Case Study: The Silent Revolution - Quotas in Single Member Districts: India

Case Study: The Silent Revolution - Quotas in Single Member Districts: India

This case study was written for a UN Women Guide on Temporary Special Measures in 2012.

The quota adopted for women in India’s village-level councils (Gram Panchayats) offers one of the most robust examples of the impact of gender quotas on governance and political life – particularly in single-member districts. One-third of village council membership and council chief positions are reserved for women as part of a series of constitutional reforms to devolve government – the quota has been in place since approximately 1993. The requirement was increased to 50% in 2009 in a bid to safeguard better demographic representation among minorities.

Prior to the implementation of gender quotas, India’s political environment, displayed a marked gender, social and ethnic imbalance among its elected bodies. Despite the country bosting a number of influential female political leaders, just over 5% of the members in its lower parliament were women and less than 5% in lower councils, or panchayats.[i]

The three-tiered Panchayat system introduced the 1990s is comprised of three levels: the village (Gram Panchayat), block  (Panchayat Samiti) and district level councils (Zilla Parishad).  Members are directly elected for a five-year term. Although the system had existed formally since India’s independence, it only became an effective body of governance in all states in the 1990s when a constitutional amendment established a country-wide three-tiered framework with regular elections (using the first-past-the-post system).

At the lowest tier, Gram Panchayats comprise between 5 and 15 villages. Each is responsible for the local administration of public goods, implementing development programs and responding to the needs of villages under its jurisdiction, from local infrastructure projects to identifying welfare recipients and resolving disputes. Each has flexibility in allocating funds. [ii]

Candidates are generally put forward by political parties and are resident in the villages they represent. After the council members are elected, members elect a chief or Pradhan from among themselves (the sole council member with a full-time appointment) along with an Upa-Pradhan or Vice-Chief. Council decisions are made by majority voting, and although the Pradhan does not hold veto authority,[iii] s/he has the final say on fund allocations and beneficiaries. [iv]

Quotas for women

The implementation of quotas was made possible by the move to decentralize and create a political structure that better included poor and marginal groups.[v] The system included quotas for two of India’s disadvantaged minorities, as well as women. [vi] The gender quota applies to all seats whether or not they are also reserved for minorities.

The constitutional amendment required states to reserve one-third of Panchayat council seats and leader positions, including the Gram Panchayat, using a rotation system.[vii]  The rules that govern the selection of reserved districts for the have varied by State, but all ensure random rotation and have generally been fully implemented.


Among India’s 2,65,000 village governing bodies, more than a million women have since been elected into the reserved positions in these panchayats.[viii] Studies have reported a broadly representative section of caste and class, with lower caste women are as likely to serve on the panchayats as lower caste men.[ix] While some women have been perceived as a stand-in for male relatives, this has not been extensively reported.

The randomized nature of this quota has allowed the causal impact of female leadership to be measured. Studies have been able to compare perceptions and policies in villages that have experienced the leadership of a female Pradhan once, or more than once, as well as those that have never done so.

The quotas have been credited for substantial electoral gains for women, suggesting that the policy has been widely accepted. At the lower levels this was seen for example, in villages with unreserved elections in the 2008 round of voting. Female Pradhan were elected in 13 % of such villages that had experienced a single term of female leadership, and 17 % in those with exposure twice, and even in 10 % of villages with no history of reservation. In general, evidence points to the greatest leap in impact taking place after two rounds, suggesting that it takes time for voters to adjust to quotas and update their mindsets.[x]. After two rounds of reservation, 3.3 % more women chose to run for office in unreserved districts.[xi] Further research shows that voter confidence in female Pradhans (and the ability of women to lead in general) grows with exposure to female leadership.[xii] The Pradhans themselves, when surveyed, were shown to match the confidence of male counterparts in executing their duties after approximately two years in the position.[xiii] This is reflected in the willingness of many to rerun for office.[xiv] While a backlash effect is sometimes seen among male voters, it has been usually eliminated after two rounds of reservation. [xv]

Early studies of the impact of the reservation on participation recorded nominal participation and a lack of influence among women council and Gram Panchayat members,[xvi] but later studies have documented more substantial impacts. A 2006 report from the World Bank found that in West Bengal, the election of a female Pradhan increased the general involvement of women in sessions.[xvii]

The popularity of the quotas has extended to the national level where quotas have been credited with easing the path of the divisive Women’s Reservation Bill or the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill, through India’s Upper House in 2010.[xviii] This bill seeks, through a similar rotation system, to reserve seats for women in parliament and the legislative assemblies. [xix] At this time, the bill remains lodged in India’s Lower House, which is comprised of almost 90 % men.[xx] Quota systems have also been introduced elsewhere as non-statutory measures; several law schools in India for example, have a 30% reservation for women.

