Lakshmi Puri's vast experience in a wide range of Government and United Nations activities speaks for itself. Now Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, she gave an exclusive interview to Pravda.Ru, answering Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey's questions about the plight of women in today's society and how far the MDGs go to address the needs.
Lakshmi Puri is the Deputy Executive Director of UN Women with almost 40 years of experience in development policy-making involving important posts in the areas of peace and security, humanitarian affairs and human rights. Ex-Ambassador of India, Permanent Secretary of the Indian Government, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, Lakshmi Puri has a wealth of experience. Pravda.Ru spoke to her about women's rights, the Millennium Development Goals and how to raise awareness about gender-related issues. The interview was carried out by Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey.
1. What in your opinion have the MDGs brought women and girls?
The MDGs represent a significant breakthrough with the international community focusing on a common set of development goals and targets. The very fact that a standalone goal to promote gender equality and women's empowerment was included (MDG 3) acknowledged the fact that gender equality is central to development.
The strength of the MDGs lies in their simplicity, clarity and the extent to which they have been able to mobilize action, including in order to promote gender equality and women's empowerment. For example, the MDGs have been a booster to advance girls' education. However, MDG 3 had only one target and three indicators, which did not fully reflect the underlying structural inequalities of gender-based discrimination. For example, MDG 3 did not cover fundamental issues such as women's right to own property, the unequal division of household and care responsibilities and violence against women and girls.
As a result of the MDGs focus on numbers and averages, the least developed countries can report progress in some areas even though deeper, structural causes triggering poverty and inequality have not been addressed. Today, there are still too few gains in improving women's and girls' lives.
What is important is that there is recognition that gender equality is critical to achieving development goals and the discourse has now shifted to how to make the MDGs and the post-MDG, post-2015 development framework count for women. We are currently on the cusp of history, as we move from the first round of development goals, the MDGs, to a next generation, which are currently being elaborated by the international community.
In the new development framework, it is absolutely necessary to have a more comprehensive approach. For gender equality and women's rights to become a universal reality, UN Women believes that it is critical to address the structural causes of gender inequality, such as violence against women, unpaid care work, and women's lack of presence in decision-making.
2. Would you say we are half-way there? What are the main challenges?
What we can say is there is a long way to go to achieve gender equality worldwide. The overall picture on MDG 3 is that gender inequality persists and women continue to face discrimination in access to education, work and economic assets, and participation in government. Even when we look at other MDGs, we see how women and girls have been left behind. MDG 5 on improving maternal health, for example, is the one where we have seen the least progress. This is not only a case of strengthening health systems, but it is about making them more responsive to the needs of women and girls. It is also about the social norms, stereotypes and practices that continue to hold back progress for women and girls generally.
Gender parity is closest to being achieved at the primary education level; however, only 2 out of 130 countries have achieved that target at all levels of education. Globally, 40 out of 100 wage earning jobs in the non-agricultural sector are held by women. As of 31 January 2013, the average share of women members in parliaments worldwide was just over 20 per cent. Violence against women continues to undermine efforts to reach all goals and this includes violence against women in conflict countries.
Again, the post-2015 development agenda offers a real opportunity to drive lasting change for women's rights and gender equality, and to bring universal, comprehensive and transformative change in women's and men's lives. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity. UN Women is advocating for a stand-alone goal on achieving gender equality, women's rights and women's empowerment - a goal grounded in human rights and tackles unequal power relations. UN Women is also calling for integration of gender equality concerns throughout other priority areas.
The 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women in 2014 will provide a critical opportunity for assessing the MDGs from a gender perspective and better understand the achievements and challenges in making them a reality for women and girls. It will also inform the ongoing debate on the post-2015 development framework and the 20 year review of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
3. To what extent do traditions and cultural practices hinder success in addressing gender issues?
Many obvious gaps remain in protecting women's human rights around the world. Different forms of discrimination can be found in every country.
In every region, there is no doubt that culture and tradition have sometimes been used to restrict women's enjoyment of their rights. It is important to work to eliminate all practices based on stereotypes or notions of the inferiority or superiority of women or men. This is clearly articulated in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which is the international reference point on women's rights, and it is also UN Women's position. Many governments have ratified this Convention and we welcome the opportunity to support them in fulfilling their commitments. And as the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said: "Where there is a tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, rights must carry the day".
At the same time, we know that it is often misconstrued perceptions of religious and cultural traditions that are invoked to justify harmful practices and discrimination. No religion endorses violence against women. We must also recognize that every culture and religion also has positive attributes and practices that promote and support women's empowerment and gender equality. We need to build on them. Positive change requires everybody's engagement - women and men, girls and boys, government leaders, parliamentarians, women's groups, the private sector, community and traditional and religious leaders.
