Interview with Susana Pavlou

September 28, 2017 at 9:30 a.m. in Nicosia

Anna Prodromou (AP)

Susana Pavlou (SP)

AP: Susana Pavlou. A professional, a woman, a feminist, a mother, a friend. An intersection of identities in just one human being. Which one do you think represents you or defines you the most?

SP: When people ask me what I identify as the most, I say that being a woman defines me first and foremost. However, it is true that we all have multiple identities, but I don’t think it is possible to put them in any particular order. I do not think you can put them in order of priority—first you are a mother, then a professional, then a feminist, and then you are a Cypriot or whatever it may be. I think that one’s identity is a melting pot of all these elements, which create your unique and authentic self. I do not think that one can define oneself in such a limited way. Maybe while I am at work, I define myself as a feminist and a professional, while when I am at home, I will identify myself as something else. For me, it is very important that they do not have an order of priority, that you can be all these things at the same time. An intersection of identities where one does not take priority over the other, but together they make you, you.

AP: You are the Director of the Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies (MIGS). How challenging is that? Some might think that due to the fact that you are a woman, it makes the working environment in a women’s organisation easier. What are the challenges you face, both internally and externally?

SP: There are many ways to look at it. It has been challenging in many ways, because managing an organisation did not come naturally to me—to be responsible for an organisation, and to have to manage staff, budgets and finances, to manage external relations… all these different things. It is not what I imagined myself to be. It was very much a learning curve, because I was not formally trained in management, so I made millions of mistakes along the way. I am still making mistakes. But I am also learning a lot, all the time. However, in other ways, it has been much easier than I imagined it would be in other environments, because we are a feminist organisation. Not because of any rules or regulation, we are all women here, and I think this is where feminist women such as those who work at MIGS, choose to be. I think that the nature of the organisation—feminist and promoting the rights of women—and the fact that we love and feel passionate about what we do, has made the experience unique and in many ways, it has made the challenges easier to overcome Although the staff at MIGS have a variety of responsibilities and functions, we work very much in a non-hierarchical way and take decisions as collectively as possible. In that sense, it has been easier, because we maintain continuous dialogue, and we are also friends and enjoy ourselves! Nevertheless, the work we do is in itself very challenging in many ways - it is always a struggle to find sustainable financing, to be taken seriously and to push our policy agenda. So, while it has been challenging to manage, as it would be for a manager, director or CEO of any organisation, it has also been much easier because of the nature of the organisation, its structure and the kind of work we do that is so important to us.

AP: When you mentioned that you felt unprepared when assuming the role of director, do you think that it had something to do with who you are, or do you think that it might have been because of the way many women in our generation were brought up, to curb any aspirations they have for high positions?

SP: It is difficult to pinpoint, but I am inclined to say that it is my personality. Whether this has something to do with my socialization as a woman or not, it is difficult to say. But it is definitely not something that I had planned or imagined. Although assuming responsibility and taking control is actually something that I enjoy—it is not as if I did not want a position with responsibility—I absolutely did. However, I did just not imagine it would be this, and I certainly did not completely understand what it would entail. If you pursue an MBA, for example, your future pathway is relatively clear-cut, but if you pursue sociology, political science, or human rights, the position in which you will end up is not your primary concern. The way it works [MIGS] is very different to how it works elsewhere. I am a lot more content with this structure and this way of working, where I do not make decisions without thoroughly consulting with my staff, colleagues, and board. It is a collective decision-making environment, so I do believe it would be very different elsewhere. This is why I do not know how comfortable I would be in a different setup.

AP: Based on the results achieved by the institute and the impact it has had on legislation, it demonstrates that lot of good work is being done here; nevertheless, your focus has been on research.