The change in public perception can be attributed to performance.[xxi] Female Pradhan have overall been shown to provide more public goods, and to invest in services often highly valued by women, like better access to safe drinking water or indoor toilets.[xxii] They have not been linked to a softer response to crime – indeed reports about and police response to crimes against women tend to increase, pointing at the potential relation between women’s entry into politics and shifts in public discourse and action. Other studies have shown women to be less susceptible to corruption.[xxiii]

A positive role model effect has been indicated by the measurable change in girls and women’s educational attainment and aspirations in ‘exposed’ villages.  The gender gap in education among adolescents in such villages has been reduced overall resulting in girls spending a little less time on household chores.[xxiv]

These positive traits have been hindered in some states by a lack of broader policy reform in areas such as local labour market opportunities for young women.[xxv] Nevertheless, in 2011 a background paper for the World Development Report concluded that evidence from the Indian system shows that quotas do increase female influence on policy outcomes, particularly in water infrastructure, education, and investment in goods favoured by women.[xxvi] The results are better governance impacts for society at large, since these impacts have not been found to harm the provision of other goods. Women leaders, particularly in their second terms, have been seen to expand the scope of their investments, leading to a generally higher level of public service provision.[xxvii]

Mindsets however, remain a challenge: male and female villagers still largely exhibit explicit preferences for male leaders. The recent introduction of the 50 % quota in some states has also been divisive, largely due to the displacement of many sitting male members.

Nonetheless, the case of local government in India provides robust evidence that gender quotas do work effectively in single-member district systems where women are often the most under represented. The impact evaluations of these cases show that well-designed quotas can indeed have substantive impacts on changing mindsets, on governance and service delivery, on better representation of the interests and needs of women, and on the political empowerment of women and girls.


[i] In 1991, women constituted 5.2 % of the membership of the Lok Sabha and 9.8 % of the membership of the Rajya Sabha. See Shirin Rai, Class, Caste and Gender- Women in Parliament in India,, accessed 1 June 2012; and Chattopadhyay and Duflo, Women As Policy Makers: Evidence From A Randomized Policy Experiment In India, Econometrica, Vol. 72, No. 5 (September, 2004), 1409–1443. The latter notes that across India, the fraction of elected local female leaders had risen from under 5 % in 1992 to over 40 % by 2000.

[ii] For an example of this quota’s mandate and provisions see the West Bengal Panchayat Act (WBPA 1973), subsection 3 section 34

[iii]  Joakim Persson, The Impact of a Quota System on Women’s Empowerment – A field study in West Bengal, India (2008), Department of Economics at the University of Lund, Sweden,, accessed 1 June 2012

[iv] Rohini Pande and Deanna Ford, Gender Quotas and Female Leadership, Background Paper, World Development Report 2012; Gender Equality and Development. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / the World Bank. 2011

[v]The system had previously lent greater influence to upper castes and the landed elite, at the expense of more impoverished and less educated groups. See Craig Johnson, Priya Deshingkar and Daniel Start, Grounding the State: Devolution and Development in India’s Panchayats,, accessed 1 June 2012

[vi] The quota for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes reserved seats according to the population ratio of each per district.  Esther Duflo, Why Political Reservations?, Department of Economics and Poverty Action Lab, MIT, (September 2004) , accessed 1 June 2012.

[vii] These include president of the block level and Chairman of the district level councils, however most studies focus on the village councils.

[viii] Mian Ridge, Women Spreading Political Wings With Help of India’s Quota System, (27 April 2010),, last accessed 1 June 2012

[ix] Ibid

[x] Rohini Pande and Deanna Ford, Gender Quotas and Female Leadership, Background Paper, World Development Report 2012; Gender Equality and Development. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / the World Bank. 2011

[xi] Ibid

[xii] Joakim Persson, The Impact of a Quota System on Women’s Empowerment – A field study in West Bengal, India (2008), Department of Economics at the University of Lund, Sweden,, accessed 1 June 2012; Beaman et al, Female Leadership Raises Aspirations and Educational Attainment for Girls: A Policy Experiment in India. Science 3 February 2012: 335 (6068), 582-586. Published online 12 January 2012.   ; Povery Action Lab, Raising Female Leaders, (April 2012),, last accessed 1 June 2012

[xiii] Rohini Pande and Deanna Ford, Gender Quotas and Female Leadership, Background Paper, World Development Report 2012; Gender Equality and Development. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / the World Bank. 2011

[xiv] Persson notes that in a related study, no difference was found between this aspiration between men and women (an estimated 79% of both groups). Also in WB 2011, citing Beaman et al 2009.

[xv] Rohini Pande and Deanna Ford, Gender Quotas and Female Leadership, Background Paper, World Development Report 2012; Gender Equality and Development. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / the World Bank. 2011

[xvi] See Joakim Persson’s literature review in The Impact of a Quota System on Women’s Empowerment – A field study in West Bengal, India (2008), Department of Economics at the University of Lund, Sweden,, accessed 1 June 2012

[xvii] See World Bank Development Policy Review “India Inclusive Growth and Service Delivery: Building on India’s Success” (2006); Joakim Persson’s literature review in, The Impact of a Quota System on Women’s Empowerment – A field study in West Bengal, India (2008), Department of Economics at the University of Lund, Sweden,, accessed 1 June 2012

[xviii] Rohini Pande and Deanna Ford, Gender Quotas and Female Leadership, Background Paper, World Development Report 2012; Gender Equality and Development. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / the World Bank. 2011

[xix] 181 out of the 543 seats in the Lower House or Lok Sabha and 1,370 out of a total of 4,109 seats in the 28 State Assemblies; By drawing lots, each seat shall be reserved only once in three consecutive general elections.

[xx] The main argument presented is that quotas for women will further disadvantage lower caste and Muslim minority groups. However other analysts have linked resistance to quotas for women with male politicians’ fears of losing their seats. Male members of Parliament would need to give up about 180 seats in the lower house. Nilanjana S. Roy, For Indian Women, a Long Wait for Equality in Parliament, (3 January, 2012), accessed 1 June 2012.

