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Dearth of female political leaders major woe for India, activist says

India's president Pratibha Devisingh Patil.

Rafiq Maqbool/Rafiq Maqbool/AP

Shruti Ubadhyay is a political activist in her native India, but she would really like to be a politician.

Ms. Ubadhyay is one of 16 women, selected from hundreds of applicants from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and South America, who are taking part in a 20-week global-leadership program offered by the International Centre for Women's Leadership at Coady Institute of St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.

The program aims to equip women from developing countries with the skills they need to drive change. Linda Jones, the director of the centre, says by addressing the sexual imbalance in the world's leadership, "we will be able to change the course of history."

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On Wednesday the program participants were in Ottawa to listen to Canadian women talk about their experiences as leaders, including journalist Sally Armstrong, Native Women's Association of Canada president Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, and International Development Minister Bev Oda.

Ms. Ubadhyay, who is a women's rights activist with the development agency Christian Aid in Delhi, explained in an interview with The Globe and Mail why programs like this can make a difference.

India is predicted to become an economic powerhouse. How can a course like this help someone who is from a country that is as developed as India?

It is one of the fastest-growing economies but there exist multiple Indias within India, and the majority of people are still living below the poverty line. Sixty per cent of the population still does not have more than half a dollar [per day]to live on. So, for a person like me, and especially a woman leader, this kind of a program matters so much for the kind of opportunity that it gives, especially in these societies which are quite feudal and patriarchal.

Pratibha Devisingh Patil, a woman, is the current president of India. Is that not proof that women can rise to high office in your country?

Yes, but that's where the challenge is. When it comes to the number of women leaders, it's like you can count them on your fingertips. And how do you define leadership? Women lead in the households. Women lead at the community level. But are they actually there when it comes to the negotiating tables of power?

Do you think that India would be a different place if there were more women leaders?

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Oh certainly. Women perceive, understand and experience the world very differently [to men] ... There is empirical evidence available that when women come into power as village council leaders, almost 30 per cent of the expenditures increase in terms of the investments in health, education, and such essential segments.

There is inequality here in Canada. What are you learning by being here in Canada when we've got our own equality issues?

There are certain challenges, there are certain connectors, that women, as an agency, face collectively across the board. And sharing those challenges is something that really helps you strengthen your agency. There are certain progressive laws that Canada has [passed] and there are certain very progressive things that India has witnessed in its recent past in the form of the [act to protect]women from domestic violence. So, for me, what has been so interesting is to learn what are the gains that the women's movement has made here. What are the gains that the women's movement in India and South Asia have made? And how do we work together to strengthen and build that collective of a women's agency across the world?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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