At the start of Women’s History Month it is good to be sharing the story of Raakhi Shah who has dedicated her life to helping other women. Her journey has seen her working for Oxfam and UNICEF before joining The Circle as CEO which, as it turned out would be right in at the deep end, as the pandemic and lockdowns rolled out across the world. Read what inspired her at a young age and the wonderful work The Circle are doing right now.
D: Where did you grow up?
R: I grew up in West London, so am a Londoner at heart. I now live in the countryside, in Oxfordshire so quite a change. We have been here for a few years so it feels like home now.
D: It seems that from the beginning you've had an interest in social justice. Could you pinpoint what sparked your interest, is anyone in the family involved in it too?
R: I think there were a few things that interested me. One of my cousins worked for Action Aid around the time I was doing my A ‘levels and was trying to work out what my degree would be. My studies had focused on the sciences but I wanted to do something more human orientated. Most of my family were born and some still live in Kenya. The traditional movement of South Asians is the East Africa to England route. My cousin was born and brought up in Kenya and was working for Action Aid there. When he talked to me about his work it sparked an interest. There were also global moments that impact everybody, things like the Rwanda genocide and other reports like that, that came into my periphery, at quite an influential moment in time. All influences for my choice of my degree, International Development and Politics which I really loved. My dissertation was on Kerala which has been real interest for me because of the progressiveness of that state in India.
D: How are they progressive?
R: They've got a part communists/socialist led government, so they have really high rates of literacy and healthcare, which interested me. One of the organisations that had kept coming up in in textbooks was Oxfam. They were doing so much campaigning and research so it was always on my radar and one of the places I really wanted to work. I was lucky to get an internship there after university and then worked with them for seven years. I worked with our ambassador liaison team which was really interesting, because it covers campaigning, fundraising, media, the whole gambit. Being in an organisation, a huge campaigning organisation at a time when it had made trade fair, with big campaigns was so interesting. We were lobbying the World Trade Organisation; Make Poverty History was around that time too and doing a lot with the Oxfam shops. From the Global to the local.
I was lucky to go on trips, I say lucky, it's not really lucky, because you are often going to see quite hard and difficult things. One of these trips was to Senegal to see their Frip Ethique work. Oxfam was one of the only charity shops that doesn't put anything into landfill. Anything that isn't sold, some of it is recycled into sofa stuffing, but one of the projects I went to see was clothing taken to a cooperative in Senegal and how they use them to make them useful again. There was a particular campaign on bras, a lot of those countries don't have very good quality bras and particularly underwired bras so were looking out for those. Obviously fresh and clean but important for empowering women.
After quite a few years of working on different campaigns with different high level names including Annie Lennox, Bill Nighy and others, I then worked at UNICEF for 7 years. Again that was brilliant, being in a big UN organisation and the UK arm it was extraordinary.
However, we should probably go back a step, because Oxfam was where The Circle was set up as a project. Annie Lennox had the idea of The Circle in her garden and I was there at the first couple of dinners were she brought extraordinary women together around the table and the nugget of The Circle built and built over those years.
The ethos behind it was very much about women empowering women. Back then I remember working on a campaign with Annie and others called The Equals campaign. One of the things we were trying to do was around International Womens Day to make it more famous. We were ringing up journalists and editors to see if we could do a takeover and nobody was interested. Yet now lo and behold now International Womens Day is everywhere. Annie talks about the word feminism at the time it wasn't everywhere, those cultural shifts that can happen, take place overtime. At that time The Circle was unique and still continues to be so in its own way.
The Circle is very much about women empowering women. Women coming together to form different circles within the professional sectors or in geographically different groups to support grassroots projects and also supporting advocacy. After a few years The Circle became an independent organisation. Oxfam has this wonderful way of incubating; they incubated The Fair Trade Foundation before that. The Circle became and independent organisation before I joined, but when this role came up again about two years ago and because it's an organisation so close to my heart, to come and help take it to the next level has been really exciting. I started as CEO the first week of lockdown, so it has been a challenging start.
D: I saw that as part of UNICEF you went to Vietnam for a few months.
R: We went to live and work out there for just over three months, it was an extraordinary experience, what an incredible country, like nowhere you have ever been before. It was wonderful to be in an office with that so many Vietnamese people who were really warm and friendly and really diligent. We went to visit different communities in the north. We met a few families where young children had gone to work in factories in the cities and met a few teenagers who had just come back home after working there, it's really challenging, because obviously they shouldn't be in those situations. But a lot of those areas are so impoverished that there is no choice. In the cities I went to visit a few refuges where women were sheltering after being in abusive relationships. Then there were grandparents who had left rural areas to come and find work. Usually it's the parents, but we met one grandmother in Ho Chi Minh City, with her granddaughter who were selling lottery tickets every day on the side of the street and were living on what was essentially a shelf in a very compact tightly built type building. They literally walked up a little ladder and were sleeping on a platform in this tiny space with nowhere to stand. They had their little rice cooker in the corner and in a few little hangers, but that was their home.