[xxi] The New York Times, referring to a 2003 study by Chattopadhyay and Duflo, reports that   “A study of 161 villages in West Bengal found that more women (31 per cent) than men (17 per cent) raised the issue of drinking water in panchayat meetings. And villages with a woman as sarpanch constructed or repaired a total of 24 drinking water facilities, while villages with a man in charge constructed or repaired 15. Men were more likely to discuss and invest in irrigation and vocational training programmes, like upgrading the skills of farmers.” Mian Ridge, Women Spreading Political Wings With Help of India’s Quota System, (27 April 2010),, last accessed 1 June 2012; see also Chattopadhyay and Duflo, Women As Policy Makers: Evidence From A Randomized

Policy Experiment In India, Econometrica, Vol. 72, No. 5 (September, 2004), 1409–1443.

[xxii] Esther Duflo and Petia Topalova, Unappreciated Service: Performance, Perceptions, and Women

Leaders in India (October 2004),, last accessed 1 June 2012

[xxiii] Rohini Pande and Deanna Ford, Gender Quotas and Female Leadership, Background Paper, World Development Report 2012; Gender Equality and Development. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / the World Bank. 2011

[xxiv] Chattopadhyay and Duflo, find that, compared to villages that were never reserved, the gender gap in aspirations  was reduced by 25 % in parents and 32 % in adolescents in villages assigned to a female leader for two election cycles. See Women As Policy Makers: Evidence From A Randomized Policy Experiment In India, Econometrica, Vol. 72, No. 5 (September, 2004), 1409–1443.

[xxv] Ibid

[xxvi] Rohini Pande and Deanna Ford, Gender Quotas and Female Leadership, Background Paper, World Development Report 2012; Gender Equality and Development. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / the World Bank. 2011

[xxvii] Ibid


Uyghur battles to escape painful past while rebuilding life in Albania

Uyghur battles to escape painful past while rebuilding life in Albania

South China Morning Post, 28 September 2013. Abu Bakker Qassim was tortured in China and wrongly incarcerated in Guantanamo – but is finding a semblance of peace in a small Balkan state, writes Jo Baker

South China Morning Post

For a loaded question, it gets an understated reply. “Back in time?  I would tell myself not to get involved in politics,” says Abu Bakker Qassim, wryly. “Not unless I knew what I was doing.”

Meeting in the leafy, low-lying Albanian capital, this one of Tirana’s more politically controversial residents is now far from the Americans who held him incommunicado at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp for more than four years. He is far too, from the Pakistanis who sold him and others of the Uyghur ethnic minority to the Americans for 5,000 dollars a head. And he is perhaps farthest from his family in Xinjiang province, western China, who he feels certain that he will not see again.

[Click for original story in the Post] 

With seven years in Albania now behind him, Qassim’s days are defined by the slow burn of the unemployed. There’s morning coffee, Koran reading and a walk in the park with his small daughter; then searching for work, and training at a halal pizza parlour owned by a friend. He feels both frustrated, and lucky. He has certainly seen worse.

After participating in the well known ‘Ghulja incident’ – Uyghur demonstrations in 1997 which were violently dispersed by the Chinese military – Qassim was among those rounded up and detained by the Chinese police.  He was beaten, tortured psychologically and interrogated with electricity, he says. Released after seven months without charge but facing threats and harassment, he decided to try and reach Turkey, find work in a leather factory, and send for his family.

But the slow route through Central Asia and Pakistan put him in contact he says, with a ‘Uighur village,’ just across the border in Afghanistan.  Here he says he agreed to train to fight in return for food and accommodation while he waited for his Iranian visa to process. Post 9/11 bombings in 2001 sent Qassim and many of his companions into Pakistan’s then-freezing mountains, and it was almost a relief he says, to be handed to the Americans.

Except it then took four-and-a-half years before US officials decided that Qassim posed no threat to America, and could be released. By then he had spent six months on a US base in Kandahar, a full year in a 2x2Sqm isolation cell, three more years detained in communal accommodations with some 20 other Uyghur men;  and his family thought he was dead.  “We just had to be passionate,” he says. “And remind ourselves that the situation in China was bad too, so all we could do was wait and hope to be declared as innocent.”

Qassim has found some peace in Albania: a country with food, religion and customs similar to those that he knows, and where he gets by on free accommodation and a USD$300 government stipend. Yet ‘politics’ still weigh heavily on the Uyghur.  A seven-year promise for ID cards and passports by Albania’s Ministry of Interior has yet to materialise for he and the handful of other resettled dissidents, and they can’t find out why. Qassim speaks Albanian, but the ID card issue – along with public suspicion and generally high unemployment rates – leave him a permanent pizza trainee.

The trauma of leaving a family behind has yet to fade. He left a wife and three children in Ghulja, and his ageing parents remain closely monitored, and largely barred from using the internet he says. Although he can call them, with both they and he barred from travelling, he doubts he’ll ever see them again. Qassim’s appeal to have his wife and children join him in Albania failed when China allegedly refused to comply. He has since convinced his former wife to divorce him so that they could both marry again.

