Accelerating Gender Equality Worldwide: A Challenge for UN Women


Speech delivered by UN Women Deputy Director and Assistant Secretary-General Lakshmi Puri at the UN Women National Committees' Meeting in Sydney, Australia, 5 September 2011.

[Check against delivery.]

Good morning. I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

Representatives of the National Committees, Members of Parliament, ladies and gentlemen it is my great pleasure to be here among such distinguished leaders and supporters of gender equality and women's rights worldwide. Many of you have played a role in the creation of UN Women, joining those supporters of women's rights both inside and outside of government who advocated for this new entity over more than four years.

I want to thank the Australian National Committee for UN Women for organizing this event and for hosting the annual National Committees' meeting this year. I would also like to note Minister Ellis' participation at this event later today.

National Committees for UN Women are independent non-governmental organizations that support the mission of UN Women through their membership programmes, public education about UN Women and global women's issues, and fundraising efforts to support UN Women programmes worldwide. Currently, UN Women has national committees in 18 countries and we are truly grateful for their continued commitment and support.

This is my first visit to Australia and I am glad that it is taking place at such a crucial time for UN Women. Australia is a strong supporter of UN Women and has shown great leadership in addressing critical areas of our work to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women so that women and girls have freedom, opportunity and a life of dignity, which is everyone's right.

The partnership framework between UN Women and the Government of Australia provides shared guiding principles for future practical collaboration and cooperation. I look forward to working together with your Government in strengthening efforts to achieve gender equality and women's empowerment, which is one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and essential to the achievement of all of the other MDGs.

The support from the Australian Government is in addition to the engagement of individuals with the Australian National Committee and the commitment of UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Nicole Kidman to the UN Secretary-General's campaign Say NO - UNiTE to End Violence against Women.

UN Women brings together the experience and heritage of four pre-existing UN organizations and yet is more than the sum of its parts. Member States of the UN want it to be a force multiplier and a single driver to accomplish the many tasks that lie ahead in advancing gender equality and women's empowerment mission. The Secretary-General has also declared that moving the UN system to vigorously support gender equality and making a difference in this area will be one of his key priorities in his second term.

The appointment of Ms. Michelle Bachelet, widely admired as a popular national and international leader and outspoken champion of gender equality and women's rights, as its first Executive Director, reinforced this recognition, sending a message that achieving gender equality is among the most urgent global imperatives, on a par with ending poverty and hunger and ensuring a peaceful and sustainable future.

The creation of UN Women represents both the endorsement of this imperative by Member States, and a new institutional mandate and opportunity to coordinate gender equality work across the UN as a whole. It demands that we create both a new structure and new organizational capacities. For this, UN Women relies almost entirely on voluntary contributions of Member States to be able to deliver on the hopes and expectations of one half of the world's population.

Our mission is a global one and our programmatic presence in countries will depend on the need and demand of governments. Our overarching vision is that every country in the world today, at whatever level of development, should have access to the technical expertise and support needed to advance gender equality, in line with their national priorities.

The challenges that women face are considerable. There is a feminization of poverty in developing countries in all regions as they face the disproportionate burden of poverty, hunger, illiteracy and lack of access to essential services including shelter, water, sanitation, health and energy.

Although women's contribution to economic growth and development of countries - both developed and developing - is substantial, the majority of women are in vulnerable jobs and gender wage gaps are still large. Across all regions and sectors, women are paid between 10 and 30 percent less than men. They constitute two-thirds of the world's illiterates and continue to be discriminated against in their access to education. Gender-based discrimination is further compounded by disability, race and ethnicity.

In many countries including democracies, women's voice, participation and leadership in all areas is stifled under the burden of social, cultural and religious taboos and prejudices. So far, only 28 countries have achieved or surpassed the 30 percent critical mass for women's representation in parliament and in other political and governance fora.

In addition, women suffer even more due to natural disasters, climate change, environmental stress, food, fuel, health and economic crises as they bear the burden of care-giving, for example, in the case of HIV/AIDS. The situation in Somalia is also a women's crises as the majority of refugees are women who have the responsibility of providing for their children and sustaining themselves in order to do so.

In terms of developed countries, where much progress has been made, economic prosperity has not ensured the full achievement of gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. Violence against women is a global pandemic, one which has long remained neglected without regard to the suffering and despair of millions of women and girls.

