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Interview with Anita Bhatia, UN Assistant Secretary-General and UN Womens Deputy Executive Director, about Closing the digital gender gap for a fairer and greener future.
“If we don’t act urgently, we will not see gender equality for another 136 years”
Closing the digital gender gap for a fairer and greener future, with Anita Bhatia
On May 2019, Anita Bhatia was appointed Assistant Secretary-General for Resource Management, Sustainability and Partnerships and Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), an organization which uphold women’s human rights and ensure that every woman and girl lives up to her full potential. Ms. Bhatia holds a BA in History from Calcutta University, an MA in Political Science from Yale University and a Juris Doctor in Law from Georgetown University. She describes herself as a ‘fearless feminist’ and a ‘lifelong women’s rights advocate’ on Twitter.
In 2015, countries agreed on the need for comprehensive financing for development, adopted a new sustainable development agenda, and charted a universal and legally binding global agreement on climate change. The 2030 Agenda features 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), one of which is Gender Equality. Now that we are midway, what has been done so far to accomplish them?
We see there have been positive changes in areas extremely relevant for gender equality; for example, improvements in maternal mortality rates, in girls' access to education, in women's representation and women's leadership. But when you actually look at the absolute change, you realize that the baseline was actually low. Overall, the picture is still pretty bleak, and I would say it is because we still face the scourge of violence against women. That has not changed significantly.
Would you say we are on the right track?
We are not going to be able to secure a gender-equal future, unless everybody participates. Gender equality is not a women's agenda only. If we don’t act with a sense of urgency, we will not see gender equality for another 136 years. Before the pandemic, the estimates were that it would take about 99 years at the current rate of progress to achieve gender equality. Post pandemic, so many rights have been rolled back and so much progress that had been made has been undone, particularly when it comes to women's participation in the labor force and ability to hold jobs.
What is missing?
First and foremost, political will to really make a big difference. This starts with having governments and private sector leaders recognize that this is a real issue that you have to pay attention to. It is not going to happen organically by itself. It requires focus, resources, and real commitment. If we are serious about addressing violence against women, governments should tackle this the same way as the Covid crisis. It is what the secretary general called “shadow pandemic”, because it is widespread and not addressed sufficiently in the legal system. There has to be a public-private partnership approach to solve it, but also the international community has to work in unison. It is everybody's job.
Why “shadow pandemic”?
We used it to refer to the big spike in violence against women during the pandemic. It was there in the shadows, and it still is. The pandemic shone a light on it because everybody noticed since being at home, it was impossible to escape from acknowledging this reality. All the conversation was about COVID 19, but there was another public health problem alongside it.
Do you see gender equality as an umbrella goal extendable to the rest?
Gender equality is the docking STG for other SDGs. If you pay attention to gender equality, you will actually accelerate the achievement of others. There is no way to achieve zero poverty in the world, unless you think about the fact that most people in the informal sector, which is where the great percentage of poverty is, are actually women.
Regarding the digital gender gap, do you see a more inclusive, cross-sectorial technology as the sole future alternative?
Closing the digital gender gap means getting more girls back into school, making your economy more productive and growing it because you are leveraging the skills and capacities of your entire population, not just half of it. We also know that having access to mobile technology and digital infrastructure generally can bring about a lot of other benefits: financial inclusion, information on markets, access to weather-related information for farmers.
The UN Women’s theme for International Women’s Day 2022 was ‘Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’. Why?
It is impossible to think about building a sustainable planet if 50% or more than 50% of the population is not engaged. If you look at the link between climate and gender equality, you see that women suffer disproportionately from climate change, but also have a particular role to play in addressing it.
The future will be green and feminist or will not be?
That is the aspiration. We want to have a green future, which also is characterized by greater progress on gender equality. Whether we will achieve that depends on the political will of governments worldwide, and right now there are many parts of the world where democracy is actually being eroded. Human rights are being violated, women's rights are receiving major pushback, many governments are becoming less progressive. If we want to aim for a world where gender equality is front and center of a development agenda, we have to make sure we are electing the right kinds of leaders and that we are vigilant about protecting democratic spaces.