Meet the Woman Extraordinaire – Lakshmi Puri

International Day for Rural Women 2014 Event at UNHQ - What Can We Do to Empower Rural Women in the Post-2015 Development Agenda

Lakshmi Puri is UN Women’s Deputy Executive Director and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN). A champion of Human Rights, Ms. Puri is passionate about gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Tell us more about yourself and what you do?
I am UN Women’s Deputy Executive Director and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN). I have worked in the United Nations system for the last dozen years.

I began working with United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) as the Director of Trade in Goods, Services and Commodities and then I became the acting Deputy Secretary-General before moving to New York from Geneva in 2009, to join the office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States.

I joined UN Women right after its creation as Assistant-Secretary-General in charge of inter-governmental work, strategic partnerships and UN coordination. I was also for five months the acting head of UN Women between Madame Bachelet’s departure and Madame Phumzile’s joining UN Women.

Before joining the UN system I was with the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) for 28 years. My last post was Ambassador of India to Hungary and accredited to Bosnia and Herzegovina. I was also holding the rank of Permanent Secretary of the Government of India in the Ministry of External Affairs.

How did you embark on your chosen career path?
My love affair with the UN, if I may say so, began in 1981 when I was posted to Geneva as First Secretary in charge of human rights. At that time, we had a relatively small mission and I had to do many things but my main job was to represent India and negotiate on behalf of India in the human rights commission and the different committees.

I worked on negotiating some of the key treaties that were being negotiated those days; such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention against Torture. That really opened my mind to the tremendous power of possibility that the UN represents and how the UN is the place where ideas or objectives that seem unachievable must be pushed and must be seeded so that with time they take on their own life. I really got inspired by that experience.

In one way or another I’ve been associated with the UN for thirty years. I have a very strong human rights and development background. While working in Geneva with the Foreign Service I was exposed to disarmament issues, labor rights and intellectual property rights, among other topics. Later as the deputy in the mission I was leading the work related to trade, economic development with agencies like UNCTAD and WTO. During that time the WTO was just established from the former GATT.

Throughout my career the issues of gender equality and the empowerment of women have also been close to me. When I was doing human rights work in the 80s I experienced the energy of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) being launched and adopted, and on how it became operational. Also my experiences with the Indian Foreign Service in Sri Lanka and Bosnia and Herzegovina also shaped my perspectives on gender equality and empowerment in the context of conflict and post conflict peace building.

When I worked at UNCTAD, I was very much instrumental within UNCTAD to launch this whole concept of engendering trade and trade policy, how does trade impact women and how should they be supported in terms of trade policies or even development policies to participate more equally and to take benefit from trade. So, for the first time, UNCTAD launched a publication in 2012 dedicated to trade and gender equality and women’s empowerment.

What are some of the challenges you faced in your career and how did you overcome them?
There are three kinds of challenges that one has to manage with emotional intelligence and that is something we really have to marshal as much as we can.

The first challenge for any woman in an engaging full-time position is her family; how to give family members the kind of attention, support and have an engagement with them on a continuing basis, which requires not only being able to communicate remotely, but also being with them physically, giving them quality time.

Secondly, before I joined the IFS, there was a rule that if a woman joined IFS, she couldn’t marry. Even when I joined, they had removed that rule and it was a level playing field, initially we were paid half of foreign allowance when we were abroad. There was an issue of how you are treated as an officer and having to prove yourself at every stage, not only that you are equal to the men but that you are better and that you can deliver.

The third kind of challenge is that which relates to not so much of your being a woman, but that relates to the normal challenges of ups and downs of being in an international organization. I have tried to deal with them in the best way possible, sometimes it has been very tough because you are not in your familiar environment, also different kinds of pressure and pulls one works under.

Overall, I have been fortunate. I have sometimes felt guilty on the first count; am I doing enough, am I not doing enough, have I failed my family? But merit prevails. If you prove your work, everybody grants you recognition for what you are. My husband has been a wonderful supporter and has also been one of my sources of inspiration. He is also a source of inspiration to his daughters, because he is very empowering.

