Gender equality and women's empowerment central to sustainable development -- Lakshmi Puri

Remarks by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri during a Panel Discussion organized by ActionAid on "The future she wants? Equity, economic policies and moving beyond 'a dollar a day'" in New York on 24 September, 2013


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Ladies and gentlemen

Good morning! 

It is a pleasure to join you this morning for this important discussion on “The future women want.” I would like to thank ActionAid for convening this timely discussion, and for continuing to insert and centralize gender equality in the development debate and in the processes the international community is currently undertaking on the post-2015 development agenda.

Today, world leaders are meeting in the UN General Assembly just across the street and I have no doubt that the new development framework will be high on the agenda. Tomorrow, the President of the General Assembly will host a Special Event on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The focus will be on identifying gaps in achieving the MDGs, ways to accelerate their implementation and a reflection on elements of the post-2015 development agenda. 

Undeniably, this is a time to take stock, celebrate achievements and address the gaps we know exist in a more robust and comprehensive development framework. 

I would like to share a quote with you from a report UN Women prepared for the Rio+20 conference titled, The Future Women Want: A Vision of Sustainable Development for All:

    The paradigm shift towards sustainable development requires a renewed focus on people-centred development that prioritizes the expansion of capabilities, the eradication of poverty and the reduction of all types of inequalities, and that promotes the rights and agency of women. It is a shift to a world where women and men, girls and boys—not profit—are placed at the centre of action and decision-making, and all people take responsibility for sustainable production and consumption and respect the earth’s resource limits.

Successes and shortcomings of the Millennium Development Goals

The MDGs generated unprecedented global efforts to advance human development. Significant progress to reduce poverty and hunger has been made globally and in many countries. And there are many achievements to celebrate: 

  • The proportion of people living on less than USD 1.25 per day fell by more than half;
  • More children than ever are attending primary school;
  • The mortality rate for children under five dropped by 41 per cent;
  • The maternal mortality ratio declined by 47 per cent over the past two decades;
  • The incidence of HIV is declining steadily in most regions and important gains have been made in the fight against malaria and tuberculosis;
  • And the MDG target of halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water has been achieved five years ahead of schedule.

There is no doubt that the MDGs have shaped the development landscape and provided the impulse for many strides ahead. While initial take-up was slow, over time they garnered broad political – and considerable financial – support. They were concrete and time-bound, which helped to galvanize action on many fronts, including for promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment. They have been adapted to suit local contexts and needs, and used as a measure of progress, in many countries. And they are simple and straightforward to communicate.

But as we know, the MDGs have also been criticized on a number of grounds. National averages obscure inequalities within countries, global targets were interpreted as national targets, and there is an imbalance between the responsibilities of the South outlined in Goals One-to-Seven, and the commitments of the North, set out in Goal Eight. Furthermore, the sustainability aspect has not been emphasized enough throughout the goals. 

And while the MDGs tackled the symptoms of poverty and deprivation, they did not adequately address the root causes of discrimination and exclusion. Progress has been hampered by large inequalities related to gender, income, ethnicity, disability, age and displacements.

Measuring poverty

This is clear across the MDGs and prominently so in the case of MDG 1 – to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.

Measuring progress on this MDG has used the global poverty line, originally set at one-US-dollar-a-day and later revised to USD 1.25-a-day. Increasingly, this is less regarded as a poverty line and much more as a starvation line. Indeed, several studies show that USD 1.25-a-day is simply not enough to cover the cost of basic needs – in any country and for any group of people, especially women.

There is no doubt that the current poverty line fails to reflect the total monetary value of a minimum set of basic needs for people in a significant number of poor countries. For example, USD 1.25-a-day represents an average of a set of low income and mostly African countries, which happen to be in warmer climates. The need to incorporate the costs of heating fuel and warm clothing in winter months for countries with colder climates has been completely overlooked in the estimation of basic needs.

