Brunei women lucky, but still need more work to raise gender equality

|     Hakim Hayat     |

BRUNEI is going in the right direction in promoting gender equality as more of its women are visible and coming forward in different fields, but more work needs to be done to improve equal gender opportunities in the workforce here, said local women leaders who took part in a regional workshop for young Asean women leaders organised by the United States’ Mission to Asean.

Three inspirational local young women leaders, who are currently serving and leading different agendas in their respective fields in the community, were recently nominated by the US Embassy in Brunei Darussalam for the first ever US-Asean Women’s Leadership Academy for Young Southeast Asean Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) held in Jakarta, Indonesia in September that gathered some 40 young women leaders from all Asean member countries.

The one-week-long academy sessions included personal strengths assessment, personal branding, identifying challenges and key gender issues in the region, practising elevator pitches, networking and mentorship training.

At an interview session hosted by the US Embassy yesterday, Aiminorhiza binti Ramlee, Co-founder of Tyne Solutions Sdn Bhd; Malai Adila Surya binti Malai Haji Abdullah, Vice-secretary I and Deputy Director of Administration at Society for the Management of Autism Related issues in Training, Education and Resources (SMARTER) Brunei; and Ain Bandial, an entrepreneur, all shared the same sentiment that Bruneian women have the upper hand and the right capabilities to help empower fellow women not just in the country but also beyond.

A person who works to influence and push forward the agenda to empower and support the differently-abled community in the country, Malai Adila, who has been serving SMARTER Brunei for seven years and a member of the council for welfare for differently-abled communities in Brunei, said that women in this region, especially Brunei, need more leading career positions to push forward certain policy initiatives.

Her fellow Bruneian participant of the academy, Ain also underlined the importance of promoting female leadership in the business world and also the government sector. Although there is very good representation of women in leading career roles in the country with already 60-70 per cent of the middle management here dominated by women, she said the top line positions in the government and private sectors are held only by a few women, adding that studies need to be done to see why there is a ceiling for women in these top positions.

Also with 70 per cent of undergraduates in the country made up of women, Ain said that promoting female leadership and its importance at the highest level is vital to have an equitable society. Citing examples, she said, “When we talk about women issues, if it is the men making the decisions about them, it can be an unbalanced way to look at things… so there needs to be more (women) representation in decision making positions here so that these issues can be easily tackled… men must also join this narrative, simply because they cannot just exclude men out of these issues because they have to a part of the narrative to promote gender equality by making them understand the values and benefits.”

From left: Aiminorhiza Ramlee, Co-Founder of Tyne Solutions Sdn Bhd; Ain Bandial, an entrepreneur and Malai Adila Surya, Vice-Secretary I and Deputy Director of Administration at SMARTER Brunei in a group photo with Catherine Muller, Public Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in Brunei Darussalam. – BAHYIAH BAKIR

From her participation in the academy, Aiminorhiza observed that Brunei is advancing much in terms of gender equality than most countries in the region but said that “we still have a long way to go, especially on identifying the specific areas that need to be ironed out such as the huge proportion of women than men in higher education and employment and also the small number of women representation in leading professions”.

She added that these are the things they are looking to identify and figure out how as a community they can work together to deal with these issues. “Having the involvement of men in the discussion is also important because the key word here is gender and not just women.

“Empowering gender equality means things like making it okay for men to take a bigger role at home where it used to be a taboo… these were some of the things we talked about.. and we feel that here, we have a lot of room to grow and I know that a lot of men who do see themselves as progressive and understanding of these issues sometimes don’t even recognise the biases or the privilege from the standpoint that they actually come from.. these were some of discussions during the programme which actually helped us by giving us more tools to discuss in Brunei and perhaps try to come up with our own programmes or activities so we can help spread the word and find out how we all can work together.”

Following their participation in the week-long academy, all three women hope to continue build up on the agenda of gender empowerment and help raise more awareness among the community and beyond on issues surrounding gender equality.

Ain said that their participation was useful because they had the opportunity to network with women across Asean who are doing amazing things to uplift the community whether they are in politics, business, governance or media.

“It was a good opportunity to see how we can work together to promote gender equality in Asean and increase women participation in leadership at all levels of business. It has really helped refine our plans and ideas going forward and how we aim to contribute to our country as a whole and benefit the greater society,” she added.

One of the workshop’s outcomes was the pitching of several collaborations in different gender equality issues between different countries. Some of the countries will be collaborating on more serious issues like human trafficking, domestic abuse and extreme poverty, and the Bruneian participants said that in this regard, Brunei is lucky that it is not such a big problem here.

Sharing the group’s plans for next year, Malai Adila said they are looking to establish a local professional women development programme, taking a cue from their peers in Malaysia, to help local women achieve and take more leading roles in their organisations and communities.

Ain said that they are in the midst of discussions to design a group circle that will act as a platform where women can talk about issues in their professional working life and provide mentorship and even comfort each other. “Because sometimes, you feel alone and you want to get together with other women to discuss issues that may be specific to certain industries,” she added.

At the conclusion of the interview yesterday, all three women praised the eminence of women and how they are constantly encouraged and celebrated in Brunei. According to them Bruneian women are lucky as they are at an advantage when it comes to equal opportunities in education.

“We have amazing people in this country. We need to keep going and I am really optimistic about how much we can impact not just regionally but also globally. Going to workshops like this reminds me that even though we are a small country, it doesn’t mean that we cannot achieve big things. Bruneians can do so much more to shape up the region as it progresses,” said Aiminorhiza.

YSEALI was launched by the US Government in 2013 to offer professional and academic opportunities in the US for Asean students and young professionals. Currently, over 110 Bruneians are its alumni members with 44 young Bruneians sent to various YSEALI exchanges, fellowships and workshops this year alone.