Abu Bakker Qasim ARTC Tirana (5)Yet he harbours little anger about his time in Guantanamo. “They know that they were wrong, and they acquitted us,” he says. And he explains that they ‘protected’ the Uyghurs from those they feared the most: the Chinese authorities – who visited the men in Cuba, and requested their extradition as terrorist suspects, (as they have done since without success from the Albanian government). “I can’t forgive,” said an Uzbek friend and fellow ex-Guantanamo survivor in Tirana, Zakir Hasan, who alleges worse treatment by the Americans. “But you’ve got to take into account where [Qassim] came from, what he experienced before.  Ill treatment is relative when you’re not aware of your rights.”

One former US deputy assistant secretary of state has called the situation of Guantanamo’s 22 Uyghur detainees as ‘nothing short of ‘tragic’. Three remain in Guantanamo, despite a US court order to release them.

Qassim now reads the news from home every day.  He laments the way that Uyghurs must “think like Chinese, act like Chinese, everywhere except inside the home.”  He thinks constantly of his parents, and he mentally urges the separatist movement to better organize themselves. But that’s the end of it, for him. These days, he just wants to find work.

“There’s a saying that’s almost the same, at home and Albania,” he says. “’It’s better to stand at your front door looking inside.’ It means, take care of yourself and your family first.”

Zakir puts it slightly differently. “There’s a saying in Uzbekistan that I’ve cleaned up for you. When the Prosecutor kills your father, who do you complain to?”

For now these political exiles are working on the battles they think they can win.



Bruce Lee and the enduring jeet kune do spirit

Bruce Lee and the enduring jeet kune do spirit

South China Morning Post, April 2013. Forty years after his death, two of Bruce Lee’s siblings reminisce about their famous brother’s life and a legacy that is inspiring a whole new generation of fighters. Jo Baker reports

Hard bodies abound. At the annual One Asia Mixed Martial Arts Summit, big names, tight muscles and a whole lot of spin are building an air of promise laced with testosterone.

The most highly billed appearances, however, are those of a pair who are not part of the fight club here at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands resort. As the first day of talks wind down, a convention room fills and falls quiet for two unassuming figures in their autumn years.

Neither compete, but they are happy to spin some eagerly received yarns about a long-dead fighting legend.

“Bruce was way ahead of his time in martial arts,” announces Bruce Lee’s younger brother, Robert Lee Chun-fai. “He wanted to show that there really is no set way in fighting and there is no limit. He believed that martial artists should not be bound to only just one or a few styles.”

Hong Kong’s most famous son is an unofficial figurehead for mixed martial arts (MMA) – not just as an iconic fighter, but as the man who pioneered its founding principles on a global scale. A fledgling but fast-growing sport that mixes fighting styles in showy, caged and sometimes vicious displays, MMA commands an estimated 60-million-strong television audience in more than 70 countries, and has in the past few years begun to reach the Asian mainstream. Its heroes may not be household names yet, but they are beginning to be tossed around in bars, gyms and school grounds, from the Philippines to Japan. And though popular opinion suggests that Lee would have struggled to make it in today’s top MMA tiers, 40 years after his death his name evokes a unique sense of affection among fighters.

“To ask the relevance of Bruce Lee to MMA is to ask the relevance of Picasso to modern art,” says Melvin Lee (no relation), who works at the Budo Academy in Penang, Malaysia. “You ask any top MMA guy, 90 per cent will say that he inspired them to fight.”

It was Bruce Lee’s system, or philosophy, jeet kune do (JKD), that saw a push for martial arts techniques to be cherry-picked to suit the skills of an individual fighter. Based on his principles “take what is useful, reject what is useless” and “be like water”, JKD was radical in a world of centuries-old combat systems closely protected by grandmasters.

Robert Lee, a retired musician now in his 60s, can remember the seeds of JKD being sown among the rooftops and schoolyards of Kowloon during Bruce Lee’s early teens, even before the body of his work was developed in the United States, and broadcast via American and Hong Kong movies.

“I think he started it off, though not intentionally; it was just what he believed in,” says Lee, sitting in a quiet corner with older sister Phoebe. “When he was young he realised that when you fight in the streets, wing chun alone doesn’t work. Bruce always believed in being able to do everything and using the techniques to your advantage, by knowing yourself and your limitations.”

Wing chun was famously Bruce Lee’s “mother” system – a Chinese kung fu style that emphasises straight line fighting and hand-trap-ping techniques.

He chose it, says Robert Lee, to suit Hong Kong’s dense urban setting and tight spaces. But to hone his skills he would join rooftop brawls with fighters of a rival style, choy lay fut, often throwing in techniques learned from boxing, wrestling and street-fighting.

“The bouts were held on rooftops to elude the police,” recalls Lee, with a grin. “The rules were simple, e.g. no gouging of the eyes, no biting and no hitting or kicking the groin.”

Robert Lee in 1968, two years after having founded popular local beat band The Thunderbirds.There were few serious injuries – the combatants were mostly school-age teens with little fighting experience; yet Bruce became known as one of the fiercest, says his brother. He was given the nickname “The King Gorilla” and his reputation began to cause problems.

“Because of his constant fighting, his notoriety became known to the Hong Kong police, and finally my mother was summoned to the local police station,” he says. “She was told that if her son continued his pugnacious behaviour the police would have no choice but to take him into custody. My parents made the decision that it was best for him to have a change of environment.”

This was the move that arguably allowed Bruce Lee’s philosophy to take shape. In the US, he was free to absorb various styles at school tournaments and demonstrations, from jiu-jitsu to judo. He taught kung fu throughout high school and college to earn his keep, and the environment there was more receptive to experimentation. In the late 1960s, Lee’s practice was given a name and gained a following. However, he always thought of JKD as a process of refinement, rather than a style.