D: As you said The Circle advocates for the rights of women and girls. Looking at garment workers can you tell us what you do and how that, as a starting point radiates out into all the other work you do and campaigns you're involved in, like the living wage campaign?
R: The Circle focuses on economic empowerment and ending violence against women and girls. Within our work we are doing three things, one is advocacy as we want to create structural change. Another is supporting grassroots organisations and the women who are on the front lines. The third is to amplify the voices of those with lived experience. We do that by bringing extraordinary women from all walks of life together. It is about collective power and the different skills and resources we can all bring.
With economic empowerment one of the advocacy projects we are working on is the Living Wage Project. That came about quite a few years ago, particularly from Livia Firth and Lucy Segal travelling to Bangladesh on one of the first The Circle trips to meet garment workers. They came back (as you do from these trips) invigorated to make change. They started talking to our Lawyer Circle, (we have different Circles: Lawyers Circle, Healthcare Circle, Media Circle) and they started to discuss the question of what legislative changes could be made to really guarantee a living wage for millions of women. A number of reports over the years have been released, the most recent in April 2021, our third report, which was a legal framework for how this change could be implemented. It was launched with webinars, and as a film called Fashionscapes which shows people like Kalpona Akter, talking about their experiences working as garment workers and then for the rights of the workers. It also includes some of the lawyers we have been working with to make it happen. To do that it means going to the EU Commission and working with the EU to implement those changes. The potential is to lift the 60 to 80 million women working in the garment industries out of poverty, which is an extraordinary amount of women. The minimum wage is set far too low or doesn’t exist at all in those countries, they are essentially poverty wages. At the start these jobs were supposed to support women and lift them out of poverty, when in fact it's the opposite, it’s entrenching them. It also means that their families, young people and children are going to work too. If the parents were paid proper living wages, decent wages you would not see that.
As an organisation when the Covid pandemic hit we had to pivot quickly to tell the stories of how fast fashion companies were pulling their contracts and not paying for the work already completed. One of the things we did, (not only for the garment workers,) was to launch a Covid 19 appeal for the women and girls, a solidarity fund, to really support some of our grassroots partners.
We have a partner organisation in South Africa that we support which is a womens refuge. They were seeing an increased number of cases of abuse. They also needed to increase space to be able to quarantine women before they came into the main main shelter.
We were supporting girls and women in Uganda with a campaign to raise awareness about gender based violence and also to support girls who were out of school because the longer they were out of school the less likely they would be, to be able to come back.
In garment producing countries we supported, by providing emergency food and hygiene parcels and legal aid. The countries we were supporting were Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar.
We have a bottom up and top down approach, the advocacy can create structural change at the same time supporting grassroots partners and enabling the women we support to advocate for themselves. If we are able to provide funds for legal aid to fight those companies well that's great. Women here are more than happy to support their sisters and to stand shoulder to shoulder with them across the world.
D: This a much stronger way of doing things than wearing a t shirt with a ‘supporting slogan’ that’s made by the women effected.
R: This is what we have been doing over the last year since I joined. The living wage project is long standing, the next phase we go into is: who's coming on board to get behind it, to talk to us about it more and about how they can really start to implement it which means talking to people in government and to the brands who I'm sure will be wary about it. So, the next phase is double headed.
D: In 2019 there was a push to put a 1p tax put on or clothing that would have would have created the living wage in the UK but was rejected.
R: We are also working in coalition with others which is really important, the Clean Clothes campaign, Business Human Rights centre and moments such as COP 26 (27?) are really important to galvanise momentum. The G7 wasn't forthcoming, and we were let down. Annie (Lennox)did a wonderful opinion piece around ending violence in the shadow of the pandemic. I joined a march with Jess Phillips and other CEOs from women's rights organisations, from parliament square to Downing St to hand in a petition. Then there was the gender equality summit in Paris with the largest gathering in 25 years and over £40 billion committed to support change. We hope everyone follows through as there has been so little funding on gender equality, a statistic I have seen states that 1% of funding goes to gender equality and our strategy for that is to support those on the front line.
D: How can you ‘build back better’ without including women who are 50% of the population for which Covid has pushed back gender equality again.
R: Then one in three women are going to experience violence in their lifetime, one in three! When we launched our appeals, we estimated that 15 million more women where likely to face domestic violence, for every three months of lockdown. The percentage of calls were increasing and the police were being called out every 6 minutes.
That's why those two pillars is so important for us, safety and equality. Safety or economic empowerment on their own are not enough, both go hand in hand. We know that when women are economically empowered the whole family can build better lives.
D: It’s back to what you said about the children, if girls go to school then you're continually building and lifting up the community.
