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26-03-2024 21:18

Address by the First Lady, Mrs Philippa Karsera-Christodoulides, on 'Empowering Equality: A Vision for Inclusive Participation and Social Transformation' at the Women Leaders' Forum

It is an honour and a great pleasure to join this dynamic gathering with a multitude of truly inspiring speakers. 

Allow me first to sincerely thank and congratulate IMH, a leading organisation in its field, for the invitation.

“Empowering Equality: A vision for Inclusive Participation and Social Transformation.”; a pertinent theme that we should always engage and exchange perspectives on. 

A first reference point is the word “vision”, because without vision, there is no transformation, no change, in whatever shape or form. And then stemming from vision is planning, strategising, persistence and resilience, which lead to progress. 

Today, I do not wish to delve into the politics of equality. Instead, I will share what my experiences have taught me, from my own humble professional and personal path, as a diplomat, a spouse and a mother. 

A starting point for me is always personal responsibility towards our society and our world. Everyone is responsible for the way the society we live in looks and behaves. As citizens, mothers, teachers, artists, journalists, managers, employes, politicians. Besides, we are all voters. Beyond what governments do in terms of policies and enforcement of laws, the most pressing question in my eyes is, “What do you do for others?” and to make it more relevant with today’s Forum, what do we do for women?

Whether we realise it or not, every one of our actions, words or thoughts bear consequence in our lives and more importantly in the lives of other people. Social media, for example, please do consider it, offers a platform, and our image and words hold the power to influence every single minute.

Let me draw some examples from my own path. First, as a big fan of the theory of strategy, which I had the blessing to study back in 1998, I can confirm that any plan might fail because of “friction”, the unpredictable element that might show up and destroy any plan, no matter how well prepared it was.

It is good to have goals and put down means and ends. However, we must accept that we cannot control everything, and we have to be adaptable. Charles Darwin said, “It’s not the strongest or most intelligent of the species that survives, but the one that’s most adaptable to change.” Things can change dramatically, and women have this skill of adaptability by nature. 

I remember back in 2001, my husband and I applied for our first posting as diplomats abroad to serve at the Permanent Representation in Brussels. At the last minute, other colleagues were selected. We were both disappointed. We had made plans and we were excited that we would work in Brussels acquiring the EU experience at an early stage in our career. At first sight, the change of plans seemed like a disaster.  A few months later, we ended up in London at the Cyprus High Commission. Many of the great things that followed in our professional and personal lives had their roots in that first posting. The people we met and who inspired us professionally, but also personal life circles, the work experience and the place where our family was born. 

The first lesson learnt was whilst you are making plans, always be ready for unpredictable changes. They may be challenging, but they may also bring new opportunities. Strive for work experience and be grateful and adaptable. Remember, women are more adaptable; they show resilience and flexibility. Thus, we have an important role to play.

Secondly, I became the person I am today, because I was blessed to work with professionals who were more skilled than me in terms of knowledge, education and work experience. Bright people with good character. Whenever I have a choice, I always choose to be in a team of capable, strong, and good-hearted people. Most of the time, I am surrounded by strong, opinionated women. Look for them, they are out there.

I learnt to evaluate people based on their character, commitment and hard-working spirit, not on their so-called status level and work hierarchy. 

So, it is a virtue to pursue a working relationship with the best, no matter how hard it is sometimes to feel less competent than others. It is OK. 

Be a team player and allow space for people near you to thrive as well. Everybody has a talent, an area where he/she can do better than us. Be the one who brings out the best in others. Create space for younger people and be happy when you see them thrive and even do better than you. Encourage them and be their mother figure at work.

Dear guests and participants,

In my career, I was blessed to serve as a junior and then senior diplomat in three postings abroad – in London, Athens and Brussels – and I had worked, as most of my colleagues, in many other positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Presidential Palace. I chaired groups during the first Cyprus Presidency of the Council of the EU back in 2012 and six years later, I became the SHERPA of the President of Cyprus in the European Council for 3.5 years. I had to negotiate matters of core national interests in very demanding environments with strong countries, significant players, big names and experienced negotiators. Following these, in 2021 I became the acting Secretary General of the newly established EU Secretariat at Cyprus MFA, a post that I had to leave in February 2022 when my husband resigned from his ministerial post.

I made this small intro to take you to my third point. Throughout all these years, as a young female diplomat married to another diplomat, who later on became a member of the government, things have not always been easy. To be honest, I could describe it as an endless effort to prove that you are good enough and you also deserve what others take for granted, hoping that one day others will assess you on your own merits.

Third lesson learnt, be yourself no matter what. As long as you work hard, you have a vision. You are fair and reasonable. Forget the stereotypes and any kind of “noise” and do what feels right for the purpose you want to serve. Do not tolerate injustice either for others or yourself. Being the daughter or the wife of somebody, of course, impacts you, but it should not define you and your future.

Fourthly, women should be able to choose whether they want to be in demanding professions or not, or in any profession, business, politics, arts or anything they set their minds to. No potential role is obligatory. Women should feel that it is OK to take breaks, to enjoy motherhood, to avoid burnout and to study later in life, to be “just the wife”.

Therefore, my fourth point would be to strive for balance in your professional and personal life and take breaks if needed. Depending on the timing, priorities and needs of kids and family, find happiness and joy in whatever you decide to do and do not look back. It is always hard to do, but sometimes we need to take a step back and reflect. This is precious, too. 

I remember all those stories when the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, decided not to seek re-election. Many theories circulated. Jacinda explained that she did her utmost for 5.5 years and talked about occupational burnout. She needed time for herself. What a noble thing to do. Do you think a male politician would have done the same?