“I have not invented a new style, composite, modified or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from this method or that method,” Lee told an interviewer in 1971. “On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or moulds.”


Robert Lee, who moved to the US in 1969, 10 years after Bruce, and lives in Los Angeles, remembers various discussions with his brother as he developed JKD.

“He told me that it could have been [called] ‘ABC’ or ‘123’ because he didn’t want the name to be mistakenly identified as a style of martial arts,” Lee says.

“I remember Bruce used to own a miniature grave replica made by one of his students, which had the engraving, ‘Here lies a once fluid man, overcome by the classical mess.’ It signified that Bruce did not believe that one should be bound by fixed forms and styles in fighting … One should learn how to relate to his opponent and be able to move with him – like in a non-improvised dance.”

Lee’s use of grapples, biting and other less dignified techniques in movies such as 1973’s Enter the Dragon thrilled much of his audience, young Asians and Western enthusiasts alike.

“I was about 10 when I saw my first [Bruce Lee] movie, and I was really impressed,” says Yung Ka-wai, a Hong Kong-born MMA instructor, at the summit. “It was totally different to any other kind of Hong Kong martial arts movies. What you saw was much closer to a real fight: more spontaneous and rough. Less ‘I’m a gentleman’. Not long after that, I began to train.”

Bruce Lee did not appear to hold back on this point. As well as commissioning that mock-epitaph, he derided traditional combat styles as “baloney” to journalists, and referred to martial-arts competitions as “dry land swimming”.

And as the Lees now recall, it made him a divisive figure among masters, particularly in the East.

“There was a lot of jealousy,” says Phoebe Lee, who was born in Hong Kong and moved, in 1970, to San Francisco, where she worked as a bookkeeper at a meat wholesaler.

Feathers were ruffled, she says, backs turned, challenges regularly thrown down.Yet Bruce Lee’s siblings reject the suggestion that he was ever downcast by this. “Bruce was street-smart, and he knew how to entertain the different masters. He’d taunt them gently and win them over by sharing knowledge,” says Robert Lee.


And when that didn’t work, he’d get physical. Lee recalls a story he heard from Bruce’s wife, Linda, in the 60s, in which a sifu (traditional Chinese master) arrived out of the blue at the Lees’ family home in Los Angeles. The sifu challenged Lee’s teaching methods and his Chinese identity. Then, family legend has it, the sifu lost a duel in the family garage and vowed never to deride Lee again.

Lee’s influence and inspiration went beyond his physical prowess. At the summit cocktail reception, over house wine and cocktail nuts, the siblings’ presence sparks fond reminiscences among fighters and promoters, ranging in topic from Lee’s mind-body philosophy to his holistic approach to health; his early protein shakes to his nunchucks. And, of course, his sartorial flair.

“He was always a sharp dresser, just like The Fonz,” says Robert Lee, grinning. “That’s how he was. He wasn’t trying to be cocky. He was 13, 14, going to school, dressing sharp every day.”

Contrary to more heroic notions, it is here that the seeds of Bruce Lee’s path as a warrior were sown.

“He’d basically get roughed up because of his confidence and his haute couture,” says Robert Lee, with a laugh. “Bruce decided that if he wanted to keep his image he would need to learn to defend it.”

It was also a sense of style he took seriously, according to his sister.

“I remember our servant ironing his trousers for him once, and he noticed it wasn’t right,” she says. “He took the iron and did it himself. He was hot-tempered and he wanted to do everything perfectly, beginning to end. Even ironing.”

Yet the Lees have less light to shine on one of the most intriguing parts of their brother’s story. Bruce was a strong, charismatic Chinese man in a world with few Asian icons. According to the president of MMA’s Ultimate Fighting Championship, Dana White, he made martial arts “the thing to do”, but he also made the world a better place in which to be Asian.

“Look at the way Asians were portrayed back then,” White said in an interview last year. “They were portrayed as kind of goofy and weak. And then here comes this Asian guy who every person of every colour in every country worshipped as the baddest dude in the world.”

But what of the idea – often proffered – that this was intentional; that Bruce Lee was fuelled in part by the sense of being an underdog?

“Bruce didn’t face those problems in Hong Kong,” says Robert Lee. “My mother’s uncle was Robert Hotung, the first knight of the city. He had a lot of businesses and influence in the government, and whatever we wanted to do we could.”

Rather than being in any way oppressed, the picture the Lees paint is of a well-off and well-connected family with chauffeured cars and opportunities aplenty. Bruce’s biggest problem in those early teenage years, his brother says, was defending his right to be fashionable.

In contrast, both Lees admit Bruce did face prejudice in America, but insist he rarely appeared bothered by it. When faced with open disrespect, he would simply counter it with a show of his physical prowess. They give anecdotes of calm, quick aggression and lessons soundly delivered, whether to rude drivers, disrespectful fellow students or taunting movie stars.

“Bruce just really believed in himself,” Robert Lee says. “In America there was no understanding among big guys there that an Asian could be a powerful fighter, and I’ve seen him go up against Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris. I’ve seen Bruce treat them like dolls. He would be like, ‘You think I’m no good? I’ll show you how good.'”

So Bruce Lee would be more likely to use force to make a point than his legendary on-screen charisma?