4. Why is India so much in the spotlight as regards women's rights?
Recent awful incidents in India targeting women have been very shocking. In fact, recent instances of violence against women around the world has sparked a global outrage and brought attention to this critical issue that affects 1 in 3 women worldwide. There must be zero tolerance for violence against women, and this is why, for example, the conviction of the four men by the Indian court on charges that they raped and murdered a 23-year-old student in December 2012 is a clear signal that violence against women is unacceptable. This verdict sends a strong message that attacks on women are serious crimes and that perpetrators will be brought to justice.
We know that higher conviction rates can act as a strong deterrent to violence and also encourage women to report cases. This rape case was a tipping point that has brought attention to violence against women not only in India but also globally. And many progressive reforms and action have resulted in India - for example, ending violence against women has become a national priority, service providers and police have improved their responsiveness and are getting better trained, and the Criminal Amendment Act 2013 was passed.
This amendment calls for an end to impunity, increases penalties for rape and recognizes a broader range of sexual crimes against women (laws were rewritten to make voyeurism and stalking criminal offenses). But laws by themselves are not the solution - their implementation also matters. In this regard, we need to ensure that the global conventions that exist to uphold human rights and women's rights are fully implemented.
5. Do you consider that women have gained full rights worldwide?
I wish that was true for we would then be in the perfect place!
Women's full and equal participation is now internationally recognized as essential to peace and security, human rights and sustainable development. Women's full participation in parliament, in government, in public life, in the economy and in society is essential.
In 1995, women constituted 1 in 10 parliamentarians. Today women represent 1 in 5 members of parliament globally. There has been progress, but slow progress. 30 per cent is considered the "critical mass" mark for women's representation and only 36 states have reached this level. The 30 percent mark for women's representation can enable "critical acts" that fundamentally change the way government works and who they serve.
Today, only 16 women are heads of state/government. Globally, women account for 27 per cent of judges, 26 per cent of prosecutors and only 9 per cent of police officers.
In the corporate sector too, women's representation in leading positions results in improved performance. Fortune 500 companies with the most women in management deliver a total return to shareholders that is 34 percent higher than those with the lowest representation. Yet there are only 20 female CEOs in the 500 biggest U.S. corporations. Women make up about 16 per cent on the boards of companies in the US. In Norway, the rate is already 40 per cent.
Gender-based discrimination means that women often end up in insecure, low-wage jobs, and constitute a small minority of those in senior positions. Women earn less than men all around the world and also shoulder the burden of the majority of unpaid care work. This must change.
6. What can the average person do to help eliminate gender violence and ensure full women's rights?
Changing mindsets is as important as changing laws. Everybody can play a part to end violence against women and girls and eliminate discrimination. Promoting equal and respectful relations between women and men is within everyone's purview. It starts with the individual, at home, in the community, nation and globally. It is also essential to denounce discrimination and act against it. We must all practice empathy, not apathy. It is especially important for men and boys to be engaged as part of the solution.
The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25th November is an excellent opportunity to be active to end violence against women. UN Women supports the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence; an international campaign which takes place each year, and runs from November 25 (International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) to 10 December (Human Rights Day). The 16 Days Campaign calls attention to the need for ending violence against women and girls.
In addition, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's campaign UNiTE to End Violence against Women has issued a call for action, "Orange the World in 16 Days", whereby the colour orange is used as a consistent theme for activities around the world. UN Women focuses its online activities on this call.
By using social media and the hashtag #orangeurworld people from all over the world were able to engage and call for the end of violence against women. Through an extensive social media outreach, UN Women has engaged a global audience in a conversation on ending violence against women. Planned activities included live online chats; featuring of Orange Day events from around the globe; a call for photos from engaged citizens to declare their intention to commemorate the day, under the theme: "I wear orange because..."
Everybody can participate, you should go now to our Twitter account @UN_Women
7. What do you think of the idea of proclaiming a Universal Declaration of Women's Rights, including the issues of non-violability of the person, making it illegal to perform FGM/excision and making it binding to provide proper work legislation as regards childcare etc?
A comprehensive set of global norms and standards already exists on gender equality, women's empowerment and women's rights. I am of course thinking of the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, of the many Security Council and General Assembly resolutions. For example, in December 2012, the United Nations General Assembly passed a historic resolution calling on countries to eliminate female genital mutilation.
All these documents form an extensive normative framework, which we are continuously working to strengthen. The processes currently underway on the post-2015 development framework, and the appraisal and review in 2015 of 20 years of the Beijing Platform for Action, provide key opportunities to position gender equality and women's empowerment front and center of the global agenda. The focus now must be on political commitment for accelerated implementation of this normative framework so that it translates into reality for every woman and every girl in every country of the planet.