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Madame Corat, this World Population Day the UN had a special focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights, calling attention to the “unfinished business” of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. Though this falls under the purview of the UNPF, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the renewed focus.

The UN’s support for women’s rights goes back to the founding charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948. Even at that time, the declaration stated that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights without distinction of any kind,” so it’s a longstanding principle. Gender equality is also very well recognized and accepted as a universal goal in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, adopted in September 2015 by a large number of member states and international organizations. So, it’s natural and important for UNESCO to defend women’s rights, work for women’s and girls’ empowerment, and promote gender equality. 

But, women’s rights are not valued the same across the globe. How do you define and approach promoting gender equality in a way that is culturally inclusive and sensitive?

We believe that culture cannot—and must not—be an excuse for gender-based discrimination and oppression. This is stated in our conventions. However, in the implementation of this principle, we are aware of the fact that we’re working in communities with different levels of understanding or ways of life. Our approach is therefore a soft approach. We always try to start with the elders and opinion-makers in a given community to gain their trust and have them taking ownership over initiatives, plans, and programs that we want to implement. For example, when we work on water-related issues, we use water as the entry point to talk about rights, entitlements, and the division of labor. When we work on sensitive issues that are erroneously presented as traditional values, such as female genital mutilation, we always go through the leaders in those communities. We adopt a culturally-sensitive approach, but don’t believe culture can be used as an excuse for denying women’s rights. 

Feminism has become a dirty word and its definition seems to vary depending on who you ask. What does feminism mean to you and why shouldn’t men ultimately fear women’s empowerment?

There are several theories that oppose the subordination of women. While this opposition constitutes the common denominator, “feminisms” vary in terms of the identification of the cause of this subordination and the solutions they offer. Among the different feminisms, we can mention liberal, Marxist, radical, socialist, “women of color”, third-world/post-colonial, intersectionality, and transnational feminisms. Generally speaking, those who are against “feminism” have either a limited or distorted understanding of what it really means, or have an interest in perpetuating gender inequalities to their own advantage. For me, the core idea of feminism is simple: that all human beings are equal. It is this core idea of feminism that constitutes the building block to achieve our global goal: Gender Equality.

A common myth about feminism is that it is about women only. Gender relations are embedded in power structures where both women and men play a role. One of the problems we have is the way “power” is defined. When defined as “one’s capability to do things, or power ‘to’”, as opposed to “the ability to influence the behavior of others, or power ‘over’”, the empowerment of a person (in this case a woman) ceases to be seen as conditional on the disempowerment of another person (a man). Within a framework where power is not seen as a zero-sum game but rather a relational dynamic, there is no reason for men to fear women’s empowerment. Empowerment becomes part of a development process in which all can take part. In fact, the moment men realize that the behaviors they adopt to prove that they are “men enough” – such as violence and aggressiveness, risk-taking behaviors, denial of care and affection – are taking a toll on them as well, there will be a lot more self-declared “feminist men.”

omar lopez auEe5lKHZCw unsplash - UNESCO’s Director for Gender Equality Explains Why Women’s Rights Are Frustrating, Complex, and So Hard to AchievePhoto Courtesy of Omar Lopez

Since their very existence is still taboo, transgender women are especially vulnerable in non-LGBTQ+-friendly societies. How has UNESCO’s approach to gender equality shifted to ensure trans women are also a priority and receive the full range of human rights? 

The human rights of transgender women, as well as those of other LGBTQ+ individuals, are still greatly at risk worldwide, and not only in those societies that one would define as non-LGBTQ+ friendly. Violence and aggressions to LGBTQ+ individuals are a daily reality and those that are reported are unfortunately only the tip of the iceberg.

At UNESCO, we put human rights at the heart of our action and at the same time we operate in a culturally-sensitive manner. This means that instead of having a one-size-fits-all solution for sensitive issues such as the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals, we advocate for their inclusion using the power of intercultural dialogue, education, and culture. As an intergovernmental organization, we have a duty to support our member states to find consensus-based solutions that uphold our universal values.

At the recent Concordia Europe – AmChamSpain Summit, you spoke about how 150 million school-aged children around the world are not in school and that we’ll need another 70 years to fix that given the current pace of progress. Increasing literacy has been a priority for UNESCO since 1946, and it also falls under your 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. However, there are still 750 million illiterate people around the globe and two-thirds are women. Why is this such a difficult task and what are the greatest barriers to increasing literacy?

This is a really important question. Last week, we published another report, the 2019 Gender Report: Building Bridges for Gender Equity, which shows that the number of illiterate adult women in developing countries has actually increased by 20 million since 2000. In the same report, it’s noted that in upper middle income countries, the number of illiterate adult women decreased by 42 million. There are different reasons for not reaching this targeted group of women in developing countries. 

First of all, not enough education expenditure is going to literacy programs. One of our studies shows that out of 97 countries for which we have data, 41 reported that less than 0.9% of their education expenditure is going to adult literacy. Another 34 spend between 1% and 3.9% on adult literacy, and only 22 spend more than 4%. These programs are not getting the kinds of financial resources they need. We also make a lot of mistakes in the planning and delivery of these programs that do not allow us to reach women. Sometimes it’s a lack of understanding around the responsibilities of women and sometimes it’s logistical challenges around the timing of the training programs, preventing women from attending on a regular basis. We see these challenges not only in settings where conditions are difficult, such as displacement settings, but in regular living arrangements.

