India must criminalise marital rape as a first step towards ending violence against women, says UNDP administrator Helen Clark, in an exclusive interview to Diplomatic Editor Suhasini Haidar in New Delhi.

UNDP has completed 50 years, yet it seems the growth divide in the world is at its deepest. If you compare the global south to the north, populations maybe about 2:1, but gross national income per person is closer to 1:20…is this divide the biggest crisis? 

I think it is..inequality is one of the biggest problems, inequalities between the North and the South, but internal inequalities as well. UNDP launched a report a few years ago that asserted that 70% of people living in developing countries today live in countries more unequal than they were in 1990, the baseline year for the Millennium Development Goals, so what that tell us is while there has been a lot of growth and development, inequalities have also been exacerbated. And the whole sustainable development agenda is to say look more holistically at what you are achieving. If your model of economic growth is exacerbating the inequalities in the world, if its trashing the environment, is this really the quality of growth you want? Or are there more ways to run your economy….So tackling inequality is one of the biggest goals for the sustainable development agenda.

Given that, what do you see as India’s role in the Global South? As a leader, an innovator, a centre for best practices?

Oh yes, in many ways. India is really taking to new age renewable technologies. I was on a panel in Davos and one of the key Indian players made the point that coal hasn’t been a factor in India’s energy strategy for some time. The real push is in renewable energy and that’s where the investment is. Secondly, India has an ambitious reforestation goal. So on the environmental side India knows what it needs to do. And that will help not just globally but also bring for its people food security, water, air quality etc. And when India and China move on these issues they have a global impact on these issues far beyond just them.

I wanted to ask about your own role at the UN, perhaps beyond the UNDP, I’m referring to reports that you will be running for the UN Secretary General’s post later this year….

I haven’t offered an opinion on that yet to anyone, and I don’t intend to today. But there has to be a decision on the next UNSG by the end of the year, and the processes are slowly getting under way by member states as they contemplate what they want. I say the first issue is what are the challenges in the job and what are the skill sets you need to fulfill them, that should be the question.

There is an understanding that it is the East European bloc’s turn at the job, in which case you wouldn’t qualify, is that what you are referring to when you say skill sets are the most important?

The job goes around. It has gone to the African continent twice, its gone to Asia twice, its gone to Latin America once, West Europe has had it three times. So East Europe has never been in that rotation, so of course they have put up a flag to say it should be them. I think the member states are going to look at the skill set required.

You’re saying that you are not counted out, although you aren’t willing to count yourself in at present. Do you think it is time to change how the UNSG is chosen; many countries would like the UN Security Council to forward two candidates, not one to the UNGA? 

In the end that’s a matter for the Security Council. It’s a matter for the five permanent members to decide and to the best of my knowledge they aren’t planning to put up more than one candidate. Starting July they will be taking straw polls on who they think the candidates should be. The UNGA president is intending to offer declared candidates the opportunity to speak to informed groups of countries one on one next month. But in the end it is to July and to what the UNSC decides to do.

Apart from the nationality criterion, what about gender? The Hindu spoke to one of the candidates expected UNESCO chief Irina Bokova, who said a Woman UNSG is an idea whose time has come. Do you think that’s true this time?

There’s never been a woman UNSG, so of course people are saying what about this time. But whoever is selected they are going to have to fit the skill-set that they need for the job.

Do you think the US also should be looking at a woman for president?

It would be impossible for me as an international civil servant to comment on that, but my position has been women should have their share of the time at the top. Countries like my own (New Zealand) have had two women Prime Minsiters already, we are not the only ones, but many countries have yet to see a woman leader, and that must change. Women need to see, young girls need to see that no doors are closed, that it is possible on your merits to go all the way to the top in your country.

Are you in favour of quotas for women in legislatures?

If nothing else works, quotas should be tried. New Zealand go to that place by allowing proportional representation which forced parties to have more women candidates. Otherwise there are no women.

In many countries women in power haven’t necessarily translated to more empowerment for women. I’m speaking about violence against women, which also comes back to the earlier point of inequality. In particular the UN has singled out India on separate cases of rape, like the case in UP last year, or the Nirbhaya case. Is India of particular concern to the UN, as it is quite unprecedented to see the stand taken? 

Globally violence against women is of great concern, and it does feature as the issue that has to be tackled in the SDGs. The lack of security for women is a blot , and is a global issue. No one country, but all countries. The PM of this country went to parliament to say the safety of women is a priority. So I wouldn’t question the commitment, but we need to make it the goal.

According to you what is the first step towards that goal?

Firstly, recognising domestic violence as an assault on women, everywhere. Unfortunately we are not on that page with every country. In New Zealand, we passed the first domestic violence act in 1982. We need to make it a specific law with a specific purpose in order for people to take it seriously. Because when it is domestic violence, the police and everyone else takes it as no business of theirs, something within the home otherwise. An assault on women at home is never something “within the family”. It is a crime. It has to be recognised and dealt with. More positively you have to change the mentality of people towards young girls and women. No impunity. Secondly assaults against women like rape and sexual assault in the home have to be treated as crimes. It hasn’t been easy to get other countries on board with this. When a woman goes to court and says she has been raped, she is the victim, but then she is victimised further, as lawyers go into their whole history. So it needs a very progressive judiciary to ask, did this occur with her consent or not. It is a struggle.

You are mentioning the attitude of the police, and of the need to criminalise domestic violence, but in India at present there is a controversy, because the Minister of Women and Child Welfare has said in parliament that it Marital rape cannot be criminalised in our country, because of our cultural attitudes towards marriage…what would you say to that?

Its pretty clear in the circles I move in at the UN that rape is rape. The issue is the consent of the women, and if it isn’t there, it is rape.

Is it important then those leaders of the country see it that way in order to conform to the SDGs they have signed on to?

Each country needs to look at its laws in the light of what the SDGs say, and whether these laws take women forward or take them back. I don’t have anything to say on any particular individual, but it is clear to me that the critical issue is one of consent.

Does violence against women impact a country’s growth then?

To the extent that it harms a woman’s capacity to be independent, to control their own destiny, be empowered. A woman who suffers abuse is a victim; it impacts their self esteem. Gender-based violence is a blight on society, let alone on the woman.