Investment in gender parity is vital to development: Lakshmi Puri

Ayesha Kabir and Mansura Hossain | Update:

Ms Lakshmi PuriVisiting Bangladesh as part of UN Women’s leadership globally to mark 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, UN assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director of UN Women Ms Lakshmi Puri spoke to Prothom Alo about Bangladesh’s significant role in meeting the MDG targets and its strides towards attaining gender equality. She said prime minister Sheikh Hasina had been internationally lauded as a ‘champion’, particularly due to gender parity achieved in admissions at a primary and secondary education level, and achievements in maternal health including significant reduction of maternal mortality rates. However, despite these successes, domestic violence remained widespread in Bangladesh and the rate of child marriages remained high. These were serious challenges to development, she said.

Prothom Alo: Can you tell us about the activism to end violence against women?

Lakshmi Puri: What we need to end violence against women is changing laws, shaping policies, special measures, setting up institutions, building an all-of-government approach around the four “p’s” of ending violence against women -- the ‘p’ of prevention, the ‘p’ of protection, the ‘p’ of prosecution of perpetrators and access to justice for women and girls who are victims and survivors, and ‘p’ of the provision we need for comprehensive and critical multi-sectoral services, one stop crisis centres.

One big leap in terms of political commitment has been the recognition that violence against women does not and cannot be hidden behind domestic walls. It is something that society must show empathy for, it cannot be a matter of apathy. In Bangladesh 80 per cent married women experience domestic violence. This high level of domestic violence is not inevitable and should not be tolerated. It is criminalised under the domestic violence act. The state has to act. The recognition that this is now a public health issue, a global public issue, a human rights issue is a big leap.

What is even a bigger achievement globally is Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, on top of CEDAW, on top of the Declaration on Ending Violence Against Women, on top of the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women which set out a global plan of implementation for ending violence against women. We have in Agenda 2030 a recognition that ending violence against women is a sustainable development issue, a sustainable development goal and target. This is a big change from people not even wanting to acknowledge that violence against women is a phenomenon in itself, that gender-based violence is an issue. It is a social issue, an economic issue, it’s an environmental issue, it’s a human rights issue, it’s a peace and security issue. Violence within a family affects the family for generations and affects the communities around. It is a very good predictor and indicator of violence in society.

Then there is the cost of violence. This year we are focusing on the theme of raising money to end violence against women. We are saying, look at the enormous cost of human suffering, pain, disempowerment, crippling, disfiguring and killing. We have seen 50 per cent of women murdered in the home by someone they know, love and trust, as against six per cent men.

This is something that involves a huge cost. Girls stop going to school when they are traumatised at home. If they face violence at schools, they drop out. They are prevented from going to work if they face sexual harassment at work, or on the way to work, in public places. There are so many aspects and forms of violence that hold back girls and cost girls opportunity. That is the social cost.

However, not enough is emphasised about the economic cost. Many people think it is only about women and girls and it is a social issue or a law and order issue. But actually it costs everyone. It costs the family, the boys who observe violence become violent themselves and become victims of violence. It passes on into generations. But what is also very important is the cost that is economic, the cost of health, costs in terms of the judicial system, costs in terms of man hours or woman hours lost. It has been calculated in very conservative estimates that it costs as much as two per cent of the global GDP which is USD 1.5 trillion, the size of Canada’s GDP. If you invest just a fraction of that, just two per cent of that USD 1.5 trillion that you are actually losing in terms of economic growth, in ending woman against violence project, then you will really be able to contribute to the power of parity gains which is 28 trillion, according to the Mackenzie study with which UN Women was also associated.

In Bangladesh too there is a huge cost because the incidence of violence against women is very high. Generally it is one in three, but in domestic violence cases, it is 70 to 80 per cent of married women suffering from domestic violence. You can imagine the enormous cost that this poses to them. The garments manufacturers’ association leaders were saying that many women by the time they become 30 or so left work. This was a big loss. We were analysing some of the reasons and one of the reasons was sexual harassment or violence in the workplace or at home which prevents them from going to work. So these are very tangible costs which were earlier not acknowledged or known. Now we know them, we must act.