“Unfortunately, that’s who he was. But I think his self-confidence stopped him from going too far,” says Robert Lee. “If you really believe in yourself, there’s no need for it.”

Real-life stories aside, there is one thing on which everyone at the summit can agree. In the 40 years since his death, no role model has emerged from this region who can cast a shadow on Lee’s legacy. Many at the Marina Bay Sands hope that if one does materialise, it will be from the cocktail of street smarts and showmanship that is MMA.

“This is the first time you’ve had a gathering of this many real-life heroes in pan-Asia,” says Chatri Sityodtong, who founded renowned academy Evolve MMA. “And I believe that the few years to come will be viewed as the biggest inflection point in MMA since Bruce Lee in Asia. I’ll bet that in 10 years people will be saying, ‘Here comes Shinya Aoki,’ for example. It won’t be movie stars but real fighters.”

Robert Lee has yet to see a challenge to his brother’s legacy in the region, least of all in Hong Kong, where he considers the younger generation to be spoilt and restricted. He continues to work on projects to keep his sibling in the public eye, such as the 2010 movie Bruce Lee, My Brother (which he narrated and produced); but he gives the idea of a successor to Lee grudging consideration.

“To get close to matching him, not only do you have to put in hard work, you have to be mentally strong and mentally creative, to be able to know yourself,” he says. “Bruce always emphasised [that you must] really know yourself – your advantages and disadvantages – and that’s the mental part, the philosophy. Does MMA teach enough of this? I don’t know. But it seems like a good start.”

For now, the Bruce Lee legacy is something his surviving family members will continue to nurture.

“If Bruce was alive he would say, ‘Tell people about me as a person,'” says Robert Lee. “If people could just realise who he is, I think he could still have a lot to offer. His influence never ends.”


Journalist Jo Baker interviews Bruce Lee siblings, Robert and Pheobe Lee

Recovering the right to be human

Recovering the right to be human

For the Helen Bamber Foundation in London, to commemorate Human Rights Day, December 2011

“I would say this is a place that recognises who you are, what you have suffered and lost, tells your story when you cannot, and documents your injuries. It recognises and acknowledges you, for otherwise no one would ever know who you are and what’s happened to you. In this way, we help our clients understand that that they have the right to be human.” – Helen Bamber

More than six decades since the UN Universal Declaration was signed, human rights standards continue to unite millions of people in their efforts to have every person treated according to his or her inherent dignity and worth. Yet for clients at the Helen Bamber Foundation, the concept sometimes proves challenging.

For a start, many who visit its therapy rooms may not have encountered these tools in a country that genuinely recognises them, as the UK does – comparatively speaking. Yet more profoundly challenging is the fact that many of these men and women, having survived extreme acts of cruelty and degradation, have had their sense of dignity and worth stripped away. Many no longer feel human. “Victims always feel desperately apart from the mass of humanity,’ Helen Bamber, the organisation’s co-founder and a clinician, has told me. ‘They no longer feel part of life.”

For the men and women who come here, growing to recognise and reclaim their rights as human beings can be a healing concept, and a profound goal.

Humanity denied

In 2011 HBF clinicians treated nearly 700 women and men. All have struggled to come to terms with this country and its processes, say therapists, while experiencing the extremes of trauma-related conditions.

Clients here deal with profound feelings of pain, alienation, fear and shame, because of what has been done to them and because of the debilitating physical symptoms that follow. From panic attacks, nightmares and insomnia; to hyper-vigilance and detachment from reality, these symptoms colonise them, and keep them apart. Many survivors speak of feeling sub-human, and having a sense of appearing that way to others.

In a book chapter by HBF co-founder and clinician Dr. Michael Korzinski, he cites a passage that he often reads to clients, particularly those who have been trafficked for labour or sex. It reads:

‘I was broken in body soul and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spar that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold, a man transformed into a brute.’

The author is former slave, Frederick Douglas, writing in the United States in the 1800s. Yet his voice, says Michael, is often indistinguishable from the young men and women who visit his consulting room today.

Humanity revived

So while HBF clinicians use a range of specialist treatments to help clients heal, they have found the language of human rights to have an indispensible clinical value. ‘By explaining who we are, and our principles, the principles of a human rights organisation,’ Helen has told me, ‘it does help them to see themselves differently in the world, and change how they feel about themselves. They have a recognized place, and they can make demands. It can effect an internal change, from victim to survivor.’

Yet to me, by taking on the cause of those who have fled brutality, and by addressing the suspicion, disbelief and denial that asylum seekers too often face among the UK public, the Foundation’s healing influence has a reach beyond its client base.

Its co-founder – informed by six decades as a clinician and campaigner, and still working a six-day week aged 87 – was keen to stress the role of each person in preserving these hard-won values. It is with Helen’s words to me that I end this reflection.

“Human rights legislation was created to guarantee the protection of those in danger of man’s inhumanity. But it’s when things become very tough, when governments and populations are faced with difficulties that human rights seem to be forgotten. After the carnage of the Second World War there were many thousands of survivors of cruelty, wandering around Europe, and it was our duty to attend to them then, as it still is now.

From my work with survivors of concentration camps, most of all, I learned the responsibility to bear witness. This is what the survivor demands, even in their dying. So I would say this is a place that recognises who you are, what you have suffered and lost, tells your story when you cannot… It recognises and acknowledges you. For otherwise no one would ever know who you are and what’s happened to you. In this way, we help our clients understand that that they have the right to be human. And this is how we preserve the underlying principles of human rights.”


