruit), and to be accountable for one’s work.

A woman with fortitude, a visionary with dynamism and an inspiration for South Asian women, Chandni Joshi wants to continue to work for women of Nepal and South Asia even after retiring from the United Nations. She has many moons yet to see and her journey in South Asia is not over yet.