Even more critical is the fact that the poverty line fails to take into account differences related to gender, age, life-cycle, cultural consumption patterns, and other criteria, such as the type of work one is engaged in. For example, people who work in physically demanding jobs like agriculture – or people with different biological needs due to their life-cycle, such as lactating mothers – require higher calories and hence more income to cover the cost of their nutritional needs.

From a gender perspective, the inadequacy of this measurement is particularly evident. Indeed, poverty continues to be measured at the household level and this household-based approach fails to address poverty women and girls may experience in ‘non-poor households’, as a result of gender bias in resource distribution within households, such as unequal access to shelter, energy and water. This is why a rights-based approach is essential.  

The inadequacy of this poverty line is all the more evident when we look at two sets of statistics. 

Firstly, according to the 2012 MDG report, 414 million people live below the poverty line. At the same time, UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 870 million people are chronically undernourished – more than double the amount of poor people. How can it be that more than 400 million people who cannot satisfy the very basic need of food are not considered as ‘poor’? The global poverty line also hides poverty that exists in developed countries where 16 million people go to bed hungry every night, although they are not considered poor, according to the USD 1.25-a-day criteria.

Secondly, while the proportion of people living on less than USD 1.25-per-day has decreased, evidence shows that inequalities are in fact rising and continue to be the greatest development challenge. According to Thomas Pogge, the bottom quarter of the human population has only three-quarters of one percent of global household income and about 1/32 of the average income in the world. On the other hand, people in the top five percent have nine times the average income. So the ratio between the averages in the top five percent and the bottom quarter is somewhere around 300 to one - a huge inequality.

Addressing inequalities

Rising inequalities are a concern in every country – developing and developed. They are both a cause and consequence of poverty and hold back progress on all development goals. This is why it is essential for the new development framework to use a new paradigm to spur and measure progress. 

This approach requires a shift in the way we think about and address poverty. Well-being and poverty is not only a question of income shortfall. It is about the much broader set of rights – economic, social, as well as civil, political and cultural rights – that people need to exercise in order to live a life free of want and free of fear. It also entails transforming the too common vision about the poor who, rather than being perceived as passive victims in need of handouts, become agents of change for their own lives and that of their communities. 

In line with this vision, there appears to be an emerging consensus that the future development agenda must be rights-based, and build on existing normative agreements and commitments; that it must be transformative, and directly tackle inequalities and structural discrimination at all levels and in all forms; and it must be accountable and transparent, and enable ordinary people and civil society to hold governments to account. This new generation of goals must combine eradicating poverty with the sustainability of economic, social and environmental processes.

Much of this is reflected in the Secretary-General’s report A Life of Dignity for All. The report sets out an ambitious rights-based vision for a post-2015 development agenda. An agenda that addresses the challenges of sustainability, ending extreme poverty, and development in a holistic and comprehensive manner. An agenda that is universal, applying to developed and developing countries alike because so many of the challenges we face today are global and we can only make progress if we tackle them together. And an agenda that is transformative, that addresses rising inequality and brings about real change in people’s lives.

As stated in the report: 

    All countries need to recognize the profound transformations required to address the emerging challenges of sustainable development. These include economic shifts to sustainable patterns of production and consumption, effective governance and a renewed global partnership and means of implementation.

In setting out this ambitious agenda, the report reflects the views of literally hundreds of thousands of people the world over who have participated in 11 thematic, five regional and 88 country consultations. People everywhere are calling for transformative change, to eradicate poverty, achieve sustainable development, human rights, equality, justice and security. 

One of the issues that has emerged most strongly through these consultations is the need to tackle inequalities and structural discrimination in the new development agenda, especially gender inequality and gender-based discrimination which was identified as underpinning and reinforcing all other forms of inequality. Hence, people are calling for the new development agenda to prioritize gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment.

Gender equality and the new development agenda

In this regard, UN Women welcomes the many affirmations of the centrality of gender equality and women’s empowerment to sustainable development and to the new development framework. The Rio+20 outcome, the report of the High-level Panel of Eminent Persons, the UN Development Group report A Million Voices, the Global Compact Report on Corporate Sustainability, the Secretary-General’s report and the anticipated outcome of tomorrow’s Special Event on the MDGs have all emphasized this point. 