Building alliances: Indigenous women leaders unite against development-based violence

Building alliances: Indigenous women leaders unite against development-based violence

UN Women, 23 November 2012

The sound of helicopters still makes Soi Tonnampet shake, years later. It takes her back to the first time she and others from her indigenous community, the Karen, fled from an operation to clear areas of national parkland in Northern Thailand. She recalls that during their first three-day escape through the forest – one of many – an elderly woman died and another woman miscarried.

Indigenous women shared their concerns about development-induced violence,
and the strategies they have used to address it during the four-day meeting.
Photo credit: UN Women/Jo Baker


For Lori Beyer, who is helping indigenous women contend with mining operations in the Philippines, gender-based violence has a different face. “Many of the male campaigners have to go into hiding,” she says. “It makes the women more vulnerable to sexual harassment, intimidation and sometimes worse.”

Although they come from villages far apart, indigenous women’s network members from across Southeast Asia found shared ground during a recent consultation on violence against indigenous women, which focused on forms of violence that are worsened or caused by economic development projects.


Soi Tonnampet and Kruemebuh Chaya, both members of the Karen tribe from Keng Kra Chan, Thailand, share their experiences of violence and displacement with the group during a story-telling session. Photo credit: UN Women/Jo Baker.


Organized by the Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact and supported by UN Women, the meeting is part of work to connect indigenous women with each other, rights experts, and the skills they need, to define and respond to pressing issues. As decisions on the sustainable development framework are made, and countries – particularly ASEAN members – open up economically, the need to battle their invisibility and lack of public voice has become increasingly important.

“The impact of the violence on indigenous women that comes with militarization of indigenous territories, with the destruction of our natural resources and with the consequence of displacement, affects them not just as individuals but as a collective – through the social-cultural dimension of their identity and dignity,” says Joan Carling, AIPP Secretary General. “If [indigenous women] are not participating in any decision-making where it concerns them, then this issue is not being addressed”.

Although often found in areas of natural wealth, indigenous groups make up 5% of the world’s population, but 15% of the poorest worldwide, according to the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Many contend with extensive damage, marginalization and human rights violations as a result of aggressive development processes.

For women, these harms can take on different forms. The influx of non-indigenous workers and security personnel into indigenous areas has seen prostitution increase, for example, along with sexual harassment and rape. As indigenous livelihoods are altered or destroyed, levels of gender-based violence often rise, and economic, social and cultural harms can affect women differently as their burdens shift or increase. Yet with lower levels of education, and held back by multiple layers of discrimination, indigenous women can struggle to highlight their concerns and lead change.

Despite language and cultural barriers the women found solidarity –
and lighter moments – during the consultation.
Photo credit: Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact



Nevertheless, with support, women leaders are emerging as effective advocates.  The Chiang Mai consultation connected twenty-nine indigenous women from eight countries in Southeast Asia  with regional and international human rights experts, women’s rights and indigenous peoples rights advocates – including representatives from the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children, and the UN’s Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP).  “At this workshop I can hear other country’s cases, and how they have overcome [them] so that I learn from them,” says Seng Mai, who has been helping indigenous and rural people to respond to development projects in Myanmar, through the Kachin Development Networking Group. “And I can hear about international law, such as customary law and CEDAW.”

Participants also shared positive progress – whether cases pushed into and through their criminal justice process, interventions triggered from the UN Human Rights Council, or in the case of the Philippines recently, a military court martial successfully campaigned for, for soldiers suspected of extrajudicial killing.

Other network members, with support from UN Women and others, spoke of meeting with decision-makers on international platforms like the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), or the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 (Rio+20).  Many spoke of placing force behind their lobbying using the women’s and collective rights frameworks, found in international instruments such as the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples  and CEDAW, known as the Women’s Convention.

Indigenous women from three areas of Indonesia meet with women from
Thailand’s Akha hill tribe, during the participants’ trip to a tribal village in
Chiang Mai. Photo credit: UN Women/Jo Baker


At the conclusion of the meeting, participants agreed on an action plan – a series of research, advocacy and capacity building steps for the coming year. For women like Soi, Lori and Seng Mai, the solidarity and the strategizing are a source of knowledge, but also critical encouragement and moral support.

This is a chance for me to bring this information to my country, my village and the women there,” explains Seng Mai. “So in the future when we face problems, we can all address them.”


The Southeast Asia Consultation on Development, Access to Justice and the Human Rights of Indigenous Women: Combating development-induced violence against indigenous women, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 30 October – 2 November 2012, was sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency, under UN Women’s Regional Programme on Improving Women’s Human Rights  programme in Southeast Asia


Around the ASEAN Summit, the region's women rally

Around the ASEAN Summit, the region

UN Women, 20 November 2012

As world leaders meet in Phnom Penh to discuss the future of the region at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on 16 – 20 November, diverse civil society groups have been working to keep their fingers on the pulse and their voices at high volume.

Particularly vocal among these have been women’s rights groups, for whom the Summit and its People’s Forum are emotional rallying points – a chance to amplify issues being discussed by women in homes, civic spaces and workplaces across Southeast Asia. These range from gender-based violence to sustainable development priorities and the scarcity of female decision-makers.