There are the benefits of investment. This should not be seen as an expenditure. What we do for prevention, protection, prosecution and provision of services should be seen as an investment with high return in terms of gender equality and women’s empowerment, in terms of ending all this violence, pain and suffering, in terms of disempowerment and also gains for all of society and the national economy.

Prothom Alo: Bangladesh is on the brink of passing the law against child marriage, but with an exception clause which would allow girls below 18 to be married. What is your take on that?

Lakshmi Puri: We have been discussing with civil society and with the government. First of all we have praised and commended the progress made in reducing child marriage and the target set. We have emphasised that now with the SDG 5.3, there is the 2030 deadline, that is within a generation we have to end child marriage. We need to make sure that first of all we make the gains irreversible, that we hasten the pace of the gains and that there is no escape clause, no excuse for anyone to say, ‘I am not following this child marriage ban.’

This is now going to the parliamentary standing committee. When it goes there and when rules are established to interpret how it is to be implemented, there will be the strictest and narrowest interpretation so that this law does not indeed become an escape clause.

Prothom Alo: Some quarters in the government point to other developed countries, even the United States, where the law permits a girl to marry below 18.

Lakshmi Puri: They may or may not have laws allowing marriage below 18, but the conditions are very different. The parents there do not demand or force their girls to marry before 18. In fact it is the contrary. Bangladesh has done so well on maternal mortality, on girls’ primary and secondary education, and gender parity there, but if you don’t progress on child marriage, you also affect these other two indicators.

Child marriage means you don’t get educated. Child marriage means maternal mortality. We all know that the highest number of maternal mortalities take place with child pregnancies.

We have to make sure we don’t send any conflicting signals and that we do not leave any scope for interpreting this legislation in a way that gives free licence to parents to continue with business as usual. That is not the intent and it should therefore be clearly circumscribed in the terms that the standing committee looks at it, finesses it and sets the rules for implementation.

Prothom Alo: The government of Bangladesh has not withdrawn its reservations on two of the articles of CEDAW. What are your comments on that?

Lakshmi Puri: We have been strongly advocating, and not only for Bangladesh, but for all countries who have put reservations on Article 16. Beijing very clearly says that you cannot invoke culture or tradition or religion to justify violation of women’s rights or moving away from women’s rights. So in that spirit we have been calling upon all member states who have ratified the CEDAW to drop all the reservations and give wholehearted support and move to implementation of CEDAW in every sense of the term.

Prothom Alo: Could you define specifically a government’s role in preventing violence against women?

Lakshmi Puri: The government’s role is to be a duty bearer to uphold the human rights of women, including the human right to live a life free of violence in all stages of their lives. That is the first thing.

You have to recognise this as a crime and a human rights violation and you criminalise it in all forms and spaces, in public places, in domestic space, at the workplace, in conflict, in refugee camps, among women migrant workers, everywhere where it occurs. That is the second thing.

The third thing is that states have a responsibility to implement those laws and to investment in the implementation of those laws. You can’t just have a law and then leave it to the authorities. We have been talking to civil society and they tell us that Bangladesh has a domestic violence act that needs to be more strongly and effectively implemented. That would require investment in training the authorities, investment in the institutions whether it is one-stop crisis centres or in specific services that we need to provide, hotlines, training of police and the judicial system. That is something that will really make them gender sensitive. All of that requires state action, state investment.

The government also must support civil society and the women’s movement because many of them are engaged in supporting projects related to ending violence against women. They are engaged in prevention. The government must support prevention in a major way including curriculum. From early childhood education up to university, the curriculum should include the agendas of gender equality and ending violence against women.

They must also make sure that all other legislation and actions do not contradict and adversely impact the agenda of ending violence against women. It can happen inadvertently so you have to be very careful.

