International Women's Day interview with Sonia Andhi
Tell us a little about you.
I grew up in Shimla, India and came to Canada in 1987. I am a social worker and counsellor by profession with a passion for radio, TV, politics, women’s issues, mental health, education, travel and my family.
What does the International Women's Day 2019 campaign theme: #BalanceforBetter mean for you in your Personal and Professional life?
I have always believed in balance and prioritizing the important things in your life. Our time on this planet is limited so it is important to spend it with people who enrich your life and activities that bring you joy. Healthy food, sufficient sleep, having a purpose in life and spending time with my loved ones are what bring balance in my life.
Tell me more about your career as radio and tv broadcaster and most exciting things about choosing to work in broadcasting industry and how did your journey through this industry started?
My career in broadcasting started in Shimla when I went to All India Radio for a school debate when I was 15. I loved the experience and I began to host a youth show every Sunday called ‘Yuv Vani’. I would play English songs from the 70’s and 80’s from LPs borrowed from friends. The Bee Gees. Beatles, Carpenters and other oldies were my favourite.
After coming to Canada, I knew that I needed to stay connected to radio as music was in my soul. I found my way to Radio Rimjhim. I hosted various music shows there and eventually started doing TV segments on ‘What’s New in Vancouver’.
I also worked on RJ1200 for some time and then began to produce and host my own TV show – Bollywood Beat. I took a break from broadcasting to focus on our children and their sports. I couldn’t stay away from TV for too long though. I returned on Joy TV with a show called ‘Hamaara Andaaz’, a travel show focusing on spirituality and culture.
Our son did the videography and editing for the show. We traveled to some amazing places while filming the show. We visited Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Morocco, Spain, Turkey and various parts of the United States to film sites like the oldest temple of the world (12,000 years old) at Gobekle Tepe and 7500 year old Mesa Verde dwellings.
As a family counselor, what are some of the most rewarding aspects and the most challenging aspects of your experiences?
My work as a counselor is the most rewarding work in my eyes. I love connecting with my clients and being able to help them in their life changing journeys. It has been very heart warming to see the improvement in the quality of life of many of my clients and the trust that they place in me.
The most challenging are the structures in our society that impact the lives of our most vulnerable clients. Poverty, affordability of housing, food and other necessities of life for most of my clients and bullying and harassment at work and school have been frustrating for me as I see their impact on my clients and how counselling helps them to cope but is only a short term solution to long standing systemic issues.
How do you achieve work-life balance?
I find my work to be very fulfilling so I enjoy it while knowing that my job is a small part of my life, it is not my life. My priorities are self care and my family. I make time to meditate, do yoga, read, travel and have long dinner conversations with my family on a daily basis.
What are the various competitive advantages of working in different industries in different positions throughout the years?
I can’t say much about competition as I have never competed with anyone except in relays or basketball games. The advantage of working in different industries for me has been that it has kept me engaged and informed. My work in various fields has been quite fluid and organic which has given me many options in relation to job opportunties and growth. I have found opportunities that are interconnected to my core principles and ethics.
Currently, I am working full time as a family counsellor at a local non-profit agency, managing Shakti Society, sitting on the elected Board of the British Columbia College of Social Workers, presenting workshops on mental health to the Surrey Teacher’s Association, becoming more active in our union, exploring international opportunities related to social justice and human rights and whetting my appetite for politics.
Can you tell us about some of your research related to women’s issues, and your most valuable takeaways from these experiences?
I have worked on various research projects with the UBC School of Nursing, UBC School of Social Work and the Pacific Post Partum Society of BC. All these projects were related to women’s issues. We conducted a project with the UBC School of Nursing on Desi/Traditional ways of South Asian women. This project was focused on the health practices of South Asian women and how they incorporated traditional medicine and practices into their lives while living in Canada.
The project with the UBC School of Social Work was also focused on health practices but this time of caregivers in various communities.
The project with the Postpartum Society of BC was on studying post part depression in South Asian women and how they coped with it.
The commonality in all these projects was that the focus was on women and how they retained their cultural practices despite having lived in Canada for several years.
They also reflected the traditional beliefs of women which remain unchanged through generations, at times. It was fascinating to see how the rich traditions of our culture and family support give us a solid foundation in dealing with stressful life events.
You are the Founder SHAKTI SOCIETY and SHAKTI AWARDS. What motivated you to found SHAKTI SOCIETY and what has been its impact on the community so far? Can you tell us about some of the initiatives you have been involved with?
