“Gender equality is the biggest transformer and enabler for achieving sustainable development” — Lakshmi Puri

Opening remarks by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri at “A call to action for gender equality and women’s empowerment” in New York on 17 May.


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Good morning ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,

I would like to start by thanking all of you for your support.

At the outset, I want to acknowledge the tremendous and tireless support of Richard Fitzburgh of the Royal Bank of Canada and the amazing and dedicated Steering Committee he mobilized in putting together this very special event to build a partnership between the United Nation’s only twenty-first century entity—UN Women—and a very enlightened cohort of high net worth individuals and family practices, which we know will lead to a call to action for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Who we are

UN Women was established by UN Member States in 2010 to accelerate progress on gender equality and the empowerment of women worldwide. It is the organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women and serves as a global champion for women and girls. We have grown as a great institution in every area of our functioning, whether it is intergovernmental normative and political commitments; advocacy and communications; a knowledge hub; a centre of excellence and training on gender equality and women’s empowerment and the women's rights agenda; a monitoring and accountability builder; UN system coordination to deliver on gender equality and women's empowerment; our programmatic work on the ground in 90 countries putting in place the regional architecture, strengthening our field presence and impact in driving laws, policies, measures, services and their implementation; and, last but not least, our strategic partnership with civil society organizations, academia and the private sector.

What we do

After six years of existence, we have been consolidated as the premier and largest single UN body ever charged with advancing gender equality. Our focused priority areas are: a) increasing women’s leadership and participation; b) ending violence against women; engaging women in all aspects of peace and security processes; c) enhancing women’s economic empowerment; and d) making gender equality central to national development planning and budgeting. UN Women also coordinates and promotes the UN system’s work in advancing gender equality.

UN Women has an ambitious agenda, but also a practical agenda of building an organization that can make a lasting difference in the lives of women and girls everywhere. We have brought home the realization that gender equality and women’s empowerment is vital for the well-being of women and girls themselves, but also for sustainable development, peace and security, human rights, climate change and humanitarian response. We have been received very well by Member States, our partners in civil society, private sector, media, academia, youth organizations and others. Though still a big struggle, our expertise, our work, what we bring to the table and the arena in different countries and regions, is also deeply appreciated by governments, UN agencies alike and by the women of the world.

Our universal mandate means that our global advocacy must promote a tectonic shift in state actions and norms, change the social norms, gender stereotypes and discriminatory practices that are embedded in culture, tradition and religion. That is why we have our highly successful campaigns: HeForShe, Planet 50-50 by 2030, Step it up and UNiTE to End Violence against Women, among others. We ask you to embrace these campaigns and be the harbingers of the change we want to see for the women and girls who live in extreme poverty, suffer daily violence, have no voice, are discriminated against and deprived of their basic human rights.

Herstoric opportunity

This is a benchmarking time for you to engage in gender equality and the empowerment of women. The world adopted last year a comprehensive, transformative 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which put gender equality and women’s empowerment at its centre and vowed to leave no one behind.

Over the last 20 years we have indeed made, and will continue to make, tremendous progress and in fact leaps in some ways. Yet the reality is that much more needs to be done. Last year we commemorated Bejing+20 (twenty years since the Fourth World Conference on Women, where the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted—which is still regarded as one of the most comprehensive documents on women’s rights and gender equality). Our review shows, despite progress, the world still has far to go towards gender equality and no country can claim that they have achieved gender equality—not even the US which is supposed to be in the avant-garde position.

We know now that without gender equality and a full role for women in society, in the economy, in governance, we will not be able to achieve the future that we want. This is why the stand-alone goal (sustainable development goal (SDG) 5) on achieving—not promoting—gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls is pivotal. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its strong emphasis on gender equality and women’s empowerment offers a real opportunity to drive lasting change for women’s rights and equality, and to bring universal, comprehensive and transformative change in women’s and men’s lives.