SP: MIGS works in many different ways. You are right, however, that research is at the core of what we do. One of the reasons that MIGS was founded was precisely because there was so little research available on women’s issues, especially research by women, for women. There was very little data on the situation on the ground, on issues such as women in decision-making, on violence against women, on the trafficking of women, among others. Without evidence and without data, it is very difficult to raise awareness and to influence policy and legislation. We therefore needed to build a solid knowledge base, which was our starting point. However, we do not conduct research just for the sake of producing data and reports. Although it is very important to have the knowledge, to identify the problems, to have supporting data, for us, it is also vitally important to understand women’s experiences, and to give them a forum where they can express themselves. Based on our findings, we work on awareness raising, training and education, but crucially on lobbying and advocating for policy change.

AP: What are the primary women’s issues that you believe specifically concern Cypriot society?

SP: There are no issues which do not affect women in Cyprus! At MIGS, we have broadly identified a number of priorities on which we have developed a high level of expertise. We work on violence against women, which affects 1 in 3 women in Cyprus. This includes sexual violence, domestic violence, sexual harassment, stalking, etc. FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) is also an issue that we are working on, both on a national and EU level. At the moment, we are conducting a research study for the European Institute for Gender Equality on estimating the number of girls at risk of FGM in Cyprus. We are seeing a sharp increase in the number of women and girls in Cyprus that have either undergone FGM or that come from FGM-affected countries. There is very little data available on FGM in Cyprus, and with this project, we are trying to fill these gaps. We are not just looking at migration data but crucially, we are also interviewing women from FGM-affected countries, to see what their experiences are, what their needs are, etc. Based on this, we can develop policy recommendations that will hopefully be taken into account and will influence their lives in a positive way.

Another important area of our work is on trafficking for sexual and labour exploitation. We work on research, awareness raising, policy advocacy, and training different stakeholders on the issue. We have seen our work on trafficking have a very positive impact on policy and legislation in Cyprus and we also work on an EU level in cooperation with other organisations. Women in decision-making is also a priority we are working on, which is very important - it is a crosscutting issue in that it is fundamental to have women in key positions in order to see change. We have seen the impact of having more women in decision-making roles in Cyprus — in fact, we have documented this in a research study we carried out on the issue. Even those very few women that we have had in parliament, for example, have had a huge impact on promoting women’s issues and putting gender equality on the policy agenda. They are also more likely to create cross-party alliances and work together to achieve common goals, as well as engage with civil society organisations. Although this may seem like a generalisation, we have seen this consistently in the last decade, so this is a powerful argument in favour of promoting women’s access to decision-making roles.

AP: Do you believe that we have women with voices that need to be heard and and they’re just not given the space to express themselves?

SP: I believe both to be true. We often judge women in power a lot more harshly, because we expect them to perform ‘miracles’. We somehow forget that women who function in a very male-dominated and patriarchal environment, such as the Cypriot parliament, have limited space to make their voices heard and to change the political discourse. Many women feel that they will not be taken seriously, they will be silenced or mocked. We have seen this consistently in the Cypriot parliament, so in that way, it is quite difficult for women to change the political culture, which is patriarchal. Evidence shows that for women to truly have a voice, you need a critical mass—at least 30-40% women—to really start changing the political discourse and dialogue. When we talk to policy-makers about this, they argue that there are many women in key positions and start to name women by counting them on their fingers. We always tell them that if they can count the women in power on their fingers, that is the problem! We do not have enough fingers to count the men that are in power. Another thing I also believe is important, and is the truth of the matter, is that women will never have more power if men are not willing to relinquish their position. Men will have to let go of power, in order for women to gain power. It cannot happen any other way, it is simple maths. If you have 70% men and 30% women, in order for it to be 50/50, that means you need 20% less men. This is one of the reasons why we have seen so little progress on the issue of women in political decision-making in Cyprus. The fact of the matter is that for women to be there in higher numbers, the number of men there will have to be reduced.

AP: Usually we talk of women as a minority, because they are a minority in so many areas. Do you think that as a society, Cyprus is inclusive?