R: One of the things we always talk about and there's a lot in the press around the fashion industry and the environment and how it can be more environmentally friendly and sustainable which is incredibly important, but let's not lose the conversation about human rights for the millions of women who are making our clothes.
D: That’s where the term intersectionality comes into play and it's a huge concept to get your head around.
R: The big thing for The Circle going forward which Annie has been talking about for a couple of years is around global feminism. To see feminism from multiple perspectives, and changing western feminism thinking of ‘women over there’, we are all in this together. The things that affect us here are affecting all of us. In some countries because of endemic poverty there are no safety nets, there are no resources to turn to like help lines. It's about us standing shoulder to shoulder with each other, global feminism and bringing everybody together from all diverse groups of life is really, really important.
D: Of course, how can you be feminist in the West without also uplifting the lives of women across the globe.
R: That’s why it’s wonderful to bring people like Livia Firth, Kalpona Akter, Annie Lennox and all our extraordinary members from teachers, to office workers together. When you come to The Circle events there's a special feeling with this conversation, between different women which opens up new horizons and new thought’s.
D: I like the fact that you welcome women from all walks of life and that there are no barriers.
R: It’s really important to bring everyone on this journey. It’s building communities, in one sense you are meeting like-minded women but you're also opening up to other women that you might not have the chance to come across in other parts of your life. Inspiring and learning from each other and also challenging to some extent, different points of view.
We did a couple of events last year: a panel discussion on ending violence with different journalists and women who run centres coming together, we've had women from our projects come and talk to The Circle members, we've had activists talk about how to become more of an activist and how do you start that journey. If you join The Circle what you will find is an amazing community and inspiration from the different events we run. We are very open when people have ideas, and a lot of our events are run by the different Circles which is really interesting.
D: What would you say drives you Raakhi?
R: It is injustice. It really, really, really is. It's very much a mix of those early formative years when you see things on the screen or read about them then going to see it in real life. Once you've done that there's no there's no turning back, you can't switch that off. One of the last trips I did was to the refugee camps in Bangladesh, where the Rohingya refugees had fled. I went twice in quick succession and people were still coming across the waters, that emergency setting of seeing something that's literally happened to the people hours ago, seeing the women and children arriving. Their husbands had been shot in front of them, that terror in their eyes, and coming to this, the world's largest refugee camp.
When we talk about the garment workers in extraordinary countries like Bangladesh that are welcoming in millions refugees and yet we can't give them the curtesy of supporting them with a decent living wage.
D: I am speechless because it's shocking and overwhelming and the fact that during the pandemic one of the things to come out of this, is that our country cut aid.
R: We've we talked about that a lot, we talked about the rates of girls dropping out of school, rates of child marriage potentially increasing, soaring rates of gender-based violence. The impact on women, it was estimated that gains made over 25 years would be rolled back within 25 weeks. The cutting of aid to countries in conflict zones or in an emergency, cutting water and sanitation programmes in the midst of a pandemic when they are telling us all to wash your hands more. We've been quite vocal about it, but we will double down and do what we can as a small and mighty organisation and advocate for others to come on that journey as well.
D: One more thing that I want to touch on before I ask you the next question, is that you are a trustee of The Reclaim Project here in the UK, can you talk a little bit about that please?
R: I have been a trustee for a year or so now and I'm very, very passionate about (having come from a working class background myself,) empowering the next generation from that background. Reclaim are doing amazing things. Their main focus is around skills and leadership skills to bring that next generation on. I also love building campaigns with these young people for change, bringing them into big movements that might not necessarily have any people from working class backgrounds involved. Whether it's the climate movement or the gender movement. It's been a really tough over the past two years for today's young people and I feel for that generation overall and what they have missing out on. I don't think we're really going to know effects of this for a long time. I feel it builds on from my work at UNICEF, typically around those early childhood years, when you're brains are hard wired. So I'm seeing that through, to these extraordinary young people who are going to be taking on the mantle next. Give them the power now I say.
At The Circle we did an extraordinary project last year with young feminists for International Day of the girl, some young feminists joined one of our panel discussions and wanted to get more involved and whilst we don't have a Youth Circle as yet, we connected them with some of the young women in Uganda. Between them, they came up this brilliant idea of a girls global dance hour. The power of dance is transcending they had an amazing conversation about what it's like to be girl here and in Uganda, the similarities and differences.
D: Introducing them to different kinds of music as well.
R: Yeah and they loved it, you can see that power of the next generation, its extraordinary.
D: Finally, how do you see the future?
R: For The Circle, it is a really exciting time of new strategies, building on global feminism and inviting more women to get involved and come on that journey. I think it's about being vocal and brave about advocating for the changes that need to happen. We are not going to be shy about that.
D: How are we going to be vocal whenever the government here would like to pass a law that means that we can't protest?
R: It's not only the UK, I think our voices can transcend that and bring together a community across nations when we've got that commonality of what women and girls face.