Remarks by John Hendra at a side event on the MDGs, post-2015 and Beijing+20

Remarks by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Policy and Programme John Hendra at a side event on the MDGs, post-2015 and Beijing+20 – regional perspectives: North America/Europe, New York, 10 March 2014


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Good evening and many thanks to the Permanent Missions of the Republic of Latvia, and the Republic of Poland, and the CSW NGO Committee on the Status of Women, for convening this important discussion.

As we know, gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment remain an unfinished project. Everywhere in the world, women continue to experience violence, earn less than men for the same work, assume the bulk of the responsibility for unpaid care work, and lack an equal voice in decision-making at all levels.

And while the MDGs were successful in focusing attention on issues such as equal participation in primary education, they failed to address critical issues such as violence against women, unpaid care work, women’s limited control over assets and property, wage discrimination, adolescent girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights, and unequal participation in public and private decision-making at all levels.

We have a historic opportunity and a collective responsibility now, to do things differently this time around with the new post-2015 development agenda. This means taking a universal, rights-based, transformative approach in order to address the structural inequality and gender-based discrimination that underpin and reinforce gender inequality. In this context, UN Women is very pleased to see the growing and broad support among Member States for including gender equality and women’s empowerment as a priority in the new development agenda, as well as the strong support among many Member States for a dedicated goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Adopting such a goal, setting concrete targets and indicators for achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment, and ensuring gender is robustly mainstreamed across the new framework, is critically important to advance gender equality and women’s rights in all countries, regardless of their development status.

My remarks will focus on the economy and specifically women’s access to capabilities, opportunities and resources, which is especially important in the context of the recent global economic crisis, and austerity measures adopted in many countries.

There are four main target areas that must be addressed if we are to achieve gender equality, enhance economic empowerment and help transform unequal power relations between men and women in the next sustainable development agenda.

First, access to quality education, and in particular secondary and tertiary education, is key to women’s economic empowerment, as it has a multiplier effect on welfare, status, rights and opportunities across generations. Accelerating not just enrolment, but completion of education, is really key to driving change for women, and for families and societies.

Yet poverty, gender inequalities, and geographic disparities continue to impede women and girl’s enrolment in, and completion of, education. While globally women’s enrollment in tertiary education has increased almost twice as fast as men’s enrollment over the past four decades, women in low-income countries are being left behind. Just as importantly, gender stereotypes and cultural barriers continue to affect young women and girls’ career choices and opportunities. This is especially evident in non-traditional sectors such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics, where women and girls’ enrolment remains very low at all levels.

Hence, the new development framework must push forward on a number of fronts simultaneously; women and girls’ participation in, and completion of, secondary and tertiary education, the quality of the education girls and women receive, and more broadly addressing gender stereotyping and gender-based discrimination.

Second, women’s employment and access to decent work is more important than ever –both globally and at the national level – particularly in the wake of the global economic crisis and subsequent austerity measures adopted in many countries.

Globally women’s labour force participation has stagnated and participation rates are as low as 25 per cent in the Middle East and North Africa. GDP per capita losses that are attributable to a gender gap in the labour market amount to as much as 27 per cent in certain regions.

Many women are being pushed into fragile, vulnerable and temporary work which is typically low paid and lacks access to social protection and other benefits.  Lack or non-enforcement of core labour standards propels a “race to the bottom” that ultimately exacerbates poverty, inequality and exclusion - and places women at increased risk of violence, harassment and exploitation at work. Nor has the growing participation of women in higher education yet translated into more equal representation in the labour market, especially in leadership and decision-making positions. This has to change.

Women must be active participants in emerging and growing markets. In the energy sector employment in wind and solar energy alone is predicted to rise to 8.4 million jobs by 2030. If as many women worked in the digital sector as men, European GDP could increase by an estimated 9 billion euros. Opening new education and career pathways for women in these sectors will now be critical.

Third, women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work is one of the main barriers to women’s full engagement in employment, and in social and political life.  As the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights has argued, women’s unequal, and often very onerous unpaid care responsibilities are a major barrier to women’s equal enjoyment of human rights, and in many cases, condemn women to poverty.

UN Women’s own research shows that the recent global economic crisis, and the subsequent jobless recovery, has widened the workload and leisure-hours gap between mothers and fathers in some countries. Furthermore, cuts to public health, childcare, and social protection services have increasingly pushed these responsibilities back onto women.

Increased state responsibility for provision of public services, coupled with appropriate incentives and support to households, can help promote more equitable distribution of unpaid care work within families, and between households and the state. Countries like Sweden that provide affordable, quality childcare together with incentives for fathers to take paternity leave have not only seen a direct impact on the time men spend with their children, but for every month of leave a father takes, the mothers earnings increase by 6.7 per cent.

Governments then have a responsibility first, to measure and value unpaid care work and the contribution it makes to economies and societies; second to provide accessible, public care services and social services; third, to invest in access to water and infrastructure, to reduce women’s work burden in developing societies; and finally to put in place incentives, including parental benefits and taxation, that support, rather than penalize, women’s choices, and that encourage men to do their share.

Finally, we must squarely tackle women’s poverty and unequal access to productive resources like land and finance. As we know, the global economic downturn has caused very serious setbacks in progress towards achievement of the MDGs. Women continue to represent the majority of the poor due to their lower access to productive resources and assets, capabilities and decent paid employment.

The economic and financial crises have exposed the shortcomings of the current economic model that contributes to inequality and vulnerability, in particular among women. As Oxfam has highlighted, the 85 richest people control the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion. The extreme levels of wealth concentration we are seeing, threaten to exclude hundreds of millions of people from realizing the benefits of their talents and hard work.  And this acts as a brake on economic growth and poverty reduction.

A lot more remains to be done. Women’s limited access to resources undermines their economic participation and potential, and impacts adversely on enterprise development, productivity, and competitiveness. Ultimately it depresses GDP. Promoting women’s equal access to, and control over, productive assets, decent work, and social protection, improving women’s rights to work, and their rights at work, and ensuring quality basic services and infrastructure are essential to reduce poverty and inequality for all.

These are just some of the critical areas, and targets, that we need to see from a women’s economic empowerment perspective in a new development agenda that is really universal, rights based and transformative.  But it’s really the whole package of targets and indicators – on ending violence, on decision-making, on economic empowerment – that must be included in a dedicated goal and across the framework to ensure real change and transformation of unequal power relations between men and women. As UN Women, we count on your support in the months ahead to advocate for just such a transformative agenda.

Thank you.