SDG 5 zooms in on unequal power relations between women and men and addresses the structural barriers that hold back progress for women and girls. It addresses issues that are relevant globally: an end to all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls; as well as recognizing unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies. Women’s participation and leadership in political and economic life must be ensured. Women must have universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights. Women must have equal rights to economic resources—land, property and financial services. The inclusion of SDG 5 in the new development agenda is a recognition of the intrinsic value of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in the context of a human rights-based and equality-based approach—and its indispensability for a just and equitable economic, social and environmental order.

The next stage of implementation and localization—is very crucial in ensuring the success of SDGs. As a global leader on women’s rights, the US has a great responsibility to address structural inequality and accelerate progress for women and girls, laying a strong foundation that will support the successful implementation of the entire 2030 Agenda. Gender equality is the biggest transformer and enabler for achieving sustainable development. The US has great potential to be the driver of our moving from the back to the future where the Beijing Platform for Action is realized, setting a new destiny for successive generations of women and men to come.

I appeal to the special responsibility of the US, including those high net worth individuals, and those in finance to support and lead this cause in the United States and around the world. Achieving gender equality, including through empowering women and unleashing their potential, and removing structural, cultural, social and economic barriers that prevent women from participating fully in the economic and political life of their countries, is critical for achieving sustainable development. Furthermore, if gender equality is not accomplished the achievement of the sustainable development goals is jeopardized.

  1. Elimination of violence against women

    Violence against women continues to be global pandemic that has taken various horrifying and dehumanizing forms in different contexts and spaces. A recent study found that nine times as many people around the world are killed in domestic violence, than are killed in wars. Globally, about 30 per cent of women over the age of 15 are estimated to suffer from physical and/or sexual violence, are beaten, assaulted and raped and most of this is perpetrated in intimate partner relationships at some point in their lives. Too many women and girls experience sexual violence and harassment in schools and on university campuses, in the workplace and the public space. There is early and forced marriage of young girls and female genital mutilation. Also, whether it is for forced labour or sexual exploitation, trafficking is a pervasive problem that knows no borders and of which women and girls constitute a large share of victims.

    Gender inequality is at the heart of factors associated with an increased risk of violence against women including by intimate partners. In addition, situations of conflict, post-conflict and displacement can exacerbate and compound existing violence by intimate partners and present additional forms of violence against women.

    This violence has been recognized as an impediment to sustainable development and further reaffirmed by the 2030 Agenda‘s inclusion of SDG 5, target 5.2, as well as other ending violence against women and gender-related SDG targets. It can also reduce educational attainment and productivity, carries high economic costs for societies and effectively stops women and girls from fulfilling their true potential. A study from Oxford University found that the economic and social cost of all violence worldwide is about USD 9.5 trillion a year, equivalent to 11.2 per cent of the world's gross domestic product.

  2. Women’s economic empowerment

    Women make enormous contributions to economies, whether in businesses, on farms, as entrepreneurs or employees, or by doing unpaid care work at home. For example women in sub-Saharan Africa walk millions of miles and billions of hours to fetch water and firewood. They remain disproportionately affected by poverty, discrimination and exploitation. Gender discrimination means women often end up in insecure, low wage jobs, and constitute a small minority of those in senior positions. It curtails access to economic assets such as land and loans. It limits participation in shaping economic and social policies. And because women perform the bulk of household work, they often have little time left to pursue economic opportunities.

    As UN Women’s flagship Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016 report has shown, women’s labour force participation has stagnated over the past 25 years. Three quarters of men are in the labour force, compared to only half of women. Women are paid 24 per cent less than men. Women have restricted options to work or build businesses. Adequate education may lie out of reach. Some end up forced into sexual exploitation as part of a basic struggle to survive. These situations often results in deprivation in women’s lives and losses for the broader society and economy, as women’s productivity and potential can be one of the greatest generators of economic dynamism.

    SGD 5 calls for empowering women to participate fully in economic life across all sectors and levels of economic activity. It calls for the recognition and value of unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family.

