Ritsu Nacken talks exclusively to The Edition about her career in the UN, working in island nations and her efforts to establish gender equality.
The journey that brought Ritsu Nacken to her current illustrious position, as the UNFPA Representative in Sri Lanka and Country Director to the Maldives, began long ago at the tender age of 15 when she first developed an interest in working for the United Nations. The path to realising that dream was a meandering, albeit enlightening, one.
It was during her time at university in Japan, studying International Economics, that Nacken received the chance to study in Vietnam, a country to which she felt a “personal, almost ancestral” connection. There, her interest in international development and cooperation grew keener and, after her graduation, she began to work for an NGO.
However, Nacken soon realised that, in order to contribute better to the causes she believed in, she needed education and skills in management, the pursuit of which took her to New York. There she earned a Master’s Degree in Non-Profit Management from the Milano Graduate School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy, and received the opportunity to work as a consultant in United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) after her graduation.
That opportunity led Nacken to her first official job at the UN, as the UN Coordination Specialist in the Pacific Region, based in Fiji, in 2002.
Nearly 17 years have passed since she ventured into the UN, and Nacken has since enjoyed a challenging but gratifying career, with no thoughts of stopping any time soon.
Nacken has held several notable titles in various parts of the world, including the Learning and Training Specialist at the UN System Staff College in Italy, and the Head of the UN Resident Coordinator's Office in Ethiopia, before she joined the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in February 2014. Her first UNFPA post was as the Deputy Representative in Vietnam - a tenure she held for three years before her latest assignment to Sri Lanka and the Maldives in February 2017.
Reflecting on why she chose the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, Nacken shared, with a melancholic smile, that she had experienced much gender discrimination while growing up and working in Japan, one of the reasons she chose to leave her home country.
“Therefore, I always wanted to work for women’s rights and gender equality."
She expressed her belief that UNFPA’s angle in approaching the issue of gender equality is unique, with its focus on sexual and reproductive health, reproductive rights and gender-based violence and other “taboo” issues.
“I would like to contribute to the success of women, raise awareness on reproductive health and sexuality education, combat violence against women, and empower women to make choices and claim ownership of their own bodies,” she said. “In particular, I would like to work towards establishing gender equality, a topic close to my heart."
Looking back on her experience at Fiji, the first island nation she worked in from where she did UN coordination for 10 countries in the Pacific Region, Nacken mused on the non-resident work she’s currently doing in the Maldivian archipelago, and remarked that the small Indian Ocean nation is very fortunate in terms of both geopolitical location and abundance of tourism resources.
“Because that’s not always the case for all island nations,” she said, taking the island republic of Kiribati and its lacking resources as an example, compared to the flourishing tourism in Fiji and Maldives.
Nacken also highlighted how the strategically important geographical locations of both Maldives and Sri Lanka attracted worldwide attention, unlike some archipelagos in the Pacific which are extremely isolated.
“There are certain similarities to island life and culture in island nations, as well as their history, although I feel that the Maldives is unique, being at the crossroads of Asia and the Middle East,” she commented.
“There doesn’t seem to be much for young people to entertain themselves outside of the few larger cities, but I find Maldivian island communities, lifestyle and food to be special, and the quiet calm of smaller islands very relaxing."
Highlighting her experiences in different parts of the world, Nacken noted that women in South Asia are generally more disadvantaged compared to Southeast Asia.
As an example, Nacken noted the women in leadership posts in Vietnam, where the male-to-female ratio is almost equal in the labour force, unlike the low level of female labour force participation she has come to observe in Sri Lanka.
She attributed career direction of women in Vietnam to a consequence of the ‘Second Indochina War’ spanning from the 50’s to 70’s, which necessitated women to take up larger, non-traditional roles.
In contrast, she feels that women in Sri Lanka often chose to or are designated to a larger share of household responsibilities, in turn affecting their societal roles.
“Maldives is doing better in this particular indicator but could improve, of course,” she remarked, commenting how things seem to be improving for women in general, in this part of the world.
Her main advice to women in the working industry is to support, mentor and uplift each other.
“In this still male-dominated world of today, women can’t accomplish everything alone. Therefore it is important to have allies, mentors, and teachers,” said Nacken.
“Even though many of my mentors and bosses were men, I always had a constant female ‘coach’ throughout my career, whom I lean on and go to for advice, even today."
As Nacken reminisced on the challenging work she is clearly so passionate about and the people who helped her on her journey, it became clear that the more exigent her assignments were, the stronger she became as both an advocator and person.
She credited three bosses in particular for motivating her by challenging Nacken to push her limits. Her superior in Fiji trusted her with various projects despite her young age at the time, allowing Nacken to travel and gain a diverse range of experiences, much like her boss in Italy.
“Under his wing, I ended up exceeding my own expectations of myself,” she said of her former mentor.
Then there was her director in Vietnam, from whom she not only learnt to emotionally detach herself from chaotic circumstances - a valuable skill in leadership that taught her to assess situations objectively and what she can do to help - but who could also be credited for facilitating a defining point in Nacken’s UN career.
With a wistful laugh, she recalled how he had left just a year after recruiting her, leaving her in charge as the Acting Representative in Vietnam.
“I was the youngest on the senior management team, and I was conscious about seniority,” she said of the daunting circumstances she had found herself in. “But I worked very hard to bring everyone together as a team, and everyone was extremely supportive. It was very rewarding to be in that position since it allowed me to give back to a country I felt such a strong personal connection with."
“That was the standout point in my career so far, but I’m hoping that the real highlight is yet to come!"
Staying true and meeting challenges head-on is also the advice Nacken has for young, dynamic people interested in pursuing work similar to hers.
“Nothing is still. Everything changes, even if you do nothing. Things will progress. So keep working and don’t lose faith. Things will change, and an opportunity may come up, in which you can even overcome the things you didn’t think you could,” she said.
As for her own personal aspirations, Nacken stated assuredly that she saw herself continuing in this field for the foreseeable future.
“I truly enjoy addressing challenges at the country level in partnership with the host government, civil society and other partners. There is still a lot to be done to ensure sexual and reproductive health and rights and gender equality for all."