UN Secretary General’s wife meets women leaders from India

Ms. Ban Soon-taek with key women leaders and staff of UN Women South Asia. Photo Credit©Sarabjeet Singh Dhillon/UN Women

New Delhi, 27 April 2012: Ms. Ban Soon-taek, wife of UN Secretary General, met with key women leaders from India to listen to their perspectives on women’s rights. Speaking of their experiences, the leaders highlighted many opportunities, as well as challenges with regard to gender equality.

Women as a major political force

The Indian Constitution provides for one-third reservation for women in local bodies. As a result, more than a million women have been elected to office.

“This is the largest absolute majority of leaders in the world. We can put all the women leaders of the world together, and we will still have more of them in the villages of India. When women become leaders, their priorities are water, health, education and hygiene. They hold the answer to tackling malnutrition and hunger,” said Rita Sarin, Country Director, The Hunger Project. She felt that transformation was happening, and that the “UN System along with the government had huge potential to change their realities”.

A vibrant women’s movement in India

The women’s movement in India, one of the most established and respected in the world, has been very effective in advocating for legislative and policy changes. Amarjeet Kaur, Secretary, All India Trade Union Congress said that one of the struggles for the women’s movement has been to bring women to the centerstage and ensure that they don’t remain on the periphery.

One of the concerns of women from trade unions is that the State is abdicating its responsibilities in the social sector, and this negatively impacts women.

Ms. Amarjeet Kaur, Secretary, All India Trade Union Congress, stresses on the need to bring women’s rights to the center stage. Photo Credit©Sarabjeet Singh Dhillon/UN Women

Need for greater economic empowerment

Laila Tyabji, Chairperson, DASTKAR stressed the importance of economic empowerment as a means to give women a strong sense of identity and community. Jaya Jaitley, founder of Dastkari Haat Samiti, also urged for the need to “preserve the cultural heritage of India, and keep skills valuable and valid for the people”. Both Ms Tyabji and Ms Jaitley have worked to promote the craft and development sector and ensure that artisans, especially women, can benefit directly.

A concern with India’s growth model has been the lack of job creation.Recent statistics have shown that women’s employment has been adversely impacted. This existing trend of jobless growth needs to be corrected as women seem to have borne the brunt, urged the experts. Prof. Sonalde Desai , Senior Fellow, National Council for Applied Economic Research also cautioned that rising education levels were not leading to female employment in India.

Ms. Ban Soon-taek with Ms. Anne Stenhammer, Regional Programme Director, UN Women South Asia. Photo Credit©Sarabjeet Singh Dhillon/UN Women

Ending violence against women

Mohini Giri, Director, Guild of Service hoped that there would be more positive changes for the 38 million widows living in India, especially to ensure that they have greater property rights. There are different types of widows in India, she said, but most tragic is the case of religious widows.

An estimated 15,000 widows live on the streets of Vrindavan in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. A survey done to gauge their situation by the Guild of Service and UN Women revealed that the widows are extremely poor monetarily, living well below the poverty line as defined by the World Bank and even the Planning Commission. Although 70 percent of the women had heard of the destitute widow’s pension scheme, only a quarter of all widows received pension.

Another area of concern highlighted by the leaders was the declining child sex ratio in India. Today, there are only 914 girls per 1000 boys under six years of age – the lowest since Independence. Pamela Phillipose, Director, Women’s Feature Service advocated for stronger implementation of the laws to empower women.

Urging the women leaders to continue their good work, Ms. Ban Soon-taek said: “You can change your society with your strong voices.”

Ms. Ban Soon-taek is accompanying the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on his visit to India. His first stop is Delhi, where he is having meetings with the senior political leadership to discuss current international issues.

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