A few days ahead of International Women's Day, TRT World spoke to Agi Veres, a senior official at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), who has extensively worked on women empowerment and development.


TRT WORLD:  What is “I am Generation Equality”? Can you tell us more about the UN's 2020 theme and whether there are certain campaigns or events to happen?

 AGI VERES: This year’s campaign on International Women’s Day comes 25 years after the very important event that happened in Beijing addressing – trying to address women’s equality and all issues of gender equality. So we are 25 years after when the world agreed on certain measures and certain actions in Beijing and while there has been a lot of progress in health, education, life expectancy of women in general - there are still a lot of issues remaining. 

So, one of the things that UNDP is especially paying attention now is women’s political participation. So on this 25thanniversary, as part of this campaign, we are launching an interactive website called “Equal Features” which essentially is focusing on women’s political participation in parliaments. So you can look at any country and see the participation of women in parliament, what’s the percentage but you can also see certain policy actions that happened over the years and how they affected the women’s participation. So, this helps explain why certain countries are more successful because they have really reinforcing policies that would encourage women to participate or they took some other actions that would allow people to participate more. 

So, this is one concrete campaign that UNDP is launching – trying to draw attention through the facts on women’s participation in politics. But of course there are several other actions and several other areas that we are working on stemming from some of the labor market issues, and the pay-gap between men and women, still the discrimination and the gender stereotypes which I think are really the underlying issues for gender equality, women’s economic participation and a number of other issues that I think, hopefully this campaign and the theme of this year’s campaign will draw more attention to from the public and also from the governments.

It has been 25 years since the Beijing Declaration for the empowerment of women and girls, everywhere. Can you tell us about success stories in your region (Europe and Central Asia), provide some statistics, and example countries, role model practices? 

 AV: I think there are many success stories in our region related to women’s participation in politics, economics and gender-based violence for example. While there are still a lot of issues and challenges remaining I could mention a few examples where we really feel that some actions were taken that are already making a difference. For example in the Western Balkans there is more and more attention put on women caucuses, so essentially some kind of women’s network of parliamentarians. 

 In Serbia specifically, we have a women’s network of parliamentarians that are really crossing across party lines. So essentially women parliamentarians come around issues that they feel is not picked up by the general parliamentary debates when it comes to legislation for example related to gender equality or whatever as they would feel strongly about. And this has been really a game  changer in many ways of both bringing attention to particular issues but also to push agendas to policy makers that wouldn’t particularly be picked up. 

Exactly in the same Serbia, we see 37 percent participation in women’s in parliament while the global average is way below the threshold that we would like to see – which would be the third at least -  the global average is under 25 percent so in Serbia we can see much higher participation. 

Another example is on women’s economic participation, for example in Azerbaijan we have been working with women’s center- women’s support center. It’s called the Women’s Resource Center- that essentially is helping women entrepreneurs to set up their business but it’s really providing a more holistic approach. It’s partially about training which is a more general approach to train women on business skills and any other skills that they need to become entrepreneurs but this center is also offering kind of a support structure – a peer support structure across women. It brings in skills and expertise that women can really draw from. It helps them with the soft skills that sometimes women really need in terms of negotiations and so forth but most of all, it helps women to validate their business ideas to create a business plan around it. And we really have seen a lot of successful businesses launched from this initiative and it has been helping over 6.000 women by now and hundreds of enterprises came out of the initiative so we are trying to replicate and scale up some of these ideas in other countries as well. 

To this date, not a single country can claim to have achieved gender equality. In your opinion what are the obstacles for real change?   

AV: To have a real change in gender equality really requires a very holistic approach. It has so many layers that it is very difficult for just governments or just advocates to achieve. So the remaining challenges are in various parts. One is about women’s participation in politics and of course this has a general principle ratio if the world population is half and half, women and men then in terms of decision-making and policy-making we should also see similar proportion. So that essentially we are drawing on 100 percent of human capability in decision-making. So while this is not addressed, I think it will be very difficult to significantly address gender equality and policy making.  

The second main issue is when we are looking at the economic sphere. Women’s participation in the economy, in the labor market, the gender pay-gap is still 20 percent in our region, for example. Also, in terms of the investments that governments need to make are a big obstacle because a lot of the time governments see it as a cost and not as an investment. So for example, the issue of unpaid care, that is one of the underlying causes why women cannot actually participate in the proper economy and the proper labor market because they’re spending a lot of their time providing unpaid care. So if governments were to invest in the care economy that would be released - you know a significant labor force participates in the proper economy, and also it would address some of the challenges that women have been tied to this issue.