In the digital age, there’s infinite opportunity for social progress, economic growth, and greater overall interconnectedness, but women are still subjected to higher rates of abuse online. How do we make cyberspace more equitable and safe for women and girls, and what steps must be taken to improve healthy gender socialization online? 

It was really surprising for me when, three or four years ago, I was asked to give a TedTalk in Paris about using new technologies for literacy and education, and at the end of this talk I made a plea for a way to address this issue. The audience looked at me like I was from Mars and talking about something they’d never heard or read about. Now, there’s more awareness that this phenomena is very real. We know from one of our reports that 73% of women report having experienced some form of violence online, with a particularly high instance for the 20-24 age group.  

So this is a very serious problem. Although there are incidences of violence against all groups, I think the burden is really on women, especially young women. This requires gender equality education, legal regulations and protections, and reshaping the digital space. We talk about this in our report “I’d Blush if I Could,” where we are working on internet governance to see what can be done to make the space inclusive and welcoming for everybody. We need to have more women involved in the tech and frontier technologies sectors to make sure that these issues can be addressed in a more comprehensive manner. 

tim mossholder UcUROHSJfRA unsplash - UNESCO’s Director for Gender Equality Explains Why Women’s Rights Are Frustrating, Complex, and So Hard to AchievePhoto Courtesy of Tim Mossholder

You’ve called the pill “life-changing technology.” Some 50 million women die every year due to unsafe abortions. Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, for instance, have now either legalized or voted in favor of legalizing abortion, but in stark contrast, the Trump Administration is cutting federal funding to abortion providers who serve some of the most vulnerable populations. For those who can’t make the connection, how are reproductive health and reproductive rights important for achieving gender equality?

Any person must have power and control over their body, so reproductive health and rights are critical. The pill is a life-changing technology because when we look at the history of the women’s movement, we do see a very strong correlation between the use of the pill and women’s employment and entry into public life.

Too many young people are receiving very confusing and conflicting informationor no information at all—about relationships, their bodies, and sex as they make this transition from childhood to adulthood. In many places people are not only denied access to accurate, life-saving information, but services, as well. 

While UNESCO has a comprehensive sexuality education program, unfortunately it’s usually misinterpreted. When I attend meetings around the world, I’m approached by politicians and civil servants who think that UNESCO is promoting promiscuity in young people. We’re really not. Comprehensive sexual education is about telling these young people what they should know, how to prepare for different situations, how to take care of their health and body, and how to have control over their life and their sexuality.

Are there any strides that haven’t been made, say, in the past 30 years, that you expected to be achieved by now? What frustrates you most about the road to gender equality?

The pace – it’s very slow! We’ve been talking about rights and equality for over 100 years now, but to see efforts on the part of countries and people that try to explain and rationalize the state of affairs is frustrating. We’ve made a lot of progress, definitely in education, but then there are big differences that I would’ve expected to be overcome by now in the pay gap situation, in the sharing of domestic responsibilities, and in political representation. 

We tend to make strides, but then take a few steps back. I’ve realized that whatever happens at the end of the day, money does talk. I really think we have to have economic empowerment and women’s involvement at the top levels in the private sector. When you look at big companies, the percentage of women is under 20%. In the tech industry it’s under 10%, so we have a long way to go. 

In your tenure at UNESCO, what is the organization’s greatest accomplishment or something you’re proudest of?

In 2007 we became the first UN agency to make gender equality one of our two global priorities – before UN Women was created. This was a landmark, unanimous decision with all 195 of our member states. 

This year we also started a new conversation with our May report “I’d Blush if I Could,” which talks about the digital gender gap and the impact of AI on gender equality. This is something that will have a huge impact over the next 10-20 years. 

You said the
Reaching Gender Equality session at the recent Concordia Europe Summit was a very important panel – can you speak to the benefit of cross-sector partnerships when tackling gender equality?

What was really very encouraging in Madrid was that there was a room full of very high-level, influential business people, most of whom were men. Usually, when we talk about gender equality, the audience and panelists are women—usually activists—so we have this conversation amongst ourselves. The session was also placed in a very strategic manner. The panel was after lunch, but before the keynote speech of former Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero. This is a context we should try to achieve more often in many settings because we do need governments, the private sector, and communities and families to talk about this. The panel was very forward looking and the reaction I received after was incredibly encouraging. 

The Concordia Annual Summit is right around the corner, taking place during UN General Assembly week. What message do you hope people will take away from UNGA 74? 

The UN has always been the convening power behind the women’s movement and it’s important the UNGA claims that authority loud and clear when we risk losing that. At the moment we have a lot of attacks on gender equality, not only from fundamentalist religious groups, but also from conservatives and populist political circles, but this is progress that cannot be reversed. Gender equality, women’s empowerment, and women’s rights are priorities and non-negotiable because sustainable and equitable development must be guaranteed.