‘World still has far to go towards gender equality’

  • KumKum Dasgupta, Hindustan Times, New York
  • Updated: Sep 23, 2015 19:29 IST
Lakshmi Puri is assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and deputy executive director of UN Women, the United Nations entity for gender equality and empowerment of women. (HT PHOTO)

Lakshmi Puri is assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and deputy executive director of UN Women, the United Nations entity for gender equality and empowerment of women. In an interview with HT at her well-appointed 18th floor office, she talks about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will be adopted by the UN member-states this week, its predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the existing gender disparity in the world.

Q. The MDG Number 3 was about gender equality and empowerment of women. This week will see the adoption of the SDGs. What has been the progress in the last 15 years?

A. The MDGs spurred significant progress but yielded uneven results. While it triggered global attention and action and mobilised much-needed resources, the MDGs did not go far enough in addressing structural issues. On a positive note, the MDGs helped to lift more than one billion people out of extreme poverty, to make inroads against hunger and enable more girls to attend school than ever before. In south Asia for example, only 74 girls were enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys in 1990. Today, 103 girls are enrolled for every 100 boys. Women now make up 41% of paid workers outside the agricultural sector, an increase from 35% in 1990. Women have gained ground in parliamentary representation in nearly 90% of the 174 countries with data over the past 20 years. The average proportion of women in parliaments has nearly doubled during the same period. Yet still only one in five members of parliament is a woman.

Since 1990, the maternal mortality ratio has declined by 45% worldwide, and most of the reduction has occurred since 2000. Yet despite, these advances, too many women continue to die during pregnancy or from childbirth-related complications. Progress tends to bypass women and those who are lowest on the economic ladder or are disadvantaged because of their age, disability or ethnicity. Disparities between rural and urban areas remain pronounced.

Despite continuous progress, today the world still has far to go towards gender equality. It is now necessary to have a more comprehensive approach. For 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, lack of presence in decision-making.

Goal Number 5 of the SDGs talks of empowerment of girls. Why is it so important to empower girls? What about engaging boys and men in the fight to end gender violence?

Gender inequality is the most pervasive form of inequality. Girls continue to experience various forms of discrimination and violence. Gender stereotypes (such as son preference) and discriminatory social norms hold girls back by and limit their opportunities to education, health and other areas. The majority of the children that are still out of school are girls. Violence against girls perpetrated by adults and peers, at home, in and around schools, continues to take many forms and has significant consequences on their physical, sexual and mental health. Approximately one quarter of girls between 15 and 19 years are victims of physical violence, and about one in 10 girls (under-20) are subjected to sexual violence. Worldwide approximately 14% of girls between 5 and 14 are engaged in child labour. These are just some examples of why it is important to have a stand-alone goal on gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.

The SDG outcome document refers to the role of men and boys in its declaration: In addition, there are several references throughout the text focusing on the well-being of children, the need to invest in children and to ensure that they grow up free from violence and exploitation.

SDG goal number 5 says that nations will have to recognise and value care and domestic work through the provision of household services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibilities within the household and the family as nationally appropriate. What should governments do to ensure that it meets this goal?

The reference to unpaid care work is not new. The issue has been addressed in the Beijing Platform for Action and other international outcomes. Unpaid care and domestic work (including care for children, sick adults, and the elderly, cleaning, cooking, etc.) sustains economies, communities and households, and is mainly carried out by women and girls in many countries.

This work must be recognised as an essential contribution to households, communities and economies, and must be reduced through investments in infrastructure (water, energy, etc) and social services, and redistributed between households and the State (through provision of services and infrastructure) and between women and men in households.

Unpaid care and domestic work is linked to poverty. The lack of accessible basic services and infrastructure disproportionately affects poor women who are forced to compensate through demanding and intense unpaid workloads (including tasks such as fetching water and biomass for fuel from long distances).

One of the SDG targets (5B) talk about enhancing the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communication technology, to promote empowerment. Please elucidate.

Equal access to infrastructure, technology, including ICT, is essential for women’s economic empowerment, their access to formal employment and entrepreneurship. As women continue to be underrepresented in the design and development of technologies, it is important to take steps to ensure that women and girls benefit fully from technologies and are fully involved in the use of technologies.

In 2015, UN Women joined UNESCO in sponsoring Mobile Learning Week, where hundreds of educators and experts from around the world debated topics such as how to expand web skills among women and girls, and ease entry into tech careers. Collaboration with Technovation, a global technology entrepreneurship programme for girls, which sponsors competitions in 25 countries that shine a spotlight on young women with strong promise as technology entrepreneurs.

How were the targets related to gender chosen?

Targets were agreed by Member States based on their discussions during the Open Working Group and supported by technical advice provided by the UN interagency Technical Support Team.

In addition to goal 5, there are gender-sensitive targets in a number of other goals (ending poverty, ending hunger, health, education, water and sanitation, economic growth, reducing inequalities, cities and human settlements, climate change, promoting peaceful and inclusive societies).

From a gender equality point of view, it is critical that as many indicators as possible across all goals and targets will be disaggregated by sex and other characteristics.

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