(June 8, 2023) In a world where boundaries are being shattered and progress is accelerating, the fight for gender equality remains an urgent and ever-relevant battle. Global women’s issues have transcended geographic, cultural, and socioeconomic barriers, demanding our unwavering attention and concerted efforts. Fighting tirelessly against these issues is an Indian-American Dr. Geeta Rao Gupta, who was recently confirmed by the U.S. Senate as United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues. Nominated by the President of the USA, Joe Biden, himself, the gender activist is the former Executive Director of the 3D Program for Girls and Women at the UN Foundation.
“I believe that you can trigger a social and cultural change in women’s status by giving women increased economic opportunities,” the gender activist shared in an interview, adding, “It can help women achieve the social status that can bring about those cultural changes that might otherwise take a long time. If they can have control over that income, that’s a significant piece of it: not just being able to earn the income but control over how they spend it. They can bear a lot of the costs of the social changes that they might then want to bring about.”
Recognising the Global Indian‘s unwavering commitment to empowering women and fostering economic empowerment, Dr. Rao Gupta served as the former president of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). The gender activist was also appointed by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as the deputy executive director for UNICEF and the vice chair of the board for the GAVI Alliance, where she served from 2011 to 2016.
Born in Mumbai in 1956, Dr. Rao Gupta was raised in Delhi where she was first introduced to the various gender differences prevalent in society. While she was always vocal about these issues, the gender activist started participating in various gender issues during her time at the University of Delhi, where she pursued her Masters in psychology and M.Phil. A brilliant student, Dr. Rao Gupta went on to earn a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Bangalore University.
During her studies in social psychology, Dr. Rao Gupta took on various roles to make a positive impact. She worked as a counselor at a drop-in center in New Delhi, providing support to people in need. The gender activist shared her knowledge by giving lectures in psychology departments at different universities. Notably, at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, she collaborated with a team to create the first-ever women’s studies curriculum for graduate students in India.
Interestingly, this curriculum aimed to enhance understanding and knowledge about women’s issues and experiences. Through her work, the gender activist demonstrated her dedication to helping others and promoting gender equality in education. Speaking about how her mother’s journey inspired her own, the activist shared, “Years ago, my mother received a Ford Foundation fellowship in public health that brought her to Berkley University at the age of 40. She was an MD but through this 13-month program received a public health degree and gained policy experience at the Department of Health and Human Services during the summer. The training and the confidence she built through that year, transformed her – personally and professionally. Thanks to her, each of us, her children, is now working in some way in this field.”
While she was passionate about gender equality and related issues, it was an incident during her pregnancy that changed her outlook on the whole problem. “When I delivered my baby in India, in a hospital in an urban site, the nurse would not tell me whether the child was a girl or a boy, because I had delivered a girl child, and she was nervous that I would be so upset with the news that I would hemorrhage and my health would be at risk,” she shared, adding, “So they held the news from me till a few hours later, and told me that I had a girl child with great nervousness that I would be upset. When they saw how overjoyed I was and how pleased my parents and my parents-in-law were, the nurse came to me and said, “You belong to a very strange family. Were you raised in India?”
This incident led the activist to double her efforts and create more awareness about girl birth rates in the country.
The land of opportunities
The gender activist moved to the United States of America in the mid-1980s, where she began working at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). Passionate about making a difference in people’s lives, the activist held various roles at ICRW, such as being a consultant, researcher, and vice president. During the 1990s, she led an important research program that looked into why women were more vulnerable to getting HIV. This program was ground breaking and spanned 15 countries, aiming to understand the social and economic factors behind this vulnerability. In 1996, Dr. Rao Gupta was appointed as the president of ICRW, furthering her commitment to addressing women’s issues and making a positive impact – a position she held for 15 years.
After her tenure as the deputy executive director for UNICEF, from 2011 to 2016, Dr. Rao Gupta was appointed as a member of the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee for the WHO Health Emergencies Programme. Working on various programmes, including population control, the gender activist faced several challenges. “Population control is an old-fashioned term that was used by demographers when they had certain target fertility rates and population numbers in mind that they wanted to reach. But it’s a term that puts women at risk, of course. It takes the control of fertility out of women’s hands and puts it in the hands of the public policymaker, the demographer, and the doctor. Whereas in fact, fertility control should be in the hands of women,” she explained.
Climbing the ladder
Dr. Rao Gupta co-chaired the World Bank’s Global Gender-Based Violence (GGBV) Task Force for about a year until 2017. Sought after by the development community and media, the gender activist’s expertise in the area earned her a nomination from President Joe Biden to be the United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, which was confirmed by the US Senate in May 2023.
Speaking about Dr. Rao Gupta’s confirmation, Michelle Milford Morse, Vice President of the UN Foundation’s Girls and Women Strategy recently said, “Dr. Gupta is a deeply admired leader with extensive experience in the priority areas of the Office of Global Women’s issues. This is a critical role for U.S. global leadership, and Dr. Gupta will fulfill it with great distinction.” The gender activist is set to start her tenure as the ambassador in September 2023.