Urgency needed to address global gender inequality, says UN expert

Anita Bhatia says the UAE could become a regional centre for best practice

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 14 November 2019. Interview with Anita Bhatia Deputy Executive Director, UN Women. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Anna Zacharias Section: National.
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A senior director of UN Women has called for a greater “sense of urgency” in tackling the barriers preventing advances in gender equality.

Anita Bhatia, deputy executive director of the global champion for women empowerment, said recent gains risked being jeopardised through inertia.

Speaking to The National while on a visit to the UAE, she highlighted what she saw as a worrying "pushback" against women's rights in some parts of the world.

But she said she was upbeat about the prospects for progress in other regions, urging the UAE to become a regional centre for best practice in promoting equality.

“There is such a pushback against women’s rights and gender equality in the world today that sometimes I feel we are running to stay in place and that history is repeating itself in ugly ways,” said Ms Bhatia.

“I don’t like this sense of bad deja vue. There isn’t yet enough of a great sense of urgency around the issue of gender equality.

“We need to change the global conversation, infuse it with a sense of urgency.”

Ms Bhatia was in the Emirates for the World Tolerance Summit, a two-day gathering aimed at enhancing the cultural understanding of the country.

Next year marks 25 years since world leaders and some 30,000 activists gathered in Beijing to set a global standard for women’s rights, including the right to an education, to live free from violence and to earn equal pay.

The result was the drafting of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, considered the blueprint on women’s rights.

To gauge what has changed since 1995, UN Women is currently collecting data from 180 countries to form what will be the largest evidence-based review in the world on the status of gender equality.

The numbers are already telling: currently there are 130 million girls not in school, 12 million girls marry before the age of 18 each year and violence against women remains endemic.

At this rate, the World Economic Forum predicts it will take another 108 years to close the global gender gap in health, education, economic and political equality.

“We are very troubled by what we see as the pushback against women’s rights in many parts of the world and this is connected to the rise of illiberal democracies,” said Ms Bhatia, who joined UN Women in August and previously held senior positions at the World Bank Group.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 14 November 2019. Interview with Anita Bhatia Deputy Executive Director, UN Women. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Anna Zacharias Section: National.

“The UAE is a multicultural country and it is a microcosm in some ways of a global ethos. We want this to be a regional hub where we take best practices to other parts of the region.

“If we get the right partnership from the government, the Emirates could become the centre of learning for countries in the region.”

The UAE ranked 121 out of 149 countries in the 2018 Global Gender Gap Report, published by the World Economic Forum.

At the same time, the country has worked closely with UN Women to narrow inequalities and in September this year pledged a three-year grant of $15 million to UN Women.

Additionally, the Emirates has scaled up its role as a centre for women’s military and peacekeeper training.

Women’s involvement in security operations, peacekeeping and conflict resolution is one of the key goals of UN Women and more than 250 women from Asia and Africa will arrive in the Emirates in January as part of a training programme overseen by the UAE Ministry of Defence.

In addition to meetings with the MoD, Ms Bhatia also met with officials to discuss gender responsive budgeting.

“The big difference with Beijing is we want to see financing commitments,” she said.

“Beijing was a very important platform but there was no money attached to the wonderful aspirations. And money talks.

“We need to walk the talk by driving financing and budgets towards financing gender equality.

“If you’re a bank, we’d like to see you do more to make sure women have access to collateral. If you’re a government, we want to make sure your public investments are done with a gendered lens.”

The UAE will be the sole country in the region to host a session for the global Generation Equality campaign next year, which unites public and private sectors on women’s economic empowerment.

This means involving women in decision-making and considering the unintended consequences of policy on women.

Emerging gender gaps in artificial intelligence-related skills could widen gaps in economic participation and create unintentional bias in software development.

Globally, four out of five of AI professionals are men, according to the World Economic Forum.

"Most people working on AI are men, so they will not naturally be thinking of the issues related to women. Data is not gender blind," said Ms Bhatia.

As Gulf governments, companies and individuals work towards gender equality, they must consider the rights of all women, including migrant workers.

“All women’s rights are important. You can’t distinguish between nationals and non-nationals when it comes to women’s rights,” said Ms Bhatia.

“Gender equality is based fundamentally on a concept of human rights and human rights apply to all human beings."