Speech: “This first ASEM presents us with an enormous opportunity”—Lakshmi Puri

Speech by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri at the “ASEM Conference on Women's Economic Empowerment: Creating Equal Opportunities in the World of Work”, in Vilnius, Lithuania on 25 May.


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Distinguished delegates,
Dear friends,

I am pleased to be here to join you in this important conference on behalf of the UN Women the global entity spearheading the gender equality, women's empowerment and women's rights agenda.

I thank the Government of Lithuania (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour) for hosting the 1st ASEM conference on women’s economic empowerment.

Special thanks to Her Excellency Ms. Dalia Grybauskaitė, President of the Republic of Lithuania, Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders for her patronage of the conference.

Thanks also to the ASEM Member Countries who have co-sponsored such an important conference: Japan, Sweden, Romania, the Philippines, Vietnam, Croatia, Mongolia and China.

In March 1996, the leaders of 25 European and Asian countries, together with the European Commission, convened in Bangkok, Thailand, for the inaugural Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). This historic summit paved the way for the establishment of the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) one year later in 1997, with mutual understanding and co-operation between Europe and Asia including on the values related to human rights at the heart of its foundation and mission. And the universal values of women's rights and fundamental freedoms are the very essence of human rights! It is also the most important project for humanity in the 21st Century and key to achieving its other signature projects of sustainable development, peace and security, humanitarian response and resilience building.

I am pleased to be here at this first ASEM Conference on the theme of “Women's Economic Empowerment. Creating Equal Opportunities in the World of Work”. This is indeed very timely and coincides with the deliberations and outcome of the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW61), which considered “Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work” as its priority theme, and its groundbreaking Agreed Conclusions.

I am aware of the work the government of Lithuania is doing to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women. Just last year I participated in a panel discussion hosted by the H.E. Ms. Dalia Grybauskaitė, President of the Republic of Lithuania, and H.E. Ms. Michelle Bachelet, President of the Republic of Chile among other women leaders, in the context of the 71st Session of the United Nations General Assembly, calling upon the international community to enhance its efforts to eliminate the scourge of violence against women.

But feminism has been central in the history of the Republic. Ona Brazauskaitė, the founding mothers of the first Lithuanian Women's Association in 1905, actively campaigned for women’s suffrage, for equal rights for men and women and for open membership of both women and men in political parties. Her legacy is alive today with an outstanding woman as your Head of State. So, please join me in saluting all the women of courage and conviction, of empowerment and achievement of Lithuania, of Europe and of Asia!

This first ASEM Conference on “Women's Economic Empowerment. Creating Equal Opportunities in the World of Work” presents us with an enormous opportunity to see how Asia and Europe—two great civilizations and continents—can together advance the implementation and achievement of the historic Gender Equality Global Compact agreed at the UN in the last six years.

It is also the occasion to download the CSW61 outcome into this forum and identify strategic opportunities for implementation in the ASEM member countries, in the context of the truly transformative, comprehensive and universal ambition of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which has placed gender equality as both a necessary precondition and dedicated objective of sustainable development.

Sustainable Development Goal 5 on achieving—not just promoting—gender equality and empowering all women and girls, is a promise to all women and girls in their diversity of circumstance and status; to end all forms of discrimination against them in law and practice; to eliminate all forms of violence and harmful practices; to have equal voice, participation and leadership in decision making in every field and at all levels of governance; to value, reduce, redistribute and provision their unpaid care and domestic work; to have universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights; and to have access, ownership and control over productive assets and resources and decent work.

This SDG 5, along with gender sensitive targets in 11 other SDGs, address the structural barriers to women’s enjoyment of their human rights and promise to assure their physical integrity and security, voice and choice. The Global Indicators framework of the UN, now includes 50 transformative gender equality and women’s empowerment indicators which call for a gender statistics revolution to monitor progress. There is a strong commitment to significantly increase investment to close the gender gap and to strengthen support for gender equality and women’s empowerment related institutions.

