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Breaking Barriers

Feb/03/2024 / by abhijit-masih

Shazia Rafi is a trailblazing advocate for air quality in Asia. As President and
Convenor of AirQualityAsia, she emerges as a distinguished figure in addressing air
quality issues in Asia. Earlier she served as the first female Secretary-General
of Parliamentarians for Global Action, emerging as a distinguished figure in parliamentary diplomacy focused on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Her leadership established strong relations with the United Nation, the World Bank, the
World Economic Forum, and major international NGOs.

Born in Lahore in Pakistan and educated at Jesus and Mary School, Rafi excelled in her studies, earning a Commonwealth scholarship for higher education in the United Kingdom. However, due to Pakistan briefly leaving the Commonwealth, she recalibrated her plans. She secured admission and a scholarship to Bryn Mawr
College in Pennsylvania, where she delved into political science and international relations. “I was interested in diplomacy. Generally, the only path open to diplomacy
at the time, was to join Foreign Service and work for the government,” she recalls.

Her interest in international relations and diplomacy led her to work with NGOs focused on women’s empowerment. “I always grew up thinking of the globe as one entity. When I took that first flight out of Pakistan in 1975, flying over South Asia, Middle East, Egypt etc, I realized that the boundaries that keep us apart are manmade. And that we have to come up with ways of working together,” Rafi explained her guiding principle. A turning point in her career occurred when
she collaborated with Bella Abzug, a congresswoman from New York, on the Women’s Environment and Development Organization. This experience
introduced Rafi to the realm of inter-parliamentary organizations, where elected officials collaborate to strengthen the UN agenda.

Rafi’s global perspective, instilled by her father’s passion for astronomy, fueled her commitment to addressing trans-boundary challenges. Her dedication to women’s networks and inter-parliamentary diplomacy led her to become the Secretary General of Parliamentarians for Global Action, making her the first woman in that role. During her tenure, she pioneered diplomatic efforts by involving elected officials in conflict resolution, earning acknowledgment from the UN. “I started working with the UN’s peacekeeping programs and used the diplomacy track to have members of parliament, with experience in their own legislatures, on resolving issues between government and opposition,” she surmised her role.

Rafi’s commitment to addressing air quality issues in Asia reflects her proactive approach to global challenges. She played a pivotal role in recognizing the economic impact of air pollution on GDP. “This was originated during the Sustainable Development Goals negotiation in 2014/15. We formed a parliamentary
working group on clean air and proposed just four words to be added to the UN Declaration which is the ‘right to clean air.’ That clean air is the right to life. Then the parliamentary working group worked to get specific targets that would make it clear as to what we mean when we talk about getting clean air. And those targets relate to reducing air pollution, reducing the number of deaths, reducing the number of mortalities and they talk about how cities can be more sustainable with better air quality,” she said. Her work underscores the need for recognition, national plans, and budget allocation to combat air pollution effectively.

Rafi highlights the challenges faced by women aspiring for leadership roles, emphasizing the importance of women supporting each other and overcoming
stereotypes. “Women who have managed to put their foot in the door into a position of authority need to be the ones who will argue for the ones who are still outside the door and they in turn need to come in and support the women who let them in. One of the issues that you do often see is that women aren’t as supportive
of each other. The other is that when you’re given an opportunity we tend to hesitate.” She advocates for creating systems that provide childcare support,
acknowledging the role that women play in both professional and domestic spheres.

I always grew up thinking of the globe as one entity. When I took that first flight out of Pakistan in 1975, flying over South Asia, Middle East, Egypt etc, I realized that the boundaries that keep us apart are manmade. And that we have to come up with ways of working together.

As a founding member of the campaign to elect a woman Secretary General of the UN, Rafi acknowledges the systemic challenges and biases. “Misogyny is baked
into the system. It’s not an easy thing because power is a zero sum game. Power is in the hands of the men in the system. They have to see that you are capable,
that you are more than capable and that it will be a positive thing for them. Those are not easy things to get done. So I don’t know whether we will see it in our
generation, I hope so,” she said. While progress has been made, she stresses the importance of valuing women’s contributions and incorporating care-giving
into national GDP calculations.

Rafi’s journey from Lahore, serving in the UN and to becoming a trailblazing advocate for air quality in Asia, highlights her commitment to global causes through
diplomacy and dedication.

Women who have managed to put their foot in the door into a position of authority need to be the ones who will argue for the ones who are still outside the door and they in turn need to come in and support the women who let them in. One of the issues that you do often see is that women aren’t as supportive of each other. The other is that when you’re given an opportunity we tend to hesitate.