UN Women’s Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia on Gender Equality: “It’s the Small Things That Ad
Vogue Arabia, May 2022. Photo: Amir Hamja
The WILL initiative was launched in 2019 and established by our publisher Nervora with the support of UN Women and the General Women’s Union to break down barriers of gender stereotypes towards women. The event brings together a selection of established women, from entrepreneurs and educators, to athletes, artists and politicians, in support of female-based social action. In light of the upcoming WILL Summit, which is to be hosted virtually on May 19 this year for its second edition, we take a look at a hard-hitting piece where Anita Bhatia, deputy executive director of UN Women, voices her opinions on gender equality.
As a lifelong women’s rights advocate, Indian Anita Bhatia doesn’t stay in one place for too long. Before joining the UN in New York as assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director of UN Women in 2019, Bhatia was based in Washington DC. There, she worked at the World Bank Group for several years, championing female-owned businesses and financial inclusion. Bhatia might have been a long way from her home city of Kolkata at the time, but she didn’t have to travel far to find the familiar face of a family member. All she had to do was step outside her office building. “I have a younger sister, Sabina, and it was so funny, when I was at the World Bank she was, and still is, at the International Monetary Fund, which is across the street,” Bhatia recalls, a smile detectable in her voice as she speaks over the phone from a Frankfurt hotel. Days prior to this conversation, she was in The Hague delivering the keynote speech at an impact investment summit. In March, she was on an official visit to Abu Dhabi to kick off International Women’s Day with UN Women, which established its liaison office in the UAE in 2016 to accelerate advancements for women and girls in the GCC.
Bhatia spends much less time in DC since her appointment to the UN, but her experience at the World Bank headquarters will always hold great professional and personal significance. “It’s a powerful illustration of the power of education that you had two sisters holding such senior positions in two extremely important global organizations,” she says. The pair was dubbed the Bretton Woods Sisters by colleagues in reference to the historic 1944 conference during which their respective workplaces were founded to stabilize the global post-war economy. As fortuitous as their setup seemed, it’s no coincidence that these two women landed at institutions that were close both in physical proximity and in potential for impact. They were raised in a house full of books by parents who instilled in them a love of learning. Bhatia, a voracious reader, remembers frequent library visits as a child and excursions to see Japanese films with her mother, who died when Bhatia was just 18. Her mother’s legacy prevailed in a promise made to her by Bhatia’s father, who vowed to support their daughters in the pursuit of higher education above all else. And that’s exactly what Bhatia did, leaving India in 1983 to earn her master’s in political science from Yale University and a law degree from Georgetown University. Her sister followed her to the US shortly thereafter.
It was this ability to make her own choices that Bhatia says defines her as a feminist, and a fearless one at that, according to her Twitter bio. For this reason, girls’ education is her favorite topic of conversation and the subject that almost every discussion about her advocacy at UN Women manages to revert back to. From collecting data related to the spike in gender-based violence due to the pandemic and, more recently, the war in Ukraine, to closing the digital divide by teaching refugee women in Jordan how to code – her new line on this mission is, “if you are offline, you’re offlife” – Bhatia is optimistic about what access to information can do. However, she’s quick to point out that while knowledge can embolden girls to reimagine their futures, it is only one of many pillars at the foundation of women’s equality. Financial independence makes that agency meaningful, as does bodily autonomy and the right to safety and security. When these essential factors align, everybody wins. “Economic empowerment of women can create conditions for a family to be poverty free, to live in a sustainable way, and, ultimately, for the prosperity of a whole nation. The more jobs there are, the more you grow the economy because you are making productive use of your human capital, and that productive use is pouring back into the country and helping to grow its GDP,” Bhatia explains.
Vogue Arabia, May 2022. Photo: Amir Hamja
As deputy executive director of UN Women, Bhatia’s goals to strengthen these pillars are as ambitious as they are urgent. She wants to see less money spent on wars and more put towards the battle for gender equality instead. She’s pushing for domestic violence to be declared a public health emergency, calling on governments to tackle the issue as they would an outbreak of malaria or Covid-19. She dreams of the day when all legislation enabling violence against women is repealed, offering the example of a law shielding rapists from criminal prosecution if they marry their victims, which still exists in 20 countries, according to a 2021 UN report. None of this will be possible, she asserts, without a dramatic increase in the number of women in decision-making roles across the public and private sectors. “Only 25% of world parliamentarians who make laws on our behalf are women, and out of the 193 member states of the UN, only 14 countries have gender equal cabinets,” Bhatia says. “And it was only two years ago that Wall Street got its first female CEO. So to me, these are just absolutely shocking numbers.”
One doesn’t need to be a famous politician, a mighty corporate executive, or an indefatigable higher-up at the UN to help get more women into positions of power. Bhatia believes that everyone, men and boys included, has a crucial part to play in enacting progress on an individual level. This starts with recognizing how and where discriminatory gender roles are perpetuated, be that in the media we consume and share, or in our household rituals as they relate to chore distribution and childcare. The UN Women initiative HeForShe recruits people of all genders to promote awareness around these often unconscious behaviors. Its Unstereotype Alliance furthers these efforts on a corporate scale, bringing together private companies in the advertising industry to eradicate the dissemination of harmful messaging.
“It’s the small things that add up to the big things,” Bhatia says. So for anyone wondering where to begin, it can be as simple as opening up a conversation. “We have a lot of work to do on changing norms, changing attitudes, and bringing about a fundamental shift in mindsets. But you’re not going to get any of this done unless people actually start talking about the problem.”