Bonding Cultures

Sanjeev Satgainya


Grace comes from humility and this modest lady is humbleness personified. The greeting you receive from this soft-spoken lady will be a remembrance of a lifetime. Meet Suomi Sakai, representative to Nepal for United Nation’s Children Fund (UNICEF).It has been 15 years that she has been associated with the UNICEF. “The bicultural influence I had during my early years certainly has made a good impact on me to perceive life in a mosaic,” smiles Suomi Sakai, the name itself suggesting a fusion of two cultures — Suomi is the Finnish name for Finland and Sakai is an industrial city in Japan. Born in Japan while her father was stationed in Finland, Sakai spent the first 12 years of her life in Finland and then again moved back to Japan and completed her medical degree in Japan.

She did her doctorate in Public Health from the US and joined UN in 1989. She was posted to Beijing for five-and-half years as a health officer. Then she moved to Malawi, Africa, as chief of health and nutrition programme of UNICEF. After another five-and-half years in the headquarters at New York as immunisation activities chief globally, she was stationed in Kathmandu in October 2002.“As I could find the status of women in Finland, it was quite high. Finland is first country to have women’s participation in parliament. So, I could not see any substantial difference as far as women’s status was considered in Finland. But after coming back to Japan, I could see traditional and attitudinal discrimination a lot of which is prevalent in many parts of the world.”“Japan too had patriarchal influence with much more expectations from women in household chores and rearing of children rather than in careers. But my parents always encouraged me and emphasised on good education, better parenting and providing opportunities to do whatever I wanted.”Sometimes despite parental protection, society takes on the responsibility of deciding the norms. “I remember when I used to take tea ceremony lessons, my peer groups and other adults used to talk about my marriage, my family and my life,” laughs Sakai.

Sakai married an American at 32, considered a little late for social norms prevalent then. “It is prevalent everywhere that women should start their career but as soon as they get married, it’s women’s duty to take responsibilities of home and family, and give up work. The society has changed a lot now and since I wanted to do things according to my wish, I kept on working even after marriage. In fact, I was never compelled to get married or leave my job after marriage.”“In fact I was quite familiar and adopted to Western culture hence, I didn’t have to face any problems as such. Instead, my husband might have confronted some situations which could have been difficult,” Sakai reveals.

In a discriminative society, be it the West or East, women do face certain basic challenges in life, in their education or their career. Since men had been leading for a while, women are thought to be weaker or uncompetitive. “Quite often while women enter their career, there are expectations that women should start behaving and working like men to succeed. I wonder, why can’t a woman work like a woman to lead any organisation or why can’t women be themselves to rise in their career? And I have tried my best to be myself. I have always maintained my womanhood and as far as I can remember I have not faced any problem as such for being a woman.”Sakai believes that more and more women are seriously accepting the fact that men and women can walk hand in hand not only leading a harmonious life but also a career. What makes it possible to break male dominance or iscrimination? “Education, awareness and a proud feeling of womanhood,” is the prompt answer.

“It was thought that men were supposed to take care of the bread and butter for the family and women to rear children and look after home, but these old notions are being broken.”

Mother of two children — one son and one daughter — Sakai smilingly shares, “My daughter sometimes asks how old I am and I have been telling her that I am old enough to be mother of my children.”A working mother, she usually is in office for more than 10 hours. Does she find time to spend with family? “I, in fact, try to. The whole evening, as much as possible I try to be with my children and husband sharing lots of things, talking to them, helping them out in their assignments, etc. We always have our dinner together.”She starts her day at six and graceful ageing is what she is much concerned about for which she practises yoga four-days-a-week at home to successful results. “In the morning I do a little bit of reading and e-mailing, responding to letters. By 8:30, I am in office. I try to be at home before 7 but sometimes it gets late as well.”Parents have two different perspectives of life for children and they need to feel each other very intensely, believes Sakai. “Father too plays a vital role in nurturing a child as a mother does. It’s about mutual effort made by both to create a happy family.”Influenced and inspired by her mother, Sakai aspires to leave an impression where other women, especially young ladies, can be inspired.

She finds her responsibilities in Nepal quite challenging. “UNICEF has been here for quite a long time with lots of innovative programmes in different topics and sectors. Since I came here, situation has changed a lot. We have to work a lot for the children who have fallen victims of conflict, education in peaceful environment, basic health for these children are the most important things that have to be taken care of.”