Then, there is gender based violence. Still one out of three women experience gender based violence globally. So this is a very deep rooted psychological condition that could be created in women that affects other parts of their lives so it’s not just about their safety and security in the home or elsewhere but their ability to really be a 100 percent contributing and confident member of society. 

So while there are these challenges, we really need to look at them together. And when we look at them together what we see is actually one of the root causes of all of these is still the remaining gender bias that is so deep rooted in cultural set ups in certain communities, it’s the way how the labor market is looking at women, it’s the way how women have access for example to certain skills, education and so forth that already pre-determines their ability to participate in the labor market. So, for the last 25 years actually advocacy and awareness raising on this deep rooted gender stereotyping has been on the forefront of the efforts. And yet, I think that’s where we still have a very long way to go. And this is why it’s very important that we don’t tackle gender equality just talking about women and then just women advocating for women. I think it’s extremely important that we take the men-and-the boys and the women-and-the girls at the same time as advocates for gender equality. And realize that gender equality is really a core for a success of a good society and a good economy. And once that realization is building into the social fabric of cultures, families and education system, that’s when we will see significant change. 

Many people/organizations suggest plans for greater equality. The UN's 2020 Social Justice Day theme is also “closing the inequalities gap to achieve social justice”. But what are the actions needed at the international, regional and/or national levels to reduce inequality? In your opinion, what can be the kind of economic miracle to shrink the worldwide income gap?  

AV: In terms of the economic impact of gender inequality, there are of course various ways to look at it. One is women’s participation in the labor market. And as I mentioned the gender pay gap there is still around 20 percent, in our region you could see some countries where it says lowest 10 percent but some at a much higher percentage. But one of the economic arguments globally and in our region as well is if you were to look at women’s participation the same way that men participate in the labor market, just in our region – in Eastern Europe and Central Asia- you could create an additional 1. 1 trillion dollars of the economy – which is about 23 percent GDP increase. If you look at it at the global scale, some estimates are talking about 12 trillion dollars added to the global economy.

Maybe I can demonstrate it with one research that we have done in Turkey with some Turkish researchers - that was looking at why governments are not investing in for example in the care economy which is one of the main obstacles and challenges for women to participate in the formal economy – so the research says if for example governments would invest in what is required to set up a care economy both in terms of caring for children and the elderly that a lot of the times women are occupying their time with, this would create 2.5 times more jobs than if you invest the same amount in for example in the construction sector. So essentially, this is to demonstrate that investing into changing how the sectoral set up works - especially in the unpaid work sector – is really an economic benefit and it should be looked at as an investment that generates jobs and through that generates additional outputs of the economy, and not as a cost that is simply a social cost to governments. So if you look at the economic miracles, I don’t think there are economic miracles in our world nowadays, but I do think is that proper analysis  and proper forecasting of where our world is going and linking actions to impact on the economy, to impact on society and also the environment is the way how we can identify what could change both in terms of gender equality but its impact on the economy.

 So, I think the miracle is in our hands and in the hands of governments. So, we just need to make sure that there is a good understanding of politicians, who a lot of the time stand to think short-term, what could be the longer, medium term benefits of certain policy actions. That’s what UNDP is also working on; advising governments on appropriate policy actions that could address a variety of challenges that are really inter-linked and cannot be addressed one-by-one.

Recent OXFAM report blames the ‘flawed and sexist economic system’ for the economic inequality which values the wealth of a few privileged people, mostly men over the unpaid and underpaid work done primarily by women and girls. How can we get out of this vicious cycle? 

AV: I think another way of getting out of this vicious cycle is really looking at economic and social forecasting of the future. So, for example the future of jobs, there is a lot of attention nowadays to the impact of artificial intelligence, which jobs will disappear, and what we can see is an enormous digitalization of our world. So it’s not just about artificial intelligence, it’s not about robots taking over our jobs but it’s really about the fact that actually in most professions digitalization and the need to understand technology, engineering and other sciences is crucial. 

So, if we look at the future and if we see that this is how the job markets are going and these are the kind of skills that they are requiring, one of the ways to address this vicious circle is really going back to the level of education; even at the secondary and then the tertiary level – how we can right now change the education system, and the focus of education especially related to women so that you know, in 5 years and it will be relatively short term- then I think we will see significant changes in the job market because of digitalization- we’re already seeing it. 

