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Balancing Gender Roles

Gerda Verburg: Why saying ‘let’s empower women’ is not good enough

Gerda Verburg

February 21 2017

“Saying ‘let’s empower women’ is just not good enough. Just do it, I say! Create a space and ensure conditions where women can stand in their own power. Act on the fact that women’s contributions to society and planet are not accounted for nor valued properly in our economic, political or social systems.”

“Today, I find myself as one of 17 female Assistant UN Secretary-Generals (80% of ASGs are men) and the Coordinator of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement which fights all forms of malnutrition by putting women and girls at the centre.” With over a decades of experience and presently driving the Movement in 58 countries, Gerda Verburg shares with us the key lessons from her personal and professional life. Highlighting why, the perspectives of women are imperative and crucial to achieving sustainable development.


Thomson Reuters Sustainability: Could you tell us a bit about your professional journey?

Gerda Verburg: I was born on a dairy farm in the Green Heart of the Netherlands, into a family with seven brothers and two sisters – without a (gendered) difference in how we were raised. During harvest season, we all had to play our part in collecting quality grass and hay for the winter feed. If cows needed milking, we all had to roll up our sleeves and assist. This hands-on approach to life has stayed with me and served me well throughout my career.

In 1990 I was the first woman elected to the executive board of the Dutch Christian Trade Union Movement, marking the beginning of a journey that took me to places I never would have imagined – as a politician and diplomat.

Today, I find myself as one of 17 female Assistant UN Secretary-Generals (80% of ASGs are men) and the Coordinator of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement which fights all forms of malnutrition by putting women and girls at the centre.

Thomson Reuters Sustainability: What does your current role as the SUN Movement Coordinator and UN ASG encompass?

GV: I am excited to start each day as I get to push for results in the 58 countries that drive our Movement. I have an ambition to visit 20 this year. Each quarter countries gather to discuss a nutrition topic, which teases out innovation and compelling stories of change.

Each day, I work to energise the SUN networks – representing business, civil society, donors and the UN system. These stakeholders must join forces as we all have a role to play in making malnutrition history.

I often call on our Lead Group – comprising heads of state, private and public sector champions – to harness their spheres of influence and the passion they bring to this Movement.

As an ASG, I work with the Secretary-General and decision-making bodies on ensuring that nutrition is at the forefront of global and UN-driven action.

Recently, when asked why I was appointed to be the SUN Movement Coordinator, I replied it must be because of my results-driven approach. I never shy away from picking up the phone – or showing up at someone’s office – to unblock the bottlenecks in my world of work.

Thomson Reuters Sustainability: How does your work contribute to global sustainability?

GV: If I could shout something from the rooftop, it would be that every country has a nutrition problem, with women and girls often being the last ones to eat the food they’ve produced and prepared. If people get the right food – women, men, girls and boys have different needs – they perform better at school, have more decent work opportunities and contribute to GDP growth and prosperity.

Sadly, this is far from the reality. Two billion people lack essential vitamins and minerals, 1.9 billion adults are overweight or obese, and nearly six million children die each year from malnutrition or related diseases. Yearly, about one-third of the food produced gets lost or wasted. A key element of my work is raising awareness about this and catalyse change.

Nutrition cannot be looked at single-handedly, but must be linked with other sectors, including agriculture, women’s empowerment, health, water and sanitation. In the same way, nutrition is fundamental for achieving the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals. No goal can be achieved without sustained investment in people’s nutrition.

Thomson Reuters Sustainability: Why does empowering women help make the planet more sustainable? And is economic empowerment the most crucial aspect?

GV:

Women’s empowerment will bring the right people, to the table – a principle which underpins the SUN Movement. And ‘women hold up half the sky’, goes the saying that should go without saying in 2017.

The “power of the purse” is growing faster than ever, with women representing a growth market more than twice the size of China and India combined. Women control almost USD 30 trillion in consumer spending, making the futures of companies that invest in women ‘rosy’ indeed. Research shows that that achieving gender parity, alone, would add between USD 12 trillion and USD 28 trillion to global growth by 2025. And who could argue with that?

Yet, women find themselves trying to shatter the glass ceilings that block them from the space in which resources are allocated. There is no way around acknowledging the symbiotic relationship between education, economic empowerment and political participation.

Unless women’s perspectives and ideas on climate change, environmental degradation and food insecurity are also taken on board, sustainability will remain a distant goal, as women, men, girls and boys experience the planet differently.

Closing the gender gap in agriculture, for instance, can have a transformational impact on lives and the economy. Equal access for women would decrease the number of hungry people by 150 million. Isn’t this a no regret?

To this end, leaders of today need to put their money where their mouth is.

Saying ‘let’s empower women’ is just not good enough. Just do it, I say! Create a space and ensure conditions where women can stand in their own power. Act on the fact that women’s contributions to society and planet are not accounted for nor valued properly in our economic, political or social systems.

Thomson Reuters Sustainability: What is the potential for your industry sector to contribute to global sustainability and why?

GV: Whereas, traditionally, the development and environmental sectors have worked in parallel, the 2030 Agenda and Paris Agreement require us to leave the ‘business as usual’ approach at the door, as goals for people and planet are intertwined.

Nature is the backbone of long-term development – natural systems support food production, clean our water, regulate the climate and protect biodiversity – giving us an added responsibility to ensure that women’s inputs and needs are equally valued. In this regard, the SUN Movement was before it’s time: it bridges stakeholders and sectors, at different levels. But more connecting of dots is needed. With SDG 17, all players have a golden opportunity to put in place more and better partnerships for country owned development.

Since ending malnutrition cannot be reached in and of itself, we are stepping up our work with other initiatives to harness their expertise and avoid duplication.

The endorsement of our “Partnerships Playbook” as a Global Partnership Initiative – or a blueprint for SDG partnering – based on the SUN Movement’s Principles of Engagement, is a heartening development that marks multi-stakeholder partnering as the new normal in fighting global challenges. It was drafted in collaboration with Every Woman, Every Child, the Global Partnership for Education, Sanitation and Water for All, and the Zero Hunger Challenge and is an important guidance.

These joint activities make me think that we can make more steps to turn lip service into action and impact, leaving no one behind

Thomson Reuters Sustainability: When it comes to sustainability, what gives you hope?

GV: Country results give me hope. For instance, the reduction in stunted girls and boys in countries like Bangladesh, Cameroon, the Congo, El Salvador, the Gambia, Lesotho, Nepal, Nigeria and Swaziland over the past two years shows that the SUN Movement’s vision and ways of working really work. It also shows that more women (and men) are becoming empowered as parents, as they bear the responsibility of ensuring their children get the right nutrition.

This makes me think we could be facing a world without gender inequality, malnutrition and poverty by 2030, maybe even before.

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