This promise is aligned with the ambition of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action with Member States recommitting, in CSW59 and CSW60, to its full, effective and accelerated implementation. Gender equality and women's empowerment have moreover been prioritized and integrated into every epic normative intergovernmental undertaking, including the outcome of the Third United Nations Conference on Financing for Development, the New Urban Agenda, the Climate Change Agreement and even the New York Declaration on Migration and Refugees.

ASEM member countries played a key role in securing these vital normative gains. Now they must implement them with a sense of urgency

Women's economic empowerment: A global public good

The evidence is clear that women’s equal economic participation and success is not only intrinsically good for women and girls but is critical for economies to flourish, breaking intergenerational transfers of poverty and fostering the wellbeing of all. CSW61 was the opportunity to spell this out.

This is recognized by the McKinsey Global Institute which has found that if women were to play an identical role in labour markets to that of men, as much as USD 28 trillion, or 26 per cent, could be added to global annual GDP by 2025. With women’s economic empowerment the global economy can therefore yield inclusive growth that generates decent work for all and eradicate poverty ensuring that no one is left behind.

CSW60 and CSW61 also strongly affirmed that achieving gender equality and women’s economic empowerment in the rapidly transforming world of work is essential for the full, effective and accelerated implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

We recognize some progress but it has been far too slow and not enough and CSW61 identifies these gaps and sets out what needs to be done in each case in a mutually reinforcing way.

The World Economic Forum suggests that at the current pace gender parity and equality including in the economic sphere will not be realized globally for another 170 years! This is unacceptable and the world can't afford it!

The gender gaps in the world of work are still persistent and pervasive across all regions.

Despite advances in introducing laws to promote gender equality, discrimination against women in the law remains pervasive, with gender discriminatory laws still existing in 155 countries. We are also seeing worrying efforts to introduce new discriminatory laws that rollback protection of women’s rights in relation to sexual and reproductive health, age of marriage, protection against violence and other areas which have negative impacts on women’s economic empowerment.

Globally, only 49.6 per cent of women participate in the labour force (compared to 76.1 per cent of men), with a staggering and growing gender pay gap of 23 per cent affecting women who do work.

Women represent 75 per cent of informal employment, in low-paid undervalued jobs that are usually unprotected by labour laws and lack social protection.

Occupational segregation including as domestic workers, unequal working conditions and women’s disproportionate burden of unpaid domestic and care work characterize both the formal and informal economies. Sticky floors, glass walls and ceilings constrain women's and young women's path towards decent work and full and productive employment which are also targeted in Agenda 2030.

Now is the time to accelerate progress and mobilize the global community to rise together to make women's economic empowerment a living reality for all women everywhere - in Europe and Asia included.

The CSW61 outcome presents an ideal Global Action Plan and sets out an ecosystem of strategic enablers to ensure women's right to decent work and full and productive employment and their rights at work. Asia and Europe can be the prime theaters of implementing this plan and creating and sustaining this ecosystem.

Families, communities, societies, and governments must be the prime enablers and economic actors—the public and private sector enterprises of all sizes must be agents of women’s economic empowerment. The private sector must be mandated, incentivized or penalized as required so that they observe the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) to empower women within their organizations, in the market place and in their communities. Public and private sector procurement practices and policies can play an important part

Action and investment must be at all levels—global, regional, national and local. Applying the lifecycle approach is critical to women’s economic empowerment in the world of work. They must remove both the demand side and the supply side of the labour market barriers and discrimination and take affirmative action to create the enabling environment.

The trinity of women's economic rights (to access, ownership and control over land, property, productive assets and resources including finance and capacity building), women's economic empowerment and economic independence or autonomy must be recognized and promoted as an integrated whole in relation to women's access to decent work and full and productive employment

Given the interconnectedness and inalienability of all human rights, women's rights and labour rights implement and apply all ILO standards and Conventions to women at work, to women's work and creating conducive conditions for women at work and develop specific conventions.

Girls and young women's educational, training, skills building and empowerment create a pipeline and women of all ages are supported at all stages of their life and work.

Change and create positive gender equal social and cultural norms and remove conscious and unconscious bias in all spaces and places of work.