 How we can address it now so that they will be better equipped to participate in this. Even when we look at the skill set of women, there is an even wider gap between women and men when it comes to the area of STEM, which is science, technology, engineering and mathematics. So, by investing in increasing the skill sets of women in these kinds of technological areas and especially in digitalization, would already increase their ability to compete equally with men. We try it now as one of the key sources of the problem of their employability. So, I think the analysis of very concrete problems and very concrete gaps between men and women especially in education and the labor market would help us get out of this vicious circle if we address something now that we know will affect women even at a higher proportion in years to come.

Can you tell us more on UNDP’s initiatives for closing this gender gap for equality? 

AV: Our initiatives are focusing on a number of areas. One that I already mentioned quite a bit is women’s participation in parliament and this in itself is not necessarily a solution and a lot of the focus, and this is what UNDP has also been working on was on legislation that actually incentivizes  the system by quotas. So put quotas in place and for women’s participation in politics and parliament. So we are working on this and there are some really heartwarming stories out there in many countries where you can see already impact of - not just the quotas but also the help given to women to prepare themselves to enter into political office. So for example in Kyrgyzstan, we have been working at the local level trying to help women being capacitated to actually being able to participate in politics, and now we are seeing young women coming into the local government level.

Similarly in Moldova, we have been working with marginalized groups and we have been working, capacitating the Roma community – how they can be represented in politics? And now we have a Roma representative in a local government as well. So, this shows also that gender equality is not just men and women problem but actually within the whole idea of diversity and how we need to represent marginalized, vulnerable groups to have a diverse representation. 

 Another area we are working on, as I mentioned, is the economic participation of women which is focusing mostly on the skills building but also their ability to have the necessary enabling environment where they can compete with men in the entrepreneurial areas which is largely dominated by men in our region.

And then in terms of the unpaid work, there is a lot of work going on with UNDP on the care economy and I think this is somewhere where there is a lot of space to do more. Hopefully, other partners will also join in and governments will take certain policy actions to do that. 

On gender based violence, we are working of course with advocacy groups and on the awareness raising but most importantly also with the judiciary sector, the police and the essentially the sector that would help address these issues where it’s not just about women asking for the help but there is a very strong legal and regulatory framework that would allow women to get the help they need in a safe environment - which is one of the most important factors when women come forward with their issues of for example domestic violence- but also offering them alternative solutions of how they can deal with these issues, knowing that it’s an extremely sensitive issue in societies and in the small communities that these women live in - whether it’s a family or a broader community -so a lot of the work is trying to address how to come of this kind of vicious cycle on gender based violence

Absence of women from the decision making roles is another dilemma. The global average for women’s representation in parliament has increased from 11 to 24 percent  in the last two decades but were nowhere near gender parity. And there is this assumption “men make better political leaders than women do” 

 As a woman working for the empowerment of women and girls, do you have a message for the women out there on International Women’s Day?

AV: I think, my personal experience and my personal message is that those women who feel strongly about wanting to achieve something, they should just do it and stop worrying about what everybody thinks. Because I think, one of the major issues when women are trying to progress is whether in politics, economics or wherever is that- they don’t believe in themselves because others made them believe they cannot believe in themselves. So I think the key step for any woman who wants to be a leader whether it’s at the small scale or large scale, it doesn’t matter - is to believe in themselves. It’s not about being a woman or a man, it’s about what you know and what you can do. 

Know your substance that you’re talking from experience, you’re talking from substance, you’re talking from understanding issues and I think then people look beyond a lot of the stereotyping whether it’s about men or women, or the color of your skin. They will start looking at you based on what you’re saying and what you’re doing. So your words and your actions will demonstrate what you stand for and not your look and not your gender. So, I really hope that more and more women will have the self-confidence to do what maybe they were thought from early on that they cannot do and just believe in themselves and do what they think is right and pick up the issues where they feel strongly about. 

Secondly, I think it’s about being passionate about what you do, and of course this is true for both men and women. So it’s not a women’s problem but I think if women are passionate about something, they can overcome a lot of the limitations that the society and the stereotypes are putting on us. Then you just bring others with you because when people see passion and when people see success, success brings success, and then more and more people can be engaged in the same issues. 

[NOTE: The interview is conducted by TRT World’s Eyes on Discrimination (EOD) Centre, which monitors and reports on offences, hate crimes and discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, national origin and religion, or other related social categories. We promote and encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.]

Source: TRT World