Violence against women is a human rights violation, and also translates into very high costs-for healthcare, productivity, education, and in efforts to reduce poverty and all development goals. For many countries it manifests itself in harmful beliefs and practices that women are subjected to ranging from infanticide, sex selection to female genital mutilation, early marriage and domestic violence. The Australian Government recently became one of the few to study this issue in great detail. The study found that violence against women and their children will cost the Australian economy an estimated (Australian) $13.6 billion a year.

This is more than the $10.4 billion plan by the Australian Government to stimulate the economy in the face of the global financial crisis and more than the Government's $5.9 billion Education Revolution. In essence, the costs of not addressing this issue are much higher than concerted efforts to end violence against women.

In more than 30 countries that are in conflict or emerging from it, women and girls become targets of warring groups. From Nepal to Afghanistan to Sudan, conflict harms women in multiple ways: from mass rapes to mass displacements. Women are on the frontlines of wars. In the aftermath, it is however women who bring families, homes and communities back together. At the same time, they are denied a role in peacemaking and peacebuilding quite apart from having no recourse to retributive and reparative justice.

UN Women's first flagship report, Progress of the World's Women: In Pursuit of Justice focuses on women's access to justice. This stems from the recognition that laws and justice systems that work well are the foundation for gender equality.

Laws can change society and justice systems can provide the means for women to demand accountability: to put a stop to violence in their relationships, to claim citizenship rights, to get married and divorced on equal terms to men, or to claim the land, inheritance or pay to which they are entitled.

UN Women cannot work in every area and problem as they are very complex, resource-intensive, requiring time, sensitivity and technical and substantive expertise on many fronts. To address the challenges and support women to fulfill their potential, which is exponential, UN Women, in its first Strategic Plan has identified six priority areas for its programmes, along with concrete targets to guide and measure impacts on the ground.

These are: increasing women's leadership and participation, empowering women economically, ending violence against women and girls, integrating women fully into all parts of the peace and security agenda; and incorporating women and gender equality priorities into national development planning and budgeting. The sixth area of focus entails strengthening and updating international norms, policies and standards on gender equality and women's empowerment.

I would like to give you a taste of each of these programmes areas.

First, in terms of women's leadership and participation, UN Women is now working with UN partners to help countries increase the number of women in national legislatures, local councils and political parties; and to support public administrations to position women at the front line of public service delivery. Different countries may set different targets in relation to this goal—UN Women's job is to help them achieve these.

To give you an example, in Timor-Leste, where women's political participation is at 28%, we will continue to support women voters' education and women elected into office to ensure that women have equal access to information and actively participate in the upcoming Presidential and legislative elections.

The Arab Spring and the significant wave of transformation that it is facing also emphasize the need to strengthen women's groups to engage in political dialogue and processes. Otherwise, they will lose out to other better-organized groups that may not have gender equality on the top of their agenda.

With funding from Australia, UN Women is now implementing the programme “Advancing Gender Equality in Political Governance in the Pacific. It reaches six Pacific countries, with expansion anticipated to 15 countries. We should see more women standing for elections; increased women's leadership and participation in diverse sectors of government; and gender responsive governance structures, operations and procedures.

Complementing these activities is the work of UN Women's Fund for Gender Equality, a multi-donor fund that provides grants of up to US $5 million to women's groups to advance women's political and economic empowerment. In its inaugural 2009-2010 grant cycle, the fund awarded $37.5 million to 40 programmes in 35 countries.

As examples of Gender Equality Fund initiatives, women in seven Pacific states are now developing and implementing action plans on women's political and economic empowerment, aligned with their respective National Development Plans. Consultations have ignited debates on women's political rights and sparked recommendations to amend electoral laws, including through quota systems. A grantee in Sri Lanka is focused on increasing political parties' nominations of women from 2 to 20 percent in the 2011 local council elections.

Second, the women's economic empowerment agenda is about establishing facts on the ground and highlighting how economic empowerment is a global public good and smart economics. UN Women aims to mobilize coordinated support -from the UN system, including World Bank and other multilateral development banks—for countries that are prioritizing this goal.

This will help them to put gender equality at the heart of programmes to promote full access to decent employment; to provide social protection measures to reduce poverty and vulnerability; and to increase women's access to, and control over, productive assets such as land and property and build their productive capacity.

