Economic Empowerment of Women at the Heart of Sustainable Development - a speech by Lakshmi Puri

Keynote address by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri at the Ninth Meeting of Women Speakers of Parliament hosted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, in Geneva, Switzerland, 4 September 2014.

Date: Thursday, September 4, 2014

[Check against delivery] 

Ms. Lakshmi Puri speaking at the Ninth Meeting of Women Speakers of Parliament. Photo courtesy of the IPU.
Ms. Lakshmi Puri speaking at the Ninth Meeting of Women Speakers of Parliament. Photo: IPU/P.Albouy, 2014. See the Inter-Parliamentary Union's Flickr set here.

Good morning to all of you,

It is a great pleasure and honour to join you today at this meeting of Women Speakers of Parliament. You, distinguished leaders from around the world, embody one of UN Women’s key constituencies and allies. We are so proud of our partnership and I would like to start by paying tribute to your efforts to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in your countries and regions. Thank you.

It is gratifying to see so many of you here today. Although not enough, many countries now have women Speakers. You are beacons of light for gender equality and women’s empowerment in the temples of democracy that Parliaments are. Beyond the aim of gender parity in parliamentary representation – which is called for in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform for Action and Millennium Development Goal 3 (MDG3) – you symbolize the quest for women's leadership in what constitutes the supreme institution of people's representation and power – the Parliament. 

Partnership with IPU

I would also like to highlight the strong collaboration between the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women, which has continued to develop and flourish over the years.

This is the third occasion in which UN Women has had the honour of participating in the Meeting of Women Speakers of Parliament – Panama and New Delhi. From our partnerships during the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and IPU Assemblies, to the development of well-regarded advocacy tools such as the map on Women in Politics, it is clear that our two organizations are marching lock-step along the path to gender equality.

UN Women is especially grateful to IPU for its tireless commitment to supporting, advocating for, monitoring, and evaluating the status of women in leadership and the role that they play in securing and promoting women’s economic empowerment.
Today, we celebrate our collective commitments to ensuring women’s full participation in decision-making. But we are also here to recommit to promoting enabling environments and nurturing economic and social systems, within which women can exercise meaningful choices to improve their own lives as well as those of their families, communities, societies, economies and nations.

It is a particularly momentous time to gather as we approach the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action and during the 500-day countdown to the close of the MDGs. We also gather in the wake of the Rio+20 conference and as countries prepare to formalize their commitments to a dedicated goal on gender equality, women’s rights, and women’s empowerment within the Sustainable Development Goals and post-2015 development framework.

This is an important time to take stock of progress, assess challenges and strategize to ensure women’s full participation both in support of sustainable and inclusive development, as well as for its intrinsic importance in realizing women’s rights.

Our collective engagement in the Rio+20 Conference was an opportunity to assert the centrality of gender equality, women’s rights and the empowerment of women in achieving sustainable development. The Rio+20 outcome resolved that women are vital to sustainable development in all three dimensions – economic, social, and environmental—and that ‘unlocking their potential’ and supporting their economic empowerment is a powerful means to achieve both sustainable development and gender equality.

Now is the time to make these aspirations a reality. Now is the time to unlock women’s potential and ensure that women’s economic, social and political empowerment both benefits and enables sustainable development and poverty eradication.

Our Beijing+20 campaign “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture It!” has been emphasizing this critical linkage. In fact this month, we are looking at the critical area of women and the economy, with special attention to how this contributes to sustainable development. I call on you to join our campaign online and offline and give meaning to the words of the Beijing Platform for Action, 20 years after its adoption.

Theme: linkages between sustainable development, women’s economic empowerment and gender equality

Women’s economic empowerment lies at the heart of sustainable development in every way, but realizing this goal fundamentally depends on realizing women’s economic rights. This requires transforming power relations and structural inequalities – in households, markets and States, and in different sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, manufacturing and services – to enable women to have viable incomes, decent work and be decisive actors who shape the terms and conditions of their participation in economic life.

Today, the majority of the world's poor are women. Enabling them to escape the poverty trap in a sustainable manner requires political and financial capital to be invested in their economic empowerment. Women continue to be in informal, vulnerable and lower-paid jobs, often dependent on others for their sustenance. Without sustainable incomes, economic autonomy so crucial to women’s empowerment will not be realized.

A key aspect of addressing economic autonomy in the context of sustainable development relates to land, water and energy. We know that these are at the core of sustainable development. They are at the heart of debates and processes about moving from unsustainable to sustainable patterns of production and consumption, and at the crux of resource scarcity dilemmas and resource conservation efforts. And while this affects everybody, it has a differentiated and special impact on women and girls. 