Prothom Alo: You mentioned refugees. There is an influx of Rohingya refugees from the Rakhine state of Myanmar into Bangladesh. What is being done for the women refugees in this crisis?

Lakshmi Puri: We are very much there along with UNHCR to support the government of Bangladesh. We are working in the formal camps that are there. We support women refugees in many different ways, firstly to protect them from violence which increases and gets compounded in such displacement situations.

The second aspect is that we are working to empower them to join the governance of these camps. The community there is very much made to include them in the governance. We also support them in terms of education and economic empowerment.

Prothom Alo: Despite all the strides being made, there is such a high prevalence of violence against women. Why do you think this is so?

Lakshmi Puri: We all know that deep-seated and centuries old patriarchal structures are responsible for the attitudes that give rise to this unforgivable violence against women and girls that is so prevalent and widespread. This is something that happens because men have developed a sense of entitlement and our surveys confirm this. They somehow feel they have a right to be violent against women and to be aggressive to women. It’s a kind of affirmation of their masculinity.

On the other hand, women have been conditioned to think that it’s their fault, that it’s a matter of shame, that it must be something they did wrong, that they deserve it, that they are not equal. These are the two sides of the same coin of violence against women. So we need to demolish that and go about changing social norms and notions of control, ownership,
superiority and domination which drive violence against women. It’s also about getting women and girls to cultivate self esteem, strength and confidence.

It has to be inter-generational. Youth has to be part of this change in the social norms and gender stereotypes. Faith and traditional leaders, particularly those that are supportive, must be engaged. But also those who pull up religion and culture as an excuse, must also be brought into this discourse as well.

Prothom Alo: The UN has always been very involved in women’s issues. There is the Beijing Declaration, the UN Commission on the Status of Women and more. But how far has the state of women changed despite all of these UN interventions?

Lakshmi Puri: UN has played a very important role in evolving the whole human rights framework around gender equality and women’s empowerment right from its inception. The Commission on the Status of Women was founded almost at the same time as the United Nations. It is an amazing journey. There is CEDAW, the convention which is now signed by 187 countries. It provides a mechanism for monitoring and accounting which is very important. It is not perfect. None of the instruments we have are all perfect. But imagine a world without it. We would have to invent it if we didn’t have it. It has helped.

We had 168 countries doing national reports on the implementation of the Beijing platform for action for example in 2015.

The conclusion was at once very empowering and very encouraging and inspiring that much progress has been made in so many critical areas of concern of the Beijing platform, including political participation, economic empowerment, ending violence against women, women in the media, girl child and many other areas.

At the same time, it was found that the progress has been uneven. It was not even in all countries, not all communities and not in all areas. It has been slow and sometimes gains have regressed. There has been regression ad no country in the world has achieved gender equality. That speaks of the obstinacy and how hard it is to break patriarchy. But it also speaks of the complexity of this issue of gender equality, the political encrustations, the cultural challenge, all of that.

We of course would have liked to have seen more progress, faster progress. What was assessed at the Beijing review was that at this pace of change, we would take nearly a hundred more years to reach parity. This again should be seen as an encouragement now in the context of Agenda 2030 to accelerate the pace and achieve gender equality and empowerment within a generation.

Prothom Alo: Any parting message for the women, the girls and even the men and boys of Bangladesh?

Lakshmi Puri: For the women and girls of Bangladesh, I want to say that I admire all your achievements. We stand behind your quest for the perfect world of gender equality, women’s empowerment and women’s human rights and girls human rights. At the same time we stand with you in overcoming the remaining obstacles and challenges in every area.

To the men and boys I say, be “He for She’s” in every way. Join the solidarity movement for gender equality because a gender equal world in which there is mutual respect and harmony is indeed a much better world than the world that we live in now. A world which is orange and free from violence against women and girls is also to the best benefit of all people, men and boys, women and girls.

Prothom Alo: Thank you

Lakshmi Puri:
Thank you

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