In the 90s, I had been working with various women’s organizations and women’s transition houses. I was also the coordinator for the South Asian Women’s Centre in Vancouver. One of the disturbing trends of that time was the reporting of violence against women, particularly South Asian women, in media.
There had been many horrifying incidents of women being murdered and abused by their families. While this was sadly true, the story of the larger population of South Asian women was not being told. That was the story of the strong, resilient and courageous South Asian women who were forging successful lives for themselves despite challenges. I wanted to share the stories of those women, the torch bearers and trailblazers in our community, as role models for young women and girls.
With that intention, I introduced the Shakti Awards in 2000. They are the very first awards in the lower mainland. Since then, I have given over 130 awards to women from all walks of life. Shakti Society was formed in 2012 in order to continue the work started with the Shakti Awards. While the Shakti Awards are a celebration of the successes of women and a source of inspiration for the South Asian community, I wanted to create a platform for other empowering and informative events for women through the year. Since the incorporation of Shakti Society, we have held annual community cafes to address violence against women and bullying. We hold annual wellness days to teach women about various health related modalities through workshops in Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu, as well as English. I have also launched the Shakti Film Festival to showcase films that are made by women and for women with women-centric stories and casts.
The impact of the work of Shakti Awards and Shakti Society has been that there is a greater awareness of women’s issues and there is less stigma and shame about violence against women. I have seen several women who have been controlled and abused for years come out and say that they are ready to tell their story. I have also seen more and more men wanting to support our work and advocate for women’s equality. That to me is a huge and very promising change.
From your experiences, what have been some effective nonprofit and governmental strategies to further women’s participation in educational institutions or professional fields?
Longer parental and family leaves are one way to support women who want to stay in their professions and also make time for their families. Pay equity is another initiative that has gained some traction but the imbalance in job and growth opportunities continue to create inequality.
One political party’s strategy has been that any riding vacated by a male MLA must have a female candidate or a member of an “equity-seeking” group, such as a racial minority, First Nation or LGBTQ. These are all encouraging initiatives.
I believe there have to be concrete steps as these to ensure that women get a place at the table. I am excited by such strategies because it levels the playing field to some extent. At the same time, we also want to make sure that the right candidates are being selected and these strategies don’t turn into tokenism.
Sadly, what I see is that women continue to be the front line workers in non-profits and other institutions, which is often one of the lower pay grades.
The executive and upper management positions are often filled by men and if there are women, they are rarely from a visible minority. Therefore, the same policies and politics continue, those of a male dominated, Eurocentric slant. In order for this to change, institutions and governments will have to make a concerted effort and create policies that will ensure that there is more diversity at decision making levels.
On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you? Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
Women play a key role in society and strong healthy women are the foundation of any vibrant society. To me, empowerment is in your beliefs, thoughts, actions and practises. It is an ongoing process that is fluid and evolving.
My mother is the woman who has most impacted my life. She was my best friend, my biggest supporter and an amazing role model long before I even realized her impact on my life. My mother, Raj Kumari Andhi, was not educated by traditional standards. She did not attend school because it was not considered important or necessary. She grew up in a village where there were no schools.
I was often embarrassed at her lack of English skills when I attended a convent school in Shimla. Now I think back to her and my father’s sacrifices to send me to a private school which was beyond their means and realise the greatest gift that they gave me – that of a great education.
My mother was a strong, graceful and beautiful woman who asserted herself when she needed to. I remember how she took on the construction of our house while my father did his political volunteer work. Without having a formal education, my mother managed labour contracts, building deadlines and built a beautiful house in the heart of Shimla. How she balanced outside projects, family obligations, a headstrong child and cooked the most delicious meals remains a beautiful wonder to me.
What are your favorite books, films, websites and resources related to women’s empowerment and international development?
One book that I read last year left a lasting impression on me. It is by Masih Alinejad called ‘Wind in my Hair’. It is a brave, bone chilling, awe inspiring and often funny story of the author who was born and brought up in Iran where she endured imprisonment and challenged powerful men in politics and religion, as a young activist and journalist.
What is one thing you want women to understand about today’s world?
We all have our own journeys and we learn and understand things when we are ready. I would like women to be aware of their power, their Shakti, as it is innate in all of us. It carries us through our daily lives and when ignited, it can make us reach unimagined heights. We just have to nurture and sometimes stoke that fire within us.