SP: No, absolutely not. We are definitely not an inclusive society; excuse me for being so direct. It is a really complicated issue, and I am not an expert on this matter. It is partly connected to our history, as well as to the national issue. It is cultural; it has to do with the size of the country, our demographic make-up, among others. We have been a closed society only until very recently, with very limited outside influences. One very recent example that has affected our work is that Cyprus just passed into national law the Istanbul Convention by the Council of Europe, for the prevention and combatting of violence against women. Upon signing the Convention, the Cypriot government put restrictions on articles that would give migrant women the same access to support and protection as non-migrant women. So, even in the provision of rights and protections for victims of violence, migrant women are excluded - this is discrimination. Therefore, in other words, no, we are not an inclusive society. This has a very real impact on women’s lives. We couldn’t make their lives more difficult! Interviewing women who have undergone FGM—when they describe how they are treated when visiting the health services or hospitals—these are not examples of an inclusive society. This is how policy impacts women’s everyday lives.

AP: In what ways has the Cyprus problem made women’s lives more difficult?

SP: From our perspective, the dominance of the Cyprus problem in the political discourse has meant that for many years, until quite recently, we could not even talk about women’s liberation. I am deliberately using the word liberation, which was used particularly during the 70s, when women’s movements were burgeoning in many parts of the world. During those years, there was no such thing happening in Cyprus. Why? Because the Cyprus problem of ethnic conflict overshadowed all other human rights issues. Women were faced with the choice of prioritizing their identities as women and their ethnic background. Who are we? Women? Or are we Greek/Turkish Cypriots? Maronite/Armenian? What takes priority? The Cyprus problem or our rights as women? This goes back to the first question you asked—what do I identify myself as. I am all of the things I mentioned. I am never not one of those things. Unfortunately, we have been unable to look at it that way because for decades it was unpatriotic to talk about anything else. How dare we talk about our rights, when our country is being occupied? There was and continues to be a hierarchy of rights in our society. Now, rights are all interrelated. You cannot talk about a solution to the Cyprus problem, without also talking about the rights and protections of women and other groups. What kind of country do we want to live in? It is not just about the political situation, it is about what kind of security women will have. What kind of security are we talking about? I personally still walk down the street and look behind me and feel unsafe, because I am a woman. How is this issue going to be addressed?

AP: Now to my last question, are you hopeful about the future that our society is facing?

SP: Am I hopeful? In many ways, I am. This is because in recent years, we have seen a significant shift in the consciousness of society on human rights issues. Social media has enabled this shift in many ways. It has worked towards having more public dialogue on a number of issues that, perhaps less than 10 years ago, we did not even talk about. The sharing of ideas through these different channels has helped to raise awareness among the public. We are talking about issues such as violence against women and women’s political participation, issues that were never talked about before in such a public way and in a way that engages so many people. We have also started to receive more coverage in the media relating to these issues than we ever have had before. In this sense, I think there has been a really positive shift. We also see that there are a lot of young people who are interested in human rights, they are becoming more involved in civil society and are more engaged and aware. Ten years ago, it was very hard to find people that were interested in doing gender equality work, and now if we have a new project or position open, we see a lot more interest from the younger generation. I think that is very promising. Then again, I am looking at it from a very limited perspective. This is based on what I have seen and what I am exposed to through my work. However, I do think that at MIGS we live in a ‘bubble’ and we are often shocked by what we encounter online and offline. I am often shocked when listening to young women deny that women face serious inequality issues. We should not wait for men to lead the way, so for me it is very discouraging to hear women expressing victim-blaming attitudes, for example when we are talking about cases of violence against women. A lot more needs to be done, but from a very early age, because these young women are not prepared for what they will encounter in the future and it is also important that women support each other. I completely understand that women feel empowered, feel that we have come a long way in terms of access to rights in many areas. Young women are feeling more empowered and that is wonderful, but the awareness and consciousness is not yet there. We need to recognize structural inequality and look beyond our own individual experiences.

AP: Thank you very much!

SP: Thank you!


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