UN Women believes that the private sector has a pivotal role and we intend to work with the private sector, for example, through substantive implementation of the Women's Empowerment Principles. In addition, we will engage with the private sector in delivering and scaling-up targeted programmes to advance the economic empowerment of women on the ground by leveraging the private sector's financial and technical resource mobilization capacities.

Third, many of our constituents want stronger UN Women leadership and UN system action to end violence against women and girls. We are working with a growing number of national partners—including governments, community groups, men's groups, youth groups, and of course, women's networks and organizations—to advance primary prevention strategies; and ensure the provision of integrated health, legal and protective services to survivors of such violence.

There is a need to also work with boys and men to bring about real change for girls and women in the Pacific. We have seen how Australian men have taken the lead in the White Ribbon Campaign to end violence against women.

Over the next year, UN Women will expand work on its global Safe Cities for Women and Girls programme, with a view to providing local authorities in 35 cities around the world with model approaches for increasing women and girl's safety in public spaces by 2017. It includes making the design and planning of cities and its infrastructure more women-friendly.

One of the participating cities in this flagship initiative is Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. We will work in cooperation with UN-HABITAT and the municipal government to help reduce and prevent violence against women and girls in the city's markets, where they make up the majority of vendors and customers.

Violence against women is one of the primary challenges facing countries throughout the Pacific region. The Government of Australia is to be congratulated for providing two decades of continuous backing of efforts to address this challenge, including an additional $5.2 million Australian dollars for the “Pacific Fund to End Violence Against Women, enabling it to assist over 100 organizations across the region.

Another important channel for support in this area is the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, which since it became operational in 1997 has delivered over US $77 million to almost 350 projects in 126 countries and territories. A UN Trust Fund initiative in the Solomon Islands, for example, resulted in a revision of the Evidence Act to remove discriminatory provisions regarding victims of gender-based violence and the introduction of a new law to protect victims against direct cross-examination by their alleged assailants.

Our fourth priority area is enhancing the role of women in peace and security. War has always impacted men and women in different ways, but possibly never more so than in contemporary conflicts. While women remain a minority of combatants and perpetrators of war, they increasingly suffer the greatest harm.

UN Women supports projects that focus on increasing women's participation in decision-making, promoting the use of gender perspectives in policy development, strengthening the protection of women affected by conflict, countering conflict-related sexual violence, amplifying calls for accountability and advancing the status of women in post-conflict settings.

To support women's engagement in all aspects of peace and security, UN Women is now able to work in close partnership with all relevant parts of the UN system and with the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence.

With the Peace-building Support Office and 8 UN entities, we have developed a 7-point Action Plan on Gender-responsive Peacebuilding that commits all of us to deliver concrete results. UN Women will also play a key role in promoting accountability for implementing this action plan. For example, the commitments under the action plan include a requirement that at least 15 percent of UN expenditure in conflict and post-conflict situations be devoted to investments in women's empowerment and gender equality; and that women and girls should receive 40 percent of benefits from post conflict employment programmes.

Fifth, to incorporate gender fully into national planning and budgeting processes, we are working closely with Ministries of Finance and Planning as well as national statistics offices to build their capacity in gender analysis, gender budgeting, and the use of gender statistics for more gender responsive public policy and budgets.

In preparation for the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan in November, we are joining women's offices and networks, and other partners to ensure that a strong voice for gender equality can inform the debates and build commitment to track indicators of investment in gender equality.

Accountability towards ensuring adequacy and quality of development financing from a gender perspective lies in programme and donor governments alike. UN Women with work with both donor countries and programme countries to prioritize gender equality and women's empowerment.

Finally, as part of fostering norms and standards for gender equality and women's empowerment, UN Women will be actively strengthening and updating intergovernmental norms and standards and inserting the gender equality and women's empowerment dimension in relevant international debates and outcomes. We will help ensure visible links between agreements made there, for example, CEDAW and recommendations of the CEDAW Committee, and actions on the ground through support provided to national partners.

We will continue to have primary responsibility for assisting the UN Commission on the Status of Women, as the main intergovernmental body dedicated to the promotion of gender equality, and we will be advocates at the regional and national levels as well.

