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UNDP supports India's historical fight for gender equality

Mar 20, 2010

Visiting India during a historic week for women in the country, UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, participated in an exciting array of debates in the capital city on gender issues ranging from the intersection between political and economic empowerment, to the much deliberated and timely subject of reservation.

It was an unexpected and unprecedented convergence of UNDP-led talks on the MDGs, and India’s focus on women’s empowerment that resulted in extensive debate on gender issues by experts in the field from all over the country.  The debates showcased differing thoughts on issues within the topic, but resulted in a conclusive understanding of the significance of power, voice and rights of women everywhere.

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Helen Clark participated in two events held at the Oberoi hotel in New Delhi on March 7th and 8th. The first marked the global release of the Asia-Pacific Human Development Report, Power Voice and Rights – A Turning Point for Gender Equality in Asia and the Pacific, and appropriately took place on International Women’s Day.  Immediately preceding the following day’s event, the Rajya Sabha passed the much anticipated Women’s Reservation Bill, resulting in a programme that was once again largely focused on gender and women’s issues.

Human Development Report Global Release

Clark inaugurated the official release of the Human Development Report with a presentation of the current state of gender equality in the region, urging countries that lag behind to recognize both the social and economic value in empowering women.

To further encourage movement towards this goal, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, Ajay Chhibber, expressed his own concern in the report findings that suggest India holds a similar position in political empowerment of women to the Middle East, and a far worse one than Africa in terms of economic empowerment.

clark, naruti bai.JPG

Joining Clark and Chhibber, were Anuradha Rajivan, team leader of the report and Naurti Bai, a female Dalit and sarpanch (elected village leader) of Hamara, Rajasthan.  Naruti Bai’s story of her uncorrupt campaign for sarpanch and strong fight against the Hindu practice of ‘sati’ – the expectation of a widow to take her own life by lying on her husband’s funeral pyre - illustrated the potential of significant change through a single actor’s determination.  Her story, combined with the results of the UNDP report, exposed a tangible need to take immediate action towards achieving gender equality.

Following the summary and analysis of the report, Syeda Hameed, the lone female member of the Planning Commission, praised the report in its ability to look through a ‘gendered lens’.  She urged the audience to not only fight for expanding benefits to women but also encouraging a complete shift in mindset.  Hameed concluded with the words of the famous Sufi poet and a call upon the audience to ‘knock at their inner doors’ to achieve the goal at hand.

The concluding panelists discussed good practices for the promotion of gender equality, with reservation being a major topic of interest. Vinita Bali, Managing Director of Britannia Industries, India, argued that reservation is not a sufficient policy because it fails to address the quality of the candidate.

In support of reservation, Nazhat Shameem, former Justice of the High Court of Fiji, quoted an American Supreme Court justice saying the worst we can do is to treat unequals as equals. Ghazi Salahuddin, vice-chairperson of the Human Rights Commission for Sindh, Pakistan, shared a heartwarming story of Pakistani women refusing to accept reservation for medical colleges.  The outcome of the campaign has been a merit-based admission system through which more women than men currently sit in every medical college in the country.  Marina Mahathir, HIV/AIDS and women’s rights activist, also shared stories of reservation in the context of her TV show that is hosted by three young women who are role models in their home country of Malaysia.

MDGs in India Panel Discussion

The MDGs in India was the proposed topic for the UNDP-organized event on March 8th in New Delhi.  However, focus narrowed to one MDG in particular when the Women’s Reservation Bill passed the first round of legislation, a significant move towards ensuring thirty three percent of parliamentary and state legislative seats go to women.

Kicking off the event, Helen Clark acknowledged that “conscious public policy is what directs economic growth into human development,” and emphasized gender equality as the central factor for the achievement of this development as guided by the MDGs.

MDG number three, the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment, became central to presentations by Director of the Institute of Economic Growth, Bina Agrawal, and Government of India Chief Economic Advisor, Kaushik Basu.

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Agrawal argued the need to prioritize policies based on a synergy analysis of the MDGs.  She supported this with a thorough explanation of how achievement of women’s empowerment also means a movement towards MDGs two, four and six – universal primary education, reduction of child mortality and improvement of maternal mortality.  Perhaps the most powerful contribution of Agrawal’s argument to the MDG discourse and highlighted as such by Helen Clark, was the concept of access to immovable assets – land and housing – for women as a single enabling area of policy that can help to achieve six MDGs.

Kaushik Basu began with an admission of being a former MDG skeptic for fear of it spurring initiatives that would simply pay ‘lip service’ to the framework, leading to the ‘enshrinement of rights that are not enforced’.  He went on to explain his transformation into a believer through a presentation of household level economic studies in support of Agrawal’s synergy argument.

Through combined panelist efforts, event goers went away with an understanding of which outcomes can be strategically prioritized, and how India should determine best policies for reaching desired outcomes.

The Women’s Reservation Bill will need to be approved by the Lok Sabha before being enacted but until then, advocates will continue to join together in the struggle for gender equality.

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