INTERVIEW: Gender equality remains ‘humanity’s biggest project,’ declares UN official

UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri speaks during the first-ever awards ceremony of the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women. Photo: UN Women/Sebastian Montalvo

16 March 2015 – Twenty years ago in Beijing, countries signed on to a comprehensive global blueprint for gender equality and women’s empowerment, and achieving that goal remains “humanity’s biggest project,” according to senior United Nations official Lakshmi Puri.

In the following interview, Ms. Puri, the Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, discusses why 2015 is a critical year for the gender equality agenda and what it will take to achieve what her agency has dubbed “Planet 50-50” by 2030.

Ms. Puri spoke with the UN News Centre as thousands of participants gathered in New York for the annual session on the Commission on the Status of Women, the celebration of International Women’s Day (8 March) and the commemoration of ‘Beijing+20’. The interview has been edited for content and clarity.

UN News Centre: Is International Women’s Day one of the most important days for UN Women?

Lakshmi Puri: Indeed. It’s an important signalling for the world that the women’s agenda is critical. But also it’s a signalling that gender equality and women’s empowerment is humanity’s biggest project in this century. So, it’s the marking of a day but it’s also the marking of every day of the year. Because we cannot just commemorate it, celebrate it, take actions to show that we’re actually doing something about gender equality and women’s empowerment on one day. In order to bring about change and transformation, we need to do it every day of the week, every hour of the day and every second of the hour. Without that, we are not going to have change.

The progress has been far too slow… it’s going to take nearly a century, 81 years, to get gender parity. So we cannot wait another century. If we want to achieve something really transformative on gender equality and women’s rights, every day must be International Women’s Day.

Ms. Puri (in green) joined New York City Commissioner for International Affairs Penny Abeywardena and Chair of the Women's Empowerment Principles' Leadership Group Elizabeth Broderick in ringing the opening bell at the NASDAQ exchange in New York, culminating a week of symbolic ringing of the opening bell at stock exchanges worldwide. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

UN News Centre: What will be the biggest change for the gender equality agenda in 2015?

Lakshmi Puri: The biggest change I hope to see is that the international community, when it adopts the first ever universal sustainable development agenda, that it also adopts a sustainable development goal on achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment for all women and girls. And when it adopts the gender targets in other goals, that this will become a very strong driver of the transformation that we seek. And, also for the first time, because of Beijing+20, we are going to see an acceleration of the implementation of the strategic objectives and actions that had been set out in the Beijing Platform for Action. So, we are going to see that conjunction and that will be transformative, we hope.

Another conjunction is, of course, the disaster risk reduction conference in Sendai, Japan. We are working to see that gender equality and women’s empowerment is fully integrated and prioritized; that it is supported with the kind of focus on the impact of disasters, which is always disproportionate on women and on girls. But, also, which seeks to tap the agency??? of women, and their special capacity in disaster risk reduction and resilience building. And then, of course, the climate change summit. In that context, UN Women is working with Member States to make sure that the agreement that is reached fully reflects gender equality and women’s empowerment in terms of the principles, in mitigation, in adaptation, and in terms of the means of achieving the goals that have been set.

UN News Centre: What are the most concrete actions that men can take to support women’s rights?

Lakshmi Puri: I think the message that this campaign gives is that gender equality and women’s empowerment is not just a women’s issue or project. It is as much the project and responsibility of men and boys. And it is a responsibility to make sure that they show that they respect women and girls and their human rights. That they not only refrain from violence against women and girls but that they take action to protect women from violence, such as in the prosecution of perpetrators of violence, and also be in engaged in the provision of multi-sectoral services to women and survivors of violence.

In November 2014, UN Women announced the appointment of tennis superstar and youth icon, Sania Mirza (right), as its Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia. Photo: UN Women

There are so many different ways in which men can make a difference – in their personal relationships, in their professional contexts, in their social contexts, how they behave in society and in community. And it is also very important that we engender the political space. That’s why the ‘HeForShe’ campaign is very much targeting heads of State, parliamentarians everywhere and we’ve launched the ‘10x10x10’ initiative which means that we are seeking going beyond clicking the button or putting on pins. We are asking some of these ‘leaders of leaders’ – ten heads of State and government, ten CEOs, and ten presidents of universities – to take a vow of being the champion of HeForShe, which involves some extra responsibilities through their own actions but also mobilizing society, mobilizing countries, and the international community around the goal of gender equality and women’s empowerment. It has been a very powerful and game-changing campaign.

UN News Centre: What is this year’s focus for CSW?

Lakshmi Puri: This year’s focus is the Beijing+20 review of implementation of the Platform for Action. This is the bedrock of what the world needs to do to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment. It identifies strategic objectives and actions under 12 critical areas: women and poverty, women and health, women and the environment, ending violence against women, women and the economy, women and the media, women in conflict and post-conflict situations. So what the world is doing this year is undertaking a systematic review of the implementation of the Beijing Platform in these 12 critical but interrelated areas.

The national reviews have been completed and we have a record number of 168 countries presenting their reports on how they have or have not implemented, what are the gaps and challenges, what has been the progress, what has been the scale of efforts.

UN News Centre: What was your experience like growing up in India?

Lakshmi Puri: I grew up in post-independent India, which was very much influenced by a generation which had just undergone a protracted freedom struggle and a freedom struggle that had embraced gender equality and women’s empowerment. Mahatma Gandhi was a strong supporter of that while [Jawaharlal] Nehru was also a strong supporter of women’s rights. I also grew up in a feminist home. My parents had broken quite a few glass ceilings in terms of both their education: my mother was one of the first post-graduates in her state and also they had had an eight-year courtship before they decided to get married at 24. Whereas her mother had been married at the age of 12. So it was a tremendous leap that she had made and so she was very fired up as a woman who would want to see her three daughters being women of achievement and being someone in their own right. So I was given the full opportunity in terms of education and then I joined the Indian diplomatic service and it has been very empowering to be in that service, very accommodative of women, very respectful. I’ve not had any occasion in my career to complain about discrimination.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (left) and Ms. Puri at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, during the June 2014 launch of the campaign, "Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it!," to spark global dialogue and actions on women's right and gender equality. Photo: UN Women/Jennifer Graylock

Professionally, my own trajectory has been very positive and my own experience has been very positive, but of course India as a whole has also progressed since our independence. And today we have the two biggest challenges that women face despite all the progress and that compound gender inequality and women’s disempowerment and violence against women: poverty and the baggage of cultural and social norms that are against the principles of equality and empowerment. I think we have a long way to go but as recent cases of violence against women showed, the whole country is completely rising up [...]

There was an amazing outpouring of empathy for the victim [woman gang raped on a bus in December 2012] and for the tragedy that took place but also an outrage that had never been seen before. It also stirred the conscience of the nation. It was amazing to see how men, and young men, came out in protest of this unspeakable, brutal and heinous crime. […] There are a lot of HeForShes in India, including those who came out wearing skirts saying that women don’t deserve to be raped. That was a very strong solidarity movement but also evoked a social movement, also a political movement. It became an election issue. It was in everybody’s manifesto: how to deal with violence against women.

But also what came out very strongly was that violence against women is just the symptom of gender inequality and high levels of gender inequality and discrimination which, somehow, Indian society had thought we had overcome, that we were much more gender equal society with increased education, with so-called modernization of the economy, and the polity. This was a wake-up call.


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