We at UN Women are calling for a stand-alone goal on achieving gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment and mainstreaming of gender perspectives in all other goals. The stand-alone gender equality goal needs to address the structural foundations of gender-based inequality and discrimination.  

To be truly transformative, we believe that the new framework should tackle three core areas: freedom from violence for women and girls; capabilities and resources; and voice, leadership and participation. It needs to set out what women and girls want and need, how the state can deliver, and how men and boys can help to contribute to gender equality and women’s empowerment in all goals. 

Let me briefly elaborate on each of these three points. 

First, violence against women and girls must stop. Concrete actions to eliminate the debilitating fear and/or experience of violence must be a centrepiece of any future framework. Violence against women and girls is a manifestation of gender-based discrimination that seriously inhibits their abilities to enjoy rights and freedoms on an equal basis with men and boys. And globally, one in three women report having experienced physical and sexual violence at some point in their lives. This violence, which causes great physical and psychological harm to women and girls, is a violation of their human rights, constrains their ability to fulfill their true potential and carries great economic costs for them and for society. 

Second, women and girls must have equal access to resources and opportunities to reach their full potential. The often skewed distribution of capabilities needs to be addressed with renewed urgency to build women’s economic and social security. This must include efforts to promote decent work, reduce women’s time burdens, and provide access to and control over land and productive assets, as well as to energy and water and sanitation. It must also include access to health, including sexual and reproductive health, and to skills and education at the primary, secondary and tertiary level.  

Thirdly, women’s capacity to influence decision-making is intimately linked with their capabilities. Having a voice and participating in the processes and decisions that determine their lives is essential to women’s and girls’ freedoms. Therefore, the third area we propose should encompass voice, leadership and participation. It should go beyond women’s participation in national parliaments to also include participation in public institutions at local and regional levels. Promoting equal decision-making in households and women’s leadership in the private sector are equally important. 

In sum, together, these three dimensions affect women’s and girls’ safety, economic and social security and choices, and their voice in shaping public policy priorities. We have issued a position paper outlining this vision that I encourage you all to read – it is available on our website. There is plenty of evidence to show that countries with a higher status of women also enjoy higher levels of social and economic performance and environmental sustainability. 

For this transformative vision to become reality, the new framework must be  supported by policies that have proven most effective to achieve these outcomes, such as those outlined in the international human rights framework and in policy commitments such as the Beijing Platform for Action, and in General Assembly, the UN Economic and Social Council and Commission on the Status of Women commitments (CSW). 

These policies go from aligning legal and policy frameworks with international human rights standards; to providing access to justice for women; to security and justice sector reforms; to preventing violence against women and ending impunity; to economic regulation and employment policies that prevent discrimination against women and enable men to take more responsibility for unpaid domestic and care work; to macroeconomic policies that promote inclusive and equitable growth. Temporary special measures for women are essential and so is gender mainstreaming, as a strategy to ensure gender perspectives are integrated in the design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation of all policies and programmes. 

Looking forward

Looking ahead, the CSW will examine in 2014 the “challenges and achievements in the implementation of the MDGs for women and girls.” This is a critical opportunity to look at the achievements generated by the MDGs for women and girls and to discuss how to accelerate action to close gaps. 

This will be an important stepping stone towards 2015, where the Commission will conduct a 20-year review and appraisal of the Beijing Platform for Action. The Beijing+20 process will be instrumental in ensuring that gender equality and women’s empowerment feature prominently in the post-2015 development framework. We need to engage a new generation of not just women and girls, but men and boys. 

Addressing gender equality and women’s empowerment means addressing inequalities across the board. Investing in gender equality improves health outcomes, accelerates economic growth, reduces poverty and contributes to peace, democracy and stability. 

The discussions to shape the post-2015 global development agenda offer a real opportunity to drive lasting change for women’s rights and equality. A strong global gender equality goal can succeed in ending violence and discrimination against women and girls and unleash the potential of half the population for a more peaceful, just and prosperous world and a sustainable planet.

Thank you.