Dear all,

Women make up more than half of the population. Today, more university graduates are women. Women are educated, smart, capable, experienced and bring to the table a unique set of characteristics. We are practical, results-oriented, committed, effective, sensitive, but sensible, with empathy and a great sense of what is just, reasonable and fair. Our multiple roles as daughters, mothers and partners make us more focused on what is of true substance, and I believe more persistent in terms of problem-solving.

Women also have a moral compass, an instinct that guides them. When we know that this is the right thing to do, nothing will stop us from achieving our goals. We can improvise, adapt and overcome. 

What women should not relinquish while progressing in their professional path, and this will be my fifth point, is all these precious elements of their female nature. These special characteristics that women have, if they prevail, they will lead to empowerment, equality and inclusiveness, for sure. We must be the ones to support a new colleague who just gave birth to her second child, showing leadership but also empathy and understanding. 

In our struggle to prove that we are equally capable and strong, let us not relinquish our most valuable characteristics. Sometimes we look at women in top positions and we do not believe how they change if we compare their character and behaviour when they first started.  We need women to help women by giving emphasis and exploiting these special female characteristics. As Madeleine Albright once said, “There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.”

Ladies and gentlemen, 

Today’s Women Leaders’ Forum is so incredibly timely. Cyprus is undergoing important changes through the implementation, for the first time, of such a detailed and targeted programme by the government of Nikos Christodoulides to promote gender equality and make Cyprus a fairer place for everybody.

We must say it loud and clear that we need more women in all decision-making bodies, politics, arts, culture, sports, business, everywhere, because this will be extremely beneficial for Cyprus. And I am really happy, because the largest ever participation of women in the country's history has been achieved. Today in the composition of the Council of Ministers, women make up 39%. In the Boards of Directors of semi-government organisations, we have reached 40%, especially in the positions of presidents and vice presidents.

I know first-hand that my husband and his government have the political will and are working hard to bring about permanent solutions through substantial reforms. Reforms that will allow women to reconcile their professional and family life, which is the key.

In the first year of Nikos’ governance, we have already seen the implementation of policies related to public schools, supporting young mothers and families, extending maternity leave and so much more. What needs to be done is now clear, to bring more women into high positions. We need to first create the necessary conditions to support women of all ages to be able to pursue their goals without compromising their roles as mothers, daughters, spouses or grandmothers. Otherwise, we exclude a significant percentage of women from having the option. We need more nurseries and baby care centres, better schools and public transportation, great elderly care centres, safe playgrounds and green towns, equal pay, more annual leave for mothers and flexible working methods. Families need tangible support.

Distinguished guests,

Today, I spoke for the most part as a mother and a diplomat. Allow me to add a closing remark in my capacity as the spouse of the President or the First Lady as it is widely known. 

I could have never, of course, predicted that one day my husband would become the president of this country that I passionately love and work for since the age of 22. A year ago, Nikos was elected president and then I realised that something much bigger than my personal career; that I was struggling for so many years to reconcile with my role as a mother with priority given to motherhood, which needed at least for a while my full dedication and personal commitment.

I had to take a break from my full-time job to adapt, strive for the “right” balance between this new role, people’s expectations and my family, and find purpose and joy in this First Lady’s hat that I have never even imagined or dreamt of.

Taking a temporary unpaid leave was the only realistic option to reorganise our lives, support the children and my husband, and promote peace and stability in the family. It was also the answer to avoid total burnout. And that was the time that I put together the various puzzle pieces in my path so far, which I have shared with you today. 

I am grateful for what I have and feel a sense of responsibility towards people who have trusted my husband in the leadership of this beautiful country. And I am proud that day by day, through the implementation of his vision, Cyprus is becoming a fairer and more inclusive place for all. 

As the spouse of the President, every day I realise that I can find happiness in supporting my husband to bring about some real progress in Cypriot society and everyday life, and to work towards reunification and peace. 

I am exerting every possible effort since day one, through initiatives beneficial for society, children, students, families and vulnerable groups of society to promote a more respectful and fair way of living.

I am working for equal opportunities through education. I believe in the power of knowledge and the expansion of a scholarship scheme that I chair to support hundreds of children who need financial aid to study, and I am so grateful for the support I received. My team is also working to encourage companies and organisations to finance small or larger projects to support communal nurseries, elderly centres, recreational areas for children and playgrounds. I am encouraged by the support I receive from natural and physical people who share the same principles and ideas and wish to give back to our society.

I am also trying to transform the Presidential Palace, the Presidency’s premises and surroundings into sustainable, green places, for which we will all be proud and schools from all over Cyprus will be thrilled to visit and learn about Cyprus’ history and culture.

There are so many projects in the pipeline and the singular purpose is to make these years as beneficial as possible for Cyprus. Before the clock strikes midnight and everything comes to an end, we need to work today and not postpone for tomorrow. I want to be able to look back and be satisfied with my positive contribution to the extent possible, through actions that helped the society. All this while trying hard to remain a lifelong learner, passionate about promoting the rights, through diplomacy, of my still divided country and a mother of four young ladies.

The “right balance” between all these might never be found for us women but, it is OK. As long as we keep striving for personal improvement, always be kind and compassionate. Trying to inspire via our commitment, fairness and hard work. Helping other women, “leading by example” so that one day, we will be able to reply to the question, “What have you done for others?” and be happy that we have done our utmost. 

Thank you so much for your patience. I wish you the very best!