Bogota, Colombia – Since it was formed in 2010, UN Women has carried the mandate of promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment across the globe. Success has been mostly patchy for an agency that must navigate social and cultural barriers and the sensitivities of member states.
Critics say that its focus on running high-level campaigns and building partnerships is insufficient and misguided when, for half of the world’s population, economic and social equality remains an elusive dream.
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Almost 40,000 girls are child brides today. Rape, harassment and sexual violence, by state and non-state actors, remains a weapon of choice in conflicts worldwide – one even United Nations peacekeepers stand accused of wielding.
Al Jazeera asked Lakshmi Puri, the deputy executive director of UN Women, what her organisation is doing to improve the plight of the world’s women.
Al Jazeera: Name five challenges facing women today.
Lakshmi Puri: I would say the discrimination, inequality and violence that women face on a persistent basis. For women around the world, without any exception, [this] is the No 1 challenge.
The other challenge is social and cultural norms that really hold back gender equality, women’s empowerment and the full realisation of women’s human rights.
Changing this is really critical, [so is] the project of changing social norms, gender stereotypes and gendered roles.
We need men and boys on our side and to be partners, getting men and boys to give up their position of privilege. Cutting across this is the role of the state.
Another challenge is addressing issues such as formal workforce participation. Most women, particularly in developing countries, work in the informal sector and are in vulnerable employment and face – even those who are qualified, educated – what is called the glass pyramid and the wage gap.
The other area is parity – gender parity in voice, participation [and] leadership .That’s something that we really need to address in country after country, including the countries of the democratic West, who are leaders in gender equality; they have not reached parity in parliament [nor] parity in their executive leadership
Al Jazeera: How do you get men to give up their privilege?
Puri: It’s already happening. Men have to take leadership and inspire other men to understand that mutually respectful relationships [where] you share the burden of child-rearing and parenting … [are] something that is equally joyful for a man.
It is also about the idea of masculinity: unpacking the negative ideas of machismo and masculinity, bringing down those gendered divisions of labour and gender-driven roles and unpacking those roles.
I think that is something that is already happening and that’s the movement we are driving through the “He for She” campaign [and] through our partnerships with the “Men Engage” movement, [and] the “Promundo”movement. These movements are really trying to change the social norms which also then help men regard their participation in the gender equality movement as a privilege.
Al Jazeera: Are you able to confront member states over their policies or if, for example, their leader uses sexist language?
Puri: Well, we do indeed have this very important role of being a global advocate for women’s rights, and we will continue to play that role in every way.
But of course we are also an intergovernmental organisation. So, what we have to do is to be the voice, but also be the platform from where voices can be amplified, and voices of women from all constituencies and all causes can be amplified.
And of course our assertion on human rights is across the board.
Al Jazeera: Does UN Women represent member states or women?
Puri: We are an intergovernmental organisation created by the General Assembly. We are the only 21st century UN entity that has been created as a reform model – an innovative, young, dynamic reform model.
The secretary-general recently said how we had made our mark but having said that, of course, our mission and what we represent is about every woman, every girl. It is their realities that we advocate for, it is the change that we see is to empower them, to give them equal rights, and also it is about partnering with all those other actors who either represent them directly or indirectly.
I talked about civil society … about young women’s organisations. We have a whole rainbow and a whole spectrum of women’s organisations representing different themes, representing different intersectionalities, like indigenous women, rural women, all of these. So all of these we claim not to represent but to serve.
Al Jazeera: Are your hands tied when it comes to approaching governments?
Puri: Our hands are not tied in supporting governments, urging governments to do the right [thing], at the same time mobilising all the actors to support them in implementing and to also support them [in] holding themselves to account. The Sustainable Development Goals provide a frame and there is a commitment and the UN system has asked to do it, so it’s not only that we are asking.
Al Jazeera: What is the position of UN Women on violence against women in conflict zones?
Puri: We have a stance of zero tolerance and we have been highlighting through our advocacy that this is unacceptable. We also bring out how, in conflicts, it has been said that, more than soldiers, women are most at risk of violence of various kinds, including sexual violence in conflicts and in post-conflict situations.
Sexual violence is often used as a weapon of war by the parties concerned and we have been, therefore, advocating for a pact by all concerned to make sure that this is prevented. The prevention policy is very important. We worked with many of these parties on the ground – there are at least 22 conflict countries where we work on the ground to train forces, engage with all parties and combatants … on the ground.
Al Jazeera: Is it working?
Puri: It is a very difficult issue but we have to act and we are acting and this is now something that governments have to take responsibility [for] and that is also something that we are pushing [for].
Al Jazeera: What about when governments and their soldiers commit sexual offences?
Puri: That is zero tolerance – it should not happen. This is an issue of dignity and it is an issue of human rights and it should not happen and we are working very much with the rest of the UN system and with all our partners, civil society included, on the ground to make sure that this is prevented, that women are protected, that when this happens, that they get justice. It’s very important that perpetrators are prosecuted and convicted.
Al Jazeera: But none of this seems to be taking place.
Puri: In all of these areas there is action being taken but it’s not enough and there’s so much more that needs to be done.
Al Jazeera: Has UN Women ever issued a statement on the alleged involvement of UN peacekeepers in sexual violence?
Puri: Absolutely. We are in sync with whatever [the] secretary-general has also said on this and he is very committed and he has also said that the actions of a few should not overshadow the commitment and the good work that the rest of the UN is doing. So, in fact, he has taken a very principled stance and we are all committed to supporting that. And UN Women has been a very vocal and … very proactive actor on the ground in terms of preventing these incidents.
Al Jazeera: There seems to be a lack of transparency when it comes to the crimes committed against women by UN peacekeepers.
Puri: We have to [look] at the architecture of peacekeeping and peace-making and political missions and all of that; how [all] that is done. And I think the secretary-general has recognised that.