At the Cambodian Women’s Forum, held in the lead up to the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, a  member of the Cambodian Women’s Caucus takes notes as a campaign statement is drafted.  Credit: UN Women/Jo Baker

For one dynamic network, preparations have been long in the making. The Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus on ASEAN, a constellation of 55 women’s rights groups in 11 countries, has been connecting grassroots women with ASEAN’s decision makers on human rights since 2008, and approached the event as one of many entry points to the Association. Supported by UN Women, with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Caucus was formed to help women’s organizations better understand and work with ASEAN mechanisms.

This year, 13 women from the Caucus were sponsored to travel to Phnom Penh and join the rights campaigning and strategizing taking place around the ASEAN Summit. Each brought the concerns and demands of women’s groups in their countries, along with leadership skills honed in consultations and rights workshops.

Orchida Ramadhania, for example, comes from Indonesia’s ‘AKSI’, an organization she founded to campaign for gender, social and ecological justice.  Among other events she spoke in an NGO-organized session on the ASEAN economic community blueprint for 2015, and its potential impact on women. The blueprint is a master plan adopted to guide the founding of the ASEAN economic community in 2015. “It’s crucial for people to gather and work out our thoughts and ideas together about how to prepare for this integration,” she says. “Already with our experience here in Cambodia we’ve learned so much from the women; and we’ve got to know the situation of women in Thailand and Philippines, and how they organize themselves.”  

Other issues on the table have included the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD), which was adopted at the Summit in a landmark move for the region, but has been criticised for falling short of international standards and fails to adequately protect women in areas such as migration and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Puspa Dewy and Wahida Rustam belong to Indonesia’s Solidaritas Perempuan, a member of the Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus. “It’s important to inform many stakeholders what will happen with the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint,” says Rustam. “We will develop a strategy together on what we can do to ensure that this policy doesn’t make people, especially women’s situation, more poor and unjust.” Credit: UN Women/Jo Baker

Over the past few years the Caucus has seen its profile grow. It has been called into consultations with both the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) to transmit the network’s recommendations on issues such as the AHRD drafting process. Many members express hope in the strengthening of such two-way channels, despite concerns that their inputs are not always taken on board.  “We have been recognized as a group to reckon with at the ASEAN level,” says Sumitha Saanthinni Kishna, Executive Officer of the Bar Council Malaysia, and a Caucus Member. “Not a lot of regional groups get that opportunity right now. Some of the national groups have been having very good collaborations with their ACWC representatives,” she added. “So when they come to the regional consultation, they’re no strangers – and that helps.”

Mork Sergegodh (left), 20 is an Economics student at Panachiet University,
and a member of the CWC’s extremely active young women’s contingent.
“I feel that since I’m part of the ASEAN community, I should be a part of
making it better for women,” she says. “I want ASEAN to recognise
women and the skills they are capable of.” Credit: UN Women/Jo Baker


In Phnom Penh, Caucus members joined almost 60 other organizations in finalizing and endorsing an alternative draft of the AHRD, which they have called the ASEAN Peoples’ Human Rights Declaration.

Meanwhile in the Summit’s host country, a national women’s caucus on ASEAN, also supported by UN Women, is working to achieve similar recognition. Cambodian women have been meeting through their own caucus to produce more consistent advocacy messages on issues like land rights and access to health care. Its Women’s Forum last week was attended by over 200 women from across the country, many from rural areas, and produced a campaign statement for high level and broader public attention.


More than 160 women attended the Forum, which was supported by UN Women.
“It’s given me the bigger picture, and how to use it,”  says Yous Thuy, 56, of
the Women’s Caucus, who has worked for the KWWA in Cambodia’s Kratie
Province for nine years. “I want to take my experiences to the government
and ASEAN to make sure there is empowerment, education and protection
for migrant women in our laws”. Credit: UN Women/Jo Baker

“The Caucus has successfully helped us link women from rural and provincial levels,” says its chair Thida Khus, who is also Executive Director of Cambodian NGO, SILAKA and the new civil society representative to technical working group meetings on gender, chaired by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. “Before, women’s organizations were just doing their own thing, but now we bring all the issues together and advocate together. I think we have managed to build the infrastructure of a women’s movement here – and revitalize it.”

The Cambodian and broader Southeast Asia Caucuses have been working together to keep women informed and involved with the advocacy efforts, in what has been a challenging landscape, while also formulating statements on issues of critical concern to women in the ASEAN region. And while their impact of their actions on visiting leaders has yet to be assessed, the effect on many of the women themselves, their abilities and intentions, is indisputable. “ASEAN is the new arena for power and influence,” says Ramadhania. “It will be difficult to manage the situation and the issues that come if we as civil society and the women’s movement do not work in this arena, hand in hand.”

The Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus is funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, under UN Women’s project, Regional Mechanisms to Protect the Human Rights of Women and Girls in Southeast Asia

Report: VAWG - Primary Prevention and Multisectoral Services

Report: VAWG - Primary Prevention and Multisectoral Services

UN Women, October 2012 

This report is a summary of a global online consultation on Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG). I organized and moderated the discussion for UN Women, to support preparations for the UN’s 57th Commission on the Status of Women. It brought together the views of diverse respondents on the good practices, and key gaps & challenges in presenting and responding to VAWG, with a focus on prevention and services. Participants included representatives from civil society, government organizations, research and leadership institutions and UN agencies across the world. The summary of this discussion informed the development of the Secretary-General’s reports and inputs to the Commission.

Download: Online-Discussion-Report_CSW-57