As a recent example of work at the regional level, eight nations under the South Asian Agreement for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) adopted new and renewed commitments to gender equality. This includes generating more data to measure gender gaps, conducting gender audits and improving the implementation of laws upholding women's equality.

Cutting across our six priority programme areas, I would like to emphasize that our new central role as part of our mandate is to lead, coordinate and hold accountable the UN system. Coordination, which is a new and additional role would involve mobilizing the efforts of the entire UN system behind achieving gender equality.

It makes a difference that UN Women now sits on the UN's highest level decision-making bodies, such as the Secretary-General's Policy Committee, and the Chief Executives Board which means we can drive more coherent UN policy frameworks on gender equality, and call for greater accountability for gender equality across the UN system.

We are already working on a common UN approach to gender budgeting and a system-wide action framework for ending violence against women. UN Women will also serve as a data and knowledge hub and a repository of best practices and a clearing house on what works and what doesn't.

We need core capacity on the ground to fulfill our mandate. In order to build that capacity, we need adequate resources to deliver on the programmes and tasks assigned to us which will set in motion a positive cycle of resources, capacity, implementation and impact on the woes of women and girls.

We have set relatively modest funding targets of US$ 300 million, US$ 400 million and US$ 500 million for the years 2011, 2012 and 2013 respectively. This is done bearing in mind the current economic environment and as the bare minimum that is needed. It is imperative that Member States, who have endorsed our Strategic Plan and its goals, and have high expectations from us, scale-up their financial support to us both in unearmarked and programme-specific funds.

I therefore appeal to all friends of UN Women in government, civil society, business and our National Committees to gear up their contribution to help us reach these targets. Progress depends on groups of countries, as well as other partners, including in the private sector, being willing to finance the considerable expertise in gender equality that UN Women can provide.

We recognize that many new opportunities will come from the global rise of private philanthropy, with contributions from individuals continuing to make up the greatest percentage of charitable giving. More and more countries are making gender equality a priority and calling for assistance. This presents a huge opportunity, and we must be positioned to fully capitalize on it.

Already, many countries have increased their contributions to UN Women, some significantly, for which we are very grateful. I would especially like to thank the Government of Australia, which has demonstrated its strong political commitment to UN Women by tripling its contribution to core funds in the last year to AUD 9.4 million.

Nearly 100 UN Member States have now made pledges to UN Women. Spain remains our largest donor, followed by Norway. The United Kingdom recently quadrupled its contribution to core resources, from US $4 million to US $16 million. Besides Australia, other significant contribution increases have come from Canada, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, the Republic of Korea, and, among developing countries, India and Nigeria.

Our main concern currently is to secure a critical mass of funding, which means that we have enough to strengthen our capacity and reach on a scale that is both needed and requested. We have proposed to focus particularly on where support is most essential: namely, the least developed countries, countries that may have stronger economies but still face gaping levels of inequality, and conflict and post-conflict countries.

Diversifying our supporters also calls for by building up strong partnerships with the private sector. Successful past experiences have shown that these relationships yield a double dividend. They provide new resources for UN Women's vital work. And they inspire greater commitment among private firms to embrace corporate social responsibility measures and do their part in providing new options for women to flourish as leaders, employees and entrepreneurs.

More and more research confirms how women's productivity and innovation contribute to the betterment of businesses, and to economies and societies at large. A growing number of corporate leaders have recognized this fact, including the signatories to the CEO Statement of Support for the Women's Empowerment Principles.

There is a great reservoir of goodwill in the world around the formation of UN Women. Many sources have fed into it—the commitment of women's rights activists, political will, and the recognition of the benefits yielded by investments in gender equality.

Australia has a rich history of contributions to the universal struggles and achievements of women to be equal participants, beneficiaries and leaders in family, society, country and the world. We are gratified that the Australian Government has put gender equality and women's empowerment at the heart of its aid policy.

Meeting in this historic and beautiful City, I close my remarks with the noble thought evoked by a preeminent women's rights advocate and pioneer, Elizabeth Evatt. “Ultimately we have to be judged not by our highest ambitions and achievements, but by our ability to raise from the lowest level those whose needs are greatest. The needs of women and girls around the world are greatest today. So let us make certain that we will leave behind us a legacy of having lifted them into a future of equality and empowerment.

I thank you.