Op-ed: Achieving gender equality is the challenge of our times

By: Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, Lakshmi Puri

Date: Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The year 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. That landmark gathering of 189 governments adopted the UN Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a roadmap for gender equality and women’s empowerment that is still considered the most comprehensive women’s rights agenda.

This historic agreement called for a world where women and girls have equal rights, freedom and opportunities in all spheres of life and a life free from want, fear and violence. But 20 years on, no country can claim it has attained gender equality.

There has been progress. Globally, girls are now as likely as boys to be enrolled in primary education and significant progress has been made in girls’ enrolment at the secondary and tertiary levels. Women’s voice and leadership in political decision-making has increased, and there has been unprecedented legal reform from the global to the national level to address violence against women, the pandemic that affects one in three women worldwide. These advances resulted from the persistent mobilization of feminists and women’s movements pushing for change and holding governments accountable.

In Ireland too, there has been significant progress, especially through the strengthening of legal frameworks and institutions and leadership such as that of Mary Robinson, your first female president and now an international gender advocate in the climate change negotiations. The creation of the gender equality division of the Department of Justice and its implementation of the National Women’s Strategy from 2007 to 2016 is a key achievement. Civil society is represented on the strategy’s monitoring committee. It is also imperative to support the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) to ensure women’s voices are heard.

However, Ireland faces many challenges. Violence against women remains high and more needs to be done to prevent it, prosecute perpetrators and provide victims with multisectoral response services.

The under-representation of women in leadership and participation in government and the private sector – particularly gender segregation in the labour market – and the disproportionate level of unpaid care work provided by women also need to be addressed. Women’s rights to their bodies, and to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children needs to be ensured.

In spite of 56 per cent of all graduates in Ireland being women, there is a persistent imbalance in relation to the low number of women in higher levels of education. When they are there, women are over-represented in the fields of education and health and welfare (80 per cent) compared with science, mathematics and computing(40 per cent).

Challenges also remain worldwide. Twenty years ago, just 12 per cent of parliamentarians were women, compared with 22 per cent today, while 40 per cent of women were in wage and salaried employment compared with 48 per cent of women today. Twenty years ago, 15 per cent of young women were enrolled in college level education, compared with 25 per cent today.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2014 shows the gender gap for economic participation and opportunity stands at 60 per cent worldwide, having closed by only four percentage points since 2006. On this trajectory, it will take 81 years to close the gap. This “progress” is not good enough. We need big, bold changes.

2015 can be a game-changing year. As the international community defines a new development framework, UN Women is pushing for new goals on gender equality and women’s empowerment and sustainable development.

This framework, to be adopted in September, provides the international community with the ideal opportunity to put gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment at the centre of the global agenda.

I am hopeful we will get there, but ambitious goals must be matched by equally ambitious means of implementation. The women’s rights agenda is chronically underfunded and governments and private sector must match words with action and allocate financial resources.

We can make measurable progress in the next five years of the post-2015 development agenda, and full gender equality no later than 2030.

President Michael D. Higgins has recently joined UN Women’s IMPACT 10x10x10 initiative, as part of UN Women’s HeForShe campaign, as one of the first heads of state and government. This is commendable and we count on Ireland to walk the talk on women’s rights and gender equality. Achieving gender equality is still the challenge of our times. But with your leadership we can reach the goal.

Lakshmi Puri, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, is addressing a joint NWCI and IHREC event A Woman's Place is in the World, in Dublin Castle today.

This op-ed was originally published in the Irish Times on 20 February.