You mentioned in an interview that your mother has been the biggest influence in your life and a constant source of inspiration. Who or what else inspires you?
Every woman is an inspiration to me, not only in what she achieves, but also the struggles she goes through to achieve it. Maybe sometimes she doesn’t achieve it, but even that struggle is a source of inspiration. When one has grown up in India, one has seen so much deprivation, poverty, exploitation and violence against women that the very fact that they are able to deal with that is something commendable.

My mother was an exceptional woman in her own right. A strong feminist, she was ahead of her times. She was born in 1907. I was born to her when she was 45. She was the first post-graduate in Maharashtra, a rare thing in her generation. After her mother died of repeated child births, her father decided that he was not going to let his two daughters go in to early marriage. Because he had himself been married to his wife at a very young age, his wife being all of eleven and he eighteen. He sent them off to Ahilya ashram.

I stood second and nearly topped the all the India exams for civil services and when I told her that, she said, “You came second, why not first?” So she was always that kind of a pusher. She was a very strong inspiration for me to find myself, my vocation and what is it that I should be. Also, my older sister, who was the head of IRS (retired now), was an inspiration too.

I am also inspired by my colleagues at UN Women, including the former Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, and the current Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. When I come in contact with each one of them, I learn something, always enlarging my horizon in terms of my understanding of gender equality and women’s empowerment issues because I don’t come from that typical space of feminist studies or gender studies, but now I have learnt a lot from those interactions and doing this advocacy job. Advocacy is a key part of what we do, but also push the governmental normative envelop, that is something we have very successfully done.

What are some of UN women’s initiatives on gender equality and economic empowerment of women? How do you fund these programs?
We are at a historical conjunction. We have the post 2015 development agenda and the gender goal has gained a lot of support from Member States and hopefully it will be adopted as a part of the overall post-2015 development agenda in the next year. At the same time, we are now commemorating, reviewing and appraising the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This provides a big opportunity to highlight gender equality and women’s empowerment as never before. We have a campaign entitled “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it! It’s an online and offline campaign and anybody can join.

We did a global hard launch of the campaign at Apollo theatre in June in New York and every month we focus on one critical area of the Beijing platform; such as poverty and women, women in the economy, women and health, women and education, and ending violence against women. Women and Human Right’s is December’s theme. We will also focus on women in the media, and women and armed conflict.

Within the empowering women in the humanity context, we have three initiatives. One is the HeForShe campaign; this has been a contested area for feminists because they say with great difficulty we are focusing on the women’s movement and then you bring in the men. So, that’s why it is to complement and not supplant women’s own action, activism and taking charge.

We also have the UNiTE campaign to end violence against women and 16 Days of Activism, which is in November and we will commemorate in a major way. We are present in 90 countries. We are working with governments, civil society, and local city governments to drive mass campaigns not only around ending violence against women but also equal rights of women.

We have also partnered with organizations like The Green Belt movement and next year on World Environment day, we will be doing mass planting of trees by women. One of our main objectives behind these campaigns is to get people and re-ignite a mass movement and create both political and social energy around it.

What is your idea of an empowered woman?
It’s about mindsets, what are the power relations within the family, in the community, in society. It’s about distribution of resources and it is also about how women and men are perceived in terms of their respective roles. That is what the whole issue of empowerment and equality is all about. That needs to be addressed at several levels. One cannot change the mindsets, the roles, the balance of power, or so called imbalance of power, the unequal distribution of resources, power and decision making unless there is both action from the top and something ground up. So it’s a combination of the two.

An empowered woman is one who embraces a life free of violence and discrimination. A woman who wants her choices to be respected and her capabilities acknowledged. A woman who demands equal opportunities, resources and responsibilities with men. And for equal access to land, credit, natural resources, education, health services and very importantly within the health context, but also the rights context – sexual and reproductive health and rights, decent work and equal pay. I have been emphasizing to political leaders in India, the whole issue of voice participation, leadership and women’s rights apart from safety, security that everybody keeps talking about. Kartritvya, Neytritva, Matadhikar all those ideas. This is what an empowered woman is.