For example, it is estimated that women spend a total of 16 million hours a day collecting water. In rural areas of Guinea, for example, women spend more than twice as much time fetching water per week than men, while in Malawi they spend over eight times more time than men. Similarly, women and girls spend a significant portion of their time, up to four hours a day, performing subsistence tasks such as gathering wood for fuel.

The time invested in these tasks deprives them of time or access to other activities such as education, decent wage employment and leisure, which could contribute to their economic empowerment.

Lack of access to sustainable energy is therefore a critical issue both from an environmental and from a gender equality perspective. Illnesses from indoor air pollution alone – due to unhealthy cooking stoves and use of biomass fuels such as wood and dung – result in more deaths of women and children annually than those from HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and malnutrition combined.

Another example – women are important stakeholders in food production and their work has a positive impact on agricultural productivity. It has been reported that women produce an estimated two-thirds of food in developing countries and, while this claim has not been fully verified, it is undoubtable that women contribute a significant proportion of the labour to bring food to the table. Yet today equal land rights or access to land remain a challenge de jure or de facto in too many countries.

Access to water, land or sustainable energy and changes in food production patterns are therefore not only critical for environmental sustainability and climate change mitigation, they are also essential for the achievement of women’s economic empowerment.

Supporting women’s economic empowerment requires policy interventions that enable women to make choices as economic actors, providing options that improve their own lives as well their households and communities.

Enhancing political participation

First, this means that women’s voices must be heard and their full and equal participation in the public and private spheres must be realized. Economic and political empowerment go hand-in-hand. If women are to engage productively in the economy, they must also be enabled to participate equally and fully in political arenas and agendas.

Women must have an equal voice in decisions about how to achieve prosperity and growth, about public service provision and policies that affect their lives. It is not only essential to the legitimacy of democratic systems, but also to good governance. 

And you know better than anybody that women’s participation is a game changer. Women will change the political discourse and bring diverse ideas, priorities, knowledge and expertise to current political paradigms.

We have seen it in the villages of India, as women local councillors have excelled in pushing for more efficient and relevant community projects and services. We have seen it in Rwanda and Liberia, where women Parliamentarians accounting for more than 50 per cent have, across party lines, pushed for legislation and measures favourable to women's economic empowerment and that respond to violence against women.

At the same time, traditional gender stereotypes and structural inequalities that prevent women’s full participation fuel the unequal distribution of roles and responsibilities among women and men, reinforce the burden of unpaid care work on women and girls, and prevent women from fully accessing resources and assets must be addressed.

Parliaments need to tackle these not only as lawmakers but as public opinion makers. They have to don the mantle of social activists too for these structural barriers to be torn down. We must work ceaselessly to create enabling normative frameworks and overcome deficient legal entitlements to productive resources and support collective representation and enforcement mechanisms that guarantee women’s right to decent work.

Building productive capacities

Secondly, it is essential to build women’s productive capacities. And this does not just mean investments in economic empowerment but in the whole value chain of education to skills, capacity-building to workforce participation and upholding the right to decent work, to adequate social provisions and protection. This whole value chain needs to be engendered.

This also means reducing women’s lack of physical security and increasing their ability to move freely and without fear. This means redressing women’s limited access to credit and productive resources such as land, machinery, water, seed, fertilizers, financial services and technology. This also means increasing women’s influence over financial markets. 

At the macroeconomic level, it is essential to prioritize the widest possible mobilization of policies and resources that promote the productive and remunerative engagement of women. Fiscal, monetary and exchange rate policy can and should be placed in the service of promoting developmental goals and women’s economic empowerment.

Addressing unpaid care work

Thirdly, it is also critical to take measures to increase women’s labour force participation. This means prioritizing public expenditures that lessen the burden of unpaid care work. This is not a cost; it is an investment that produces jobs and growth in a pro-poor and inclusive manner. It has been widely documented that heavy and unequal care responsibilities are also a major barrier to gender equality and to women’s equal enjoyment of human rights and, in many cases, condemn women to poverty. 

Parliamentarians have a critical role to play here, by increasing efforts to promote legislation and support the implementation of policies to recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work by positioning care as a social and collective responsibility, in particular through providing funding to improve women’s access to public services, childcare services, and infrastructure, such as water and electricity.

