Stepping it up’ for gender equality, women’s empowerment and safety

01 Apr 2016

Dr. Rebecca Reichmann Tavares, Representative, UN Women Multi Country Office for India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka, talks of SDGs, gender equality and participation of the private sector to realize the same Women and girls make up more than half of the world’s population. They contribute to households, communities and the economy. They care for children, the elderly and the sick, fetch water, and work as farmers, artisans, and labourers. They are also often disproportionately affected by poverty, climate change, violence, lack of healthcare and other services, and economic crises. Addressing the daily challenges women face is critical to ensuring safe and inclusive societies and building strong, resilient nations.

The new global development agenda adopted by UN Member States in September 2015 speaks directly to this need. Gender equality is central to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that include targets on ending violence and discrimination against women, valuing unpaid and care work carried out by women, ensuring women’s effective participation in leadership and decision-making and ensuring women’s rights to economic resources such as land.

The deadline for the achievement of the SDGs is 2030. That means the time for action is now. UN Women is calling on governments to accelerate plans, policies and measures that benefit women and to also make available adequate resources to finance this ambitious agenda.

The SDGs cannot be realized without the active participation of the private sector. Businesses in India have taken significant strides in this regard. Many companies led by women have emerged as some of the best performing firms in India. More businesses are putting in place extended maternity leave options, flexi-work hours, and onsite child-care facilities – measures that contribute significantly to narrowing the gender gap. More than 1000 companies worldwide – including 40 from India, such as HCL Technologies, Infosys, Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories and Wipro – have signed up to the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPS), which provide a set of considerations to help the private sector promote gender equality in the workplace, marketplace and community.

In September 2015, at a UN Women event organized on the sidelines of the SDG Summit in New York, private sector leaders joined heads of state to ‘step it up’ by making concrete and measurable commitments on gender equality and the empowerment of women.

As we celebrate these achievements and commitments, we also recognize that gender inequality persists. Female labour force participation in India has dramatically decreased from above 40 per cent in the early-to-mid 1990s to 22.5 per cent in 2011-12. Women are still underrepresented in senior leadership positions. The percentage of women on boards for 2014 is only five per cent higher than the 19 per cent recorded ten years ago in 2004. In India, 29 per cent women enter the corporate world but only five per cent make up the Indian boardroom.

A survey conducted among 5,520 businesses in 36 economies revealed that India ranks third lowest in the proportion of business leadership roles held by women. The survey, however, also showed that business leaders increasingly support quotas for women. Worldwide, almost 47 per cent of both male and female senior managers favoured quotas to ensure that women were included on the boards of large listed companies – a 37 per cent increase from 2013.

Studies have shown that the economic inclusion of women is fundamental to reducing gender inequality and spurring overall economic growth. Women’s economic participation has been shown to have a multiplier effect: the economic empowerment of one woman has a ripple effect that extends to her children and family and even to entire communities and nations.

Gender equality is also good for business. Research shows that women are the most underutilized asset in the world. Globally, three quarters of working age men are in the labour force compared to only half of working age women. Across the world, women could increase their income by 76 per cent if the gender gap in employment and wages were closed – this potential income is estimated to be 17 trillion US dollars.

India harnessed the power of the private sector to address development challenges by pioneering a comprehensive legislation on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). It is the first South Asian country to legislate mandatory CSR expenditure and reporting on development programmes. CSR is integral to organisational culture, good economics and accountability. It has graduated from the backroom to the boardroom. Sustainable development is now the business of business.

UN Women is committed to partnering with the business sector on ending violence against women, promoting women’s economic and political empowerment, and supporting gender responsive budgeting.

The Prime Minister’s 100 Smart Cities Initiative is a good opportunity for companies to advocate for women’s safety and empowerment. No city can be smart and sustainable if half of its population is not safe and continue to live in fear. Women not only experience violence in different ways, forms and varying degrees, but also live with the constant fear of such violence on a day to day basis. A smart city is one where women and girls can exercise their freedoms and choices – to live free from violence, to go to school, to participate in decisions and to earn equal pay for equal work. It emphasizes prevention of violence through smart, human rights and women’s rights based and sustainable solutions. Companies that contribute to the Smart Cities project, through the preparation of action plans and subsequently in the creation and improvement of infrastructure, are well placed to ensure that gender considerations are embedded in those plans and projects.

Companies and businesses, in concert with governments, can also put in place policies and infrastructure that would make it easier and safer for women to work. The availability of safe commuting options, separate and adequate restrooms and canteen facilities would encourage many women to join the workforce – and stay in it. Paternity leave policies

acknowledge the demands of childbirth and childcare and the importance of both parents sharing care work. All of these measures can significantly improve employees’ job satisfaction and contribute to productivity.

Companies also have a legal obligation to make the workplace safe for women. Effective implementation of progressive laws such as the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act is essential. It includes ensuring that mandatory redressal mechanisms are in place and that the victim is not stigmatized.

As the world moves towards 2030, UN Women hopes that companies will own this transformative global agenda and support its implementation by pledging increased investments in women and girls, ensuring safe spaces for women and creating opportunities for women to enter the workforce at all levels.

The countdown to achieving the SDGs has begun. It is time for all governments, companies and institutions to “step it up”!