Message for our readers related to women’s personal safety and the issue of violence against women.
I think safety is too narrowly couched. It is not only an issue of safety and security, but it’s about an issue of rights. So, if you look at your safety and security from the perspective of rights, that it is your right to be free from violence, it is your right to be free from fear, I think that’s the first point of liberation and from the shackles.

Voice is very important. Women have to speak up because that’s what has been a problem in the past. Women, particularly, in cases involving sexual violence, whether within the family, in public places or sexual harassment at work place have been hesitant to speak up, have had a sense of guilt and shame for no fault of their own. So, that must change. You must take your own agency in your hands and speak up and come out and be there to say “This happened to me and I am not going to allow it to happen.”

Perpetrators of violence in various forms and in various settings have had this sense of impunity that nothing is going to happen. Conviction rates are low even where complaints are made, complaints are not registered, and victims don’t always have access to justice. For victims and survivors, it has not been an easy pathway to justice but they must press on and seek the prosecution of perpetrators. And that is what women must do from their side, they owe it to themselves and they owe it to other women too.

In India now, after the Nirbhaya incident, also others thereafter, there has been a tremendous increase in consciousness. The outrage has finally been ignited and people have come out, men and boys as well as women and girls. What is important is that there is now a whole discourse taking place on a continuing basis at the political level, in the workplaces and in the streets and in the homes and from the ramparts of the Red Fort. The Prime Minister through his Independence Day speech tells the audience, “Why do you ask women where they are going and not boys? Boys need to be taught to respect women.”

My message to the girls is, now is the time that you really take advantage of this. Now is the moment. It’s the political moment, a social moment and even in the home context, now everybody is becoming conscious and empowered in terms of more and more women. So every woman must create a freedom from violence movement, also women’s rights movement; that include the right to work, to education, to express her opinion, and sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.

Ms. Lakshmi Puri is Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. She is directly responsible for the leadership and management of the Bureau for Intergovernmental Support, United Nations Coordination, and Strategic Partnerships.

Ms. Puri joined UN Women in March 2011, shortly after its creation. As a member of the senior leadership team, she actively contributed to the institutional development and consolidation of the entity, shaping its first Strategic Plan and positioning it as the leading organization for the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment globally. She steered UN Women’s engagement in major intergovernmental processes, such as the Rio+20 conference. She coordinated preparations for the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, which saw the adoption of a historic agreement on ending and preventing violence against women. She also led efforts to build strategic partnerships, particularly with civil society and women’s organizations, and oversaw the adoption and implementation of UN system- wide accountability and coherence systems for gender equality and women’s empowerment. She acted as the interim head of UN Women from March to August 2013.

Throughout her career, Ms. Puri has promoted the gender equality and women’s empowerment agenda in various capacities in the context of peace and security, human rights and sustainable development. She has extensive experience in economic and development policy-making covering trade, investment, migration and labour mobility, financial flows, environment and climate change, energy, agriculture and food security, universal access to essential services, intellectual property rights, and traditional knowledge, among other issues.

Ms. Puri joined the United Nations after a distinguished 28-year career with the Indian Foreign Service, where she held the rank of Permanent Secretary of the Government of India. As Ambassador of India to Hungary, concurrently accredited to Bosnia and Herzegovina, she worked closely with the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Indian peacekeeping contingent, the largest in the Balkans. She also played an important role as a member of the Indian diplomatic team in brokering the Indo-Sri Lankan peace agreement in 1987 to end the country’s ethnic conflict and was involved in several aspects of the Indian peacekeeping operations and peace-building efforts that followed.

She has a Bachelor of Arts (honours) from Delhi University and a postgraduate degree from Punjab University, as well as professional diplomas. She studied history, public policy and administration, international relations and law, and economic development. Ms. Puri has contributed to policy-related research at think tanks and academic institutions and has been on the board of public policy institutions and companies. Ms. Puri is married and has two daughters.