Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: the power behind successful sustainable development


Remarks by UN Women Deputy Executive Director, Lakshmi Puri, at the High Level Ministerial meeting ‘Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment: the power behind successful sustainable development' Rio de Janeiro, 20 June 2012.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good afternoon to you all. I am delighted to participate in this high level event on the occasion of Rio+20. On behalf of UN Women, I would like to thank UNEP, a great partner and sister UN agency, for inviting me to be here today.

We are all here with a message for the world to hear loud and clear: women play a vital role in sustainable development in its three dimensions - economic, social and environmental. Just as yours, my organization is committed to ensuring that the Outcome of this Conference fully reflects gender considerations in the context of sustainable development.

Your commitment to advancing gender equality and women's empowerment is the kind of transformational leadership that is needed to leverage women's voices and influence in policies and actions for sustainable development.

As you know, too many women and girls are burdened with managing food, water, and energy scarcity, which reduce their opportunities to education, decent work and political engagement. This perpetuates the intergenerational transfer of poverty and disempowerment. It is further exacerbated by the impact of the economic and financial crises, the volatile energy and food prices, and climate change, which have disproportionately affected women and girls worldwide.

Spiking world food prices, first in 2008 and again in 2011 have pushed millions of additional people into poverty. Food costs between 2010 and 2011 alone kept an estimated 49 million people in poverty and led to increased undernourishment.

Despite some positive prospects for falling food prices due to good harvests and increases in stocks, which should mean a reduction in the number of hungry in the world in 2012 as declared by FAO, the food crisis remains a serious threat to the lives of millions. Entrenched gender roles mean that women often bear the brunt of the associated hardships as growers and processors of food, responsible for the nutrition of their family.

Worldwide, 884 million people still lack access to safe drinking water, of which eight out of ten live in rural areas. It is most often women and girls who are tasked with fetching water, while women's participation in water resource management remains low.

With regards to energy, twenty percent of the world's population lack access to reliable electricity and over one-third rely on wood, straw, charcoal or dung for cooking and heating. This affects poor women excessively, forcing them to spend a disproportionate number of hours on labour-intensive and time-consuming domestic tasks such as washing clothes and dishes, collecting fuel, and preparing meals.

The lack of clean and affordable sources of energy is also detrimental to women and children's health and they account for over 85 percent of the two million deaths each year attributed to indoor air pollution resulting from solid fuel such as coal and wood used for cooking.

There is consensus that advancing gender equality and women's empowerment is the way to go if we want to achieve sustainable development. The World Bank highlighted in its 2012 World Development Report the productivity gains, enhanced growth prospects and improved outcomes for the next generation associated with women's greater access to productive assets.

The report argues that “empowering women as economic, political, and social actors can change policy choices and make institutions more representative of a range of voices. Equal representation of women and men in decision-making mechanisms is key and it brings development dividends in all the dimensions of sustainability: social, economic and environmental.

Here in Rio and in other forums, UN Women has been actively advocating for the inclusion of a gender perspective in international norms, standards and policies. UN Women has recently joined the High Level task Force on Global Food Security and UN Water to amplify women's voices in these forums. These exemplify our policy engagement in key processes related to sustainable development. We are also working in partnership in 75 countries to translate these agreements into reality at the local level.

We are proud to support the first-ever SEED Gender Equality Award in 2011 as part of the SEED Initiative, which is co-founded by UNEP and UNDP.

The winner— the “Solid Waste Management and Community Mobilization Program in Nepal — is a waste collection and recycling initiative of over 1000 households and businesses driven by a women environmental committee, that also provides trainings and established a savings and credit cooperative mobilizing loans to 150 women members.

Here in Rio, we committed to continuing our partnership with SEED and we look forward to finding other inspirational projects that combine the gender and sustainability dimensions.

UN Women will build on the Rio+20 Outcome to continue to:

  • Advocate with Governments for inclusive economic growth that reduces economic and social inequalities, promotes environmental protection and economically empowers women to participate in and benefit from growth.
  • Support women's leadership and participation in decision making at all levels, including support to electoral reforms and constitution formation.
  • Support women's access to training opportunities in non-traditional areas, such as solar technology in partnership with the Barefoot College of India and position women in green growth and green jobs.
  • Together with FAO, IFAD and WFP, support Governments to improve rural women's food and nutrition security, increase their access to and control over land and other productive resources, services and income and reduce their workload.
  • Leverage commitments, actions and investments for gender equality and women's empowerment across the UN System through the effective implementation of the System-wide Action Plan for the implementation of the CEB Policy on gender equality and the empowerment of women (SWAP).
  • Further our partnership with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstove and UN Water.

Tomorrow, UN Women is convening a High-Level Summit of women Heads of State and Governments where they will issue a Call to Action to integrate gender equality and women's empowerment in all sustainable development frameworks. Their leadership will join your efforts in a bold movement to bring forward the gender equality agenda in the context of sustainable development. UN Women is proud to be part of this effort.

I look forward to seeing you there tomorrow and thank you for your attention.