    Rarely has the case for women’s economic empowerment been clearer and the potential so great!

    Effective policies supporting women’s economic empowerment yields positive results on various levels:

    • Economically. The recently launched McKinsey report on the power of parity, which shows that if we consider a “full-potential” scenario in which there is a full gender equality with women participating in the economy identically to men, it would add up to USD 28 trillion, or 26 per cent, to the annual global GDP in 2025 compared with a business-as-usual scenario. This impact is roughly equivalent to the size of the combined US and Chinese economies today.
    • Politically. There is a clear correlation between women’s economic independence and an increased and accelerated ability of women to effectively participate in decision-making forums, to be leaders in their communities, and in local and national government. This can improve women’s status and agency.
    • Socially. Evidence shows that an economically independent woman is less likely to be systematically abused and more likely to walk away from a cycle of abuse. But systemic violence that results from a tradition of entrenched cultural norms cannot be eliminated unless women are empowered in a practical sense.

    Rights, skills, finance and business are the kernel of women’s economic empowerment and are integral to an enabling ecosystem for gender equality. The US, by virtue of its size and weight in the world economy has a special responsibility and capacity to be role model to advance this agenda globally though their macroeconomic, aid, trade, financial and corporate policies.

  3. Gender parity in voice, participation and leadership in political, public and economic life

    The world we want is one with inclusive political institutions which guarantees equal opportunities and human rights, with an engaged citizenry involved in co-designing their own futures. This is the vision of the SDGs—a vision where no one is left behind, a vision of equality, where there is responsive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.

    While we have made progress, women remain largely outside of public decision-making, through which resources are allocated. Today, only 16 countries have women as a Head of State or Government. Only 17 per cent of government ministers are women, and just over 22 per cent of all national parliamentarians are women. The bad news is that if barriers are not removed, it would take at least another 50 years to reach our Planet 50-50.

    Women are also underrepresented in economic leadership positions. Women’s share of board seats at stock index companies is 19.2 per cent in the US, 20.8 per cent in Canada, 18.5 per cent in Germany, 22.8 per cent in the UK and 19.2 per cent in Australia. The average in Africa is 14.4 per cent, in the Asia Pacific region 9.8 per cent, in Latin America 5.6 per cent and in the Middle East 1 per cent.

    Achieving a sustainable future, in which gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls is realized—what UN Women calls “Planet 50-50 by 2030”—will not be impossible without advancing women’s political and economic leadership.

  4. Chronic underinvestment in gender equality and the need for transformative financing

    As the 20-year review of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action found, progress in all 12 critical areas of concern has been slow and uneven. This lack of progress has been exacerbated by the persistent and chronic underinvestment in gender equality and women’s empowerment.

    This was addressed last year by the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA)—the outcome document of the Third United Nations Conference on Financing for Development—which included dedicated paragraphs on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Paragraph six serves as a lynchpin for gender equality commitments in all areas: “…achieving gender equality, empowering all women and girls, and the full realization of their human rights are essential for achieving sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth and sustainable development…” and therefore the need to prioritize investment in this area.

    These very important commitments were complemented by the 2030 Agenda. They both form a very strong framework in support of UN Women’s mandate, and our normative and operational work. At a successful side event in Addis in July 2015, UN Women with partners launched the Addis Ababa Action Plan on Transformative Financing for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.

    The concept of Transformative Financing is based on the premise that achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment has been held back by chronic and significant underinvestment in past decades. We argue that a transformative approach (not “business as usual”) to financing gender equality and the empowerment of women is imperative to fulfil obligations under CEDAW, realize commitments to full and accelerated implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and the 2030 Agenda.

    This transformative approach demands significantly increased, prioritized and sustained investment in gender equality commitments in scale, scope and quality, from all sources at all levels, and both gender-mainstreamed and targeted in key sectors.

    UN Women is experiencing this underinvestment too.

On behalf of UN Women, I thank all of you for your efforts and invite you to join us in achieving a Planet 50-50 by 2030!

Thank you!