Address violence against women and harassment at the workplace so they can pursue productive work and also be economically independent to escape violent relationships and situations.

Build enabler beneficiary links between women’s economic empowerment and poverty eradication, food security and nutrition and very importantly between women and girls enjoyment of highest attainable standards of health and their universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.

Bold and innovative steps to value, recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work and provide necessary infrastructure and care services are frontier issues which have been addressed comprehensively in the Action plan.

Transforming the macroeconomic planning and framework through gender equality targeted and mainstreamed public investment, labour market policies and tax policies that generate sufficient resources for women's empowerment related investment in all sectors is another imperative.

National and international tax policies shape the domestic resource base for achieving substantive equality for women in all countries. But in creating fiscal policies we must recognize that both the distributional impact of direct and indirect taxation and the overall level of tax revenues can either promote or inhibit women’s economic empowerment.

Gender-responsive public investment in physical and social infrastructure reduce women’s unpaid care work, stimulate employment and lead to productivity growth. Such allocations should be thought of as an investment, rather than expenditure, as they strengthen capabilities and have positive economy-wide spillover effects that stimulate income growth and expand the taxable income base.

There is a strong commitment to increase and enhance allocation of ODA— bilateral, multilateral, by IFIs and development banks to gender equality and women’s empowerment and women’s economic empowerment and to track and monitor it. Hence our initiative on Transformative Financing of gender equality commitments to close the chronic gender financing gap from all sources. Financial literacy and identity of women and their favorable access to all types of finance and credit— micro to macro and to the resources for entrepreneurship building are crucial and must be supported by governments and the private sector.

Ensuring legal protections, affirmative laws, policies and measures. Removing all discriminatory laws against women, including through strong legal frameworks to advance gender equality in all areas, ensuring their full implementation, and monitoring their impact is a crucial prerequisite.

It is critical to promote conducive policy environments as well. For example, in some countries, increasing the minimum wage has helped to reduce gender pay gaps. Other countries have enacted legislation that prohibits discrimination against women in recruitment, training and promotion, and have repealed laws that restrict women’s access to certain occupations. Other countries have made great strides in ensuring women’s full access to economic and productive resources, and inheritance rights and land ownership, for example.

Additional measures include strengthening legal and regulatory frameworks to address the gender pay gap by improving the valuation of women’s work through job evaluations, pay transparency and gender pay audits, facilitating collective bargaining and increasing women’s employment in the public sector, which tends to have a lower gender pay gap than the private sector.

Policies and initiatives supporting the reconciliation of work and family life and the equal sharing of responsibilities between women and men must be promoted as must men’s participation and responsibilities as fathers and caregivers. In this regard, media campaigns can play a crucial role in the portrayal of women and men and in challenging gender stereotypes.

 Well-designed gender responsive social protection schemes can narrow gender gaps in poverty rates, enhance women’s access to personal income and provide a lifeline for families. Social protection measures that countries have taken include universal health coverage, non-contributory pensions, maternity and parental leave, basic income security for children and public works programmes.

Improving the collection, analysis and dissemination of gender statistics and data on the formal and informal economy is critical to measure progress for women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work. Member States must enhance efforts for the continued development and enhancement of standards and methodologies at national and international levels to improve the collection, analysis and dissemination of gender statistics and data on the formal and informal economy, inter alia, on women’s poverty, income and asset distribution within households, unpaid care work, women’s access to, control and ownership of assets and productive resources, women’s participation at all levels of decision-making. The increased availability of data and analysis on the gender pay gap are crucial to measure progress for women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work.

 Women's Ministries must be strengthened, empowered and resourced to support WEE and must be able to coordinate with other economic and labour ministries and public and private actors and related institutions and associations of professions, industries, commerce, agriculture.

Game changers

Women's leadership, women’s civil society organizations labour unions, women's collectives cooperatives fostered.

The role of civil society organizations, including women's and community based organizations, feminist groups, women human rights defenders, and girls and youth led organizations must be recognized as stakeholders, shapers and actors in building the ecosystem for women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work and in placing the interests, needs and visions of women and girls on local, national, regional and international agendas including the 2030 Agenda.

