Interview with Saraswathi Menon, UN Women

Saraswathi Menon, Director, Policy Division, discusses how equity is for UN Women viewed more as a tenet of equality since it is not considered as comprehensive as issues related to equality for women. Much of UN Women’s work on equity focuses on redressing wrongs through policy and action, whereas equality is used to address greater structural issues that affect people’s lives. For UN Women then, equity is simply part of the work towards achieving equality.

Interview conducted in July 2013 || New York, NY

Q: How does UN Women define equity and its relation to equality?

A: The aim of much of the work on equity, as we see it at UN Women and as it is traditionally viewed in development, is about redressing something that is wrong. The focus then becomes one of redressing wrongs through policy and actions within the justice system, the development process or any other important avenues. Equality, however, is a much more fundamental tenet when one discusses women’s rights and empowerment. Equality is not just about ‘closing the gap’ or ‘the inclusion of those excluded’, as equity conceptualizes. Equality is really trying to address the structural issues that affect people’s lives and that lead to discrimination. For us at UN Women, equity then is part of the work for equality, but it is not considered as comprehensive as issues related to equality.

Q: What are the key messages of UN Women to promote equity when dealing with policy makers, donors and other key decision makers? 

A: The first message is not to forget that we promote equity to ensure substantive equality. It is important for us to stress that substantive equality is not just equality in rights or in terms of legislation. Substantive equality is more concerned with realized rights, with societal outcomes. For instance, a country could stand for ‘equal access’ or ‘universal education for all children’ by law, but in actual practice girls are not being sent to school or there is a very high rate of early dropout. In such a case, substantive equality remains absent while equality is very much present and stressed in the constitution or the laws of the country. Because of this, when we are trying to promote equity in order to bring people closer to substantive equality, we stress specific measures that directly address these kinds of discriminations.

Equity therefore requires measures of affirmative action or what we often call temporary special measures that seek to redress the uneven playing field. These are also called ‘leveling up’ measures, as the goal is not to close the existing gaps by bringing others down—whether they are boys, women or children. This is evident in times of economic hardship. People often find that gaps narrow following economic recessions and downturns, but these are poor examples. They aren’t good examples because the narrowing of the gap comes at the expense of both women and men. The work for equity must therefore keep in mind this notion of substantive equality. This can be done in a number of ways. UNICEF, for instance, does good work in the area of equity as it focuses particularly on the most vulnerable. This works well because you are able to make a real difference if you focus on those who don’t have access to immunization for example.  You certainly make a difference when you focus on those who are not being reached and deliver your services to them, but the reason why I go back to substantive equality is because this in itself does not address the reason why these groups are not reached from the beginning. That is why one should also focus on the structural issues.

Q: How does UN Women implement equity strategies?

A: Our focus areas are ending violence against women and encouraging: political participation and leadership, women’s economic empowerment, peace  and  security. Most of these issues are global. That is why we have a universal focus on the status of women in developed and developing countries, where many of our programs are situated. It is there really that we share our knowledge and advice, which is complemented by monitoring work we do in other countries as well.

What our work has informed us is that when you look at any one of these challenges, violence against women, for example, it is expressed in all countries — poor countries or rich countries — and across all income levels. As a result, one could say that this is a universal problem and not so much a matter of equity. However, the equity dimension is related to the fact that those who are discriminated against are far more vulnerable to violence than others. Much of our work is therefore about helping countries and societies unpack a problem that is universal and helping them to address the inequities faced by those who are far more vulnerable due to the lack to access to important services and support systems.

Other aspects of our work are more closely linked to the structural challenges. In such cases, we advise governments how to address those issues that will overcome gender inequality, and inequality in general. An example of this relates to economic empowerment. If women are empowered with an economic standing in society and have a say in the affairs of the household the community and the nation, they are less likely to suffer violence and discrimination, and more likely to make a positive contribution.

Another example relates to our work in support of economic empowerment beyond the public and private sector, and directly with women. We believe that this type of empowerment, through women’s leadership and political participation as citizens and decision-makers emphasizes women’s role as agents of change. The implementation of equity strategies must transcend the state, government programs and the UN system. We believe all these challenges can only be addressed if women themselves, collectively and individually, get involved and have an active role in overcoming inequity.  It is thus very important that structural problems are addressed through policy and legislation, but it is equally important to ensure that women have a voice and participate in that process.

Q: What role do adolescent girls have in UN Women’s equity approach?

A: As we do with women in general, we look at the specific problems that adolescent girls face. In this area we work very closely with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) as it relates to issues of reproductive rights and reproductive health, which form part of the UNFPA mandate and are issues which we at UN Women care deeply about.  We work closely with UNFPA at the county level, but we also have other joint programs with UNESCO and UNICEF on security and comprehensive education for adolescent girls. We are able to broaden our reach by working closely with these organizations.

Q: What are the main challenges or barriers to achieving more equity?

A: The greatest challenge not only to gender inequality, but also to our work on  both equity and equality, is the growing inequality we see around the world today. Inequality between and within countries, the growing concentration of all forms of power (political, economic, social, etc), pose a serious challenge to the equity and equality agenda. Every country in the world faces these challenges, and often they result from the global concentration of economic decision-making power in financial markets, for example.

What we see is that anywhere inequality is growing, all forms of discrimination and marginalization grow more acute. Often, new forms of discriminations emerge from such a climate and are unique. The resulting challenge then becomes the sum of all types of discrimination, along with new forms of exclusion and discrimination that are easy to overlook.

The second big challenge relates to the fact that many people still condone inequity. This sometimes has a lot to do with social norms and culture and requires an active campaign focused on raising consciousness. In the space of one generation, for example, people have changed the way they think about smoking in workplaces or public spaces. Such behavior is viewed not only as unfashionable, but as insensitive and obnoxious.  The same should be said for violence against women. It is quite shocking that surveys we have conducted indicate that both men and women condone and justify issues such as violence against women and women’s unpaid labor.

Q: How do you think UN Women could address current economic and political power dynamics that lead to inequity?

A: It requires joint efforts with other organizations and partners focused on exposing how these power dynamics affect everybody. For example, the fact that only 20.9 percent of national parliamentarians are women, and that very few serve as Heads of State, are not just a problem for women. These are problems for everybody because they mean that we do not have governing bodies that represent society. The interests of society cannot be served democratically unless everyone’s voice is heard and representatives carry those types of experiences with them. The figure 20.9 percent female leadership participation on average (in some countries it is lower) is problematic when women make up half the world’s population. The work requires exposing the problem and explaining why it doesn’t work for everyone. Going back to the example of violence against women, it is not possible to end this problem unless we engage both men and women, and we do it jointly with other organizations and partners. We cannot stop until violence against women becomes, like smoking in public places, unconscionable and something that will not be accepted.

Saraswathi Menon brings an extensive experience as a researcher and academician as well as in the UN system. She is currently serving as the Director of UNDP’s Evaluation Office. Ms. Menon’s career includes experience in both policy and programme areas. She served as UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Mongolia, UNDP Deputy Resident Representative in Nepal and Deputy Chief of the Regional Programme and Policy Division in UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific. Before joining UNDP, she lectured in sociology at Madras University in India. She holds both an M.A. and M.Phil. degree in Sociology as well as a Ph.D. degree.


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