This also entails strengthening capacities to integrate gender perspectives into economic policy, including the design of subsidies, taxation, pricing, transfers, compensation and benefit-sharing. Women’s informal and care work have to be acknowledged and valued in economic policymaking, and the gender-defined roles of women and men as consumers and producers must be recognized.

Taking advantage of green economies

Finally, women can contribute to and benefit more from opportunities created by the shift to greener economies. Many countries and communities have succeeded in integrating gender, environment and economic development planning. Greater efforts are now necessary to document and adapt these models in our development planning, and through our commitments to sustainable development goals and to financing sustainable development.

Right now, it is critical to promote women’s employment and entrepreneurship opportunities around the green economy and in response to climate change. Investing in women entrepreneurs is not only smart business, but it can also be sustainable and green business. Women-owned firms represent 30 to 37 per cent of small and medium enterprises in developing countries. Yet, women’s potential contributions to green enterprises, including new technologies, trade and investments in conservation, land restoration, infrastructure and urban recycling and waste management have largely been overlooked. This is partly due to discrimination that limits access to finance, land, information, training and quality jobs with equal pay.

Embracing gender-responsive sustainable consumption and production policies can offer opportunities to leapfrog to a more resource-efficient, profitable and cleaner development trajectory, enhancing net gains from economic activities. Women are part of the solution, as consumers and producers, household managers and caregivers.

Post-2015 development agenda and Sustainable Development Goals

I would now like to look forward and briefly discuss how international norms and standards can support putting in place these policies. A key ongoing process is the development of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Supporting the SDGs in their design, evolution and implementation, so that they reflect women’s social as well as economic empowerment goals, will be fundamental to ensure more gender equal and sustainable societies.

As you may know, the Open Working Group on SDGs proposed a set of goals that will now be considered and discussed in the next General Assembly. Among the 17 goals, a goal on gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls has been proposed, including six substantive targets:

  • To end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere;
  • To eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in public and private spheres;
  • To eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilations;
  • To recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work and promote shared responsibility within the household and the family;
  • To ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making; and
  • To ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

It also includes three targets on the means of implementation:

  • To undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance, and natural resources in accordance with national laws;
  • To enhance the use of enabling technologies, in particular ICT, to promote women’s empowerment; and
  • To adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels.

UN Women will be working with all countries on the next stages of the post-2015 process to strengthen this framework. In this respect, we appeal to you, women Parliamentarians, to start thinking about national processes of monitoring and accountability, and including the most marginalized and excluded in those processes.

As we move this agenda forward collectively, we would ask you to be attentive to the following priorities.

First, we should push for a stronger grounding of the framework in human rights: the overall framework, including narrative, goals and targets, should have a stronger grounding in human rights and equality.

Second, we must have clear guidelines on the means of implementation and address remaining gaps. From a gender perspective, this includes increasing and monitoring resources expended on achieving gender equality; ensuring women’s participation and voice in decision-making in monitoring and implementing the future framework.

We need accountability mechanisms and partnerships and collaboration among diverse groups, government, parliamentarians, civil society, the private sector and unions, all working towards gender equality. And we need to invest in increasing our capacity for the collection, use and analysis of gender statistics and sex-disaggregated data.

Third, we should strive to strengthen the language of targets: The formulation of some targets that are important for gender equality need to be strengthened. These include sexual and reproductive health and rights, unpaid care work and equal rights to assets and resources.

Fourth, we should build on existing work and knowledge: Indicators for the proposed targets will need to be elaborated based on existing work within the UN system.

We appeal to you to work with us to translate these aspirations into reality for the new framework and to translate these goals into action in your countries.


In conclusion, at UN Women we believe that when women living in and near poverty speak out and make their own choices, they simultaneously influence the processes that determine the future of their communities and the pattern of economic development. As a result, women’s economic empowerment contributes to and reflects other social justice and inclusive development goals.

More just and inclusive societies are also those that are more likely to foster women’s economic empowerment.  More just and inclusive societies are likely to be more able and disposed to confront the challenges of climate change, resilience and the imperative of sustainable development.

We all have a role to play in making this happen, but surely having women such as yourselves in positions of leadership is a very positive start! I commend your leadership and I challenge you to be visible role models to galvanize the next generations of empowered women. Not only are we tasked with breaking the chains of intergenerational poverty, but we are similarly challenged to break the cycle of gender inequality, now and for all generations to come.

Women are an essential, crucial catalyst to sustainable development, so let’s ensure their economic empowerment so we can live in a more equal, sustainable, stable and prosperous world together in solidarity.

Thank you.