Women's participation in trade unions, workers and employers’ organizations is critical for these organizations to effectively represent women workers’ interests. Also, increasing the share of trade and procurement from women’s enterprises, including micro, small and medium, cooperatives and self-help groups in both the public and private sectors has great potential on women’s economic empowerment.

A gender-responsive and socially accountable private sector is critical to ensure all workers are valued and offer them equal opportunities to reach their full potential and considered gender mainstreaming to be a necessary dimension of human resources management. Women’s entrepreneurship, including by improving access to financing and investment opportunities, tools of trade, business development, and training are critical in securing women’s economic empowerment.

Men and boys are increasingly engaging as strategic partners and allies by designing and implementing national policies and programmes on equal sharing of responsibilities in caregiving and domestic work, as well as in addressing the root causes of gender inequality, unequal power relations, gender stereotypes, negative social norms as a contribution to women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work.

Young women's empowerment and youth actors have a central role to play in engendering the world of work. Addressing structural barriers and stereotypes faced in the transition from school to work and the role of Member States in implementing policies and programmes; enhancing emphasis on quality education, including communications and technology education for girls, is fundamental to ensure that young women entering the labour market have opportunities to obtain full and productive employment, equitable compensation and decent work.

Through non-discriminatory and gender-sensitive coverage, eliminating gender stereotypes and strengthening of self-regulatory mechanisms to promote balanced and non-stereotypical portrayals of women and girls, the Media contributes to the empowerment of women and girls and the elimination of discrimination against and exploitation of them.

Mastering the changing world work - changes due to technology, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, ICT, informality and new non-standard forms of work, production, buying and selling, e-commerce, and the green economy. We must ensure that women and girls not only close the gender gap in these fields - STEM and Digital - but also leapfrog into being the major drivers and beneficiaries of these transformations.

Multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination against indigenous women, rural women, women migrants and refugees, women in crises, and women with disabilities, must be addressed and their full economic empowerment must be achieved for the realization of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Developments as well as its pledges to leave no one behind and reaching the furthest behind first.

The achievement of gender equality, the empowerment of all women and the full realization of their human rights, including the right to work and rights at work, are essential to achieving inclusive and equitable economic growth and sustainable development.

To leave no one behind, economic and social policies and legislative frameworks should target the elimination of inequalities and gaps related to women’s labour force participation, entrepreneurship, pay and working conditions, social protection and unpaid domestic and care work.

Policies must strengthen education, training and skills development to enable women to grasp new opportunities in the changing world of work. Expanding educational opportunities in fields such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and information and communication technology (ICT) are especially important for leapfrogging women into the changing world of work which is characterized by innovation and technology, globalization, and increasing human mobility.

Overall, women's human rights and fundamental freedoms must be strongly upheld with universality, indivisibility and interconnections of economic, social, cultural and labour rights framing women’s economic empowerment and women's work in all contexts. Advancing women’s right to work and rights at work must be reflected with the provision of quality work for women, with equal pay, access to social protection, freedom from violence and harassment and equal opportunities for retention and promotion. Transforming the negative and harmful norms that limit women’s access to work and that often devalue their work is crucial to achieving women’s economic empowerment.

Governments and stakeholders should ensure a gender perspective is included while undertaking value chain analyses to inform the design and implementation of policies and programmes that promote and protect women’s right to work and rights at work in global value chains.

The international community should improve women’s access to financing and investment opportunities, tools of trade, business development, and training so to increase the share of trade and procurement from women’s enterprises, including micro, small and medium, cooperatives and self-help groups in both the public and private sectors.

All actors and stakeholders, including the private sector and men and boys, are highly encouraged to engage in our efforts to value all workers and offer them equal opportunities to reach their full potential.

I look forward to continuing our joint work putting women's rights at the heart of our policies in sustainable development, peace and security.

As UN Women, we have strong partnerships with the ASEM Member States and there are great examples of our joint efforts to promote gender equality and women's empowerment as national priority as well as in the development cooperation efforts.

Planet 5050 by 2030 Step it Up for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of all Women and Girls!!

I thank you