Luiza Carvalho, Regional Director of UN Women for the Americas and the Caribbean

Luiza Carvalho, Regional Director of UN Women for the Americas and the Caribbean

Luiza Carvalho joined UN Women as Regional Director for the Americas & the Caribbean in November 2014. The promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women has been a guiding principle for her entire career in the United Nations system, the public sector and academia.

Luiza Carvalho joined UN Women as Regional Director for the Americas & the Caribbean in November 2014. The promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women has been a guiding principle for her entire career in the United Nations system, the public sector and academia. Throughout her tenure as Regional Director, she has led efforts to position critical issues for Latin America and the Caribbean front and center in global normative forums, including femicide, gender and macroeconomics, women’s entrepreneurship, child marriage and the economy of care, among others. She has also spearheaded the strengthening of regional coordination among Member States, civil society and UN partners ahead of key intergovernmental processes, including CSW. In a challenging donor landscape, she has surpassed resource mobilization targets for the region, invigorating strategic partnerships with a broad range of players, including Governments, traditional donors, the private sector, media and the diversity of women’s organizations and networks.

Before joining UN Women, she served as Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in the Philippines (2012-2014), directing the humanitarian system’s response to two major typhoons, one earthquake and a political siege in a large urban setting affected by conflict. Also, during her tenure in the Philippines, the government signed the Peace Agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front after years of an intense negotiation process in which Ms. Carvalho promoted a gradual involvement of the UN system, from the political negotiations to the design of the Master Development Plan for the conflict-affected region.

Between 2008 and 2012, she was Resident Coordinator of the UN in Costa Rica, where she worked with the government in the formulation of the public safety national policy, ensuring that it incorporated a strong gender perspective. She also led the implementation of joint programs of the United Nations system to accelerate the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals in Costa Rica before the 2015 target, and to support the country's efforts to eliminate the emission of HCFCs for the year 2030. Additionally, she coordinated the support to the Costa Rican government in the formulation of a National Development Plan with a strong perspective on environmental sustainability, local development and gender.

Previously, she was Deputy Resident Representative of UNDP in Venezuela (2005-2008) and Coordinator of the Unit for Sectorial Policies (2002-2005) and Program Officer (1999-2001) of UNDP in Brazil.

Before joining the UN, she worked in the Government of the Federal District of Brazil for over 15 years in the areas of employment and professional training, promoting social development in suburban areas of Brasilia, initially conducting fieldwork and later as Program Supervisor and Advisor for the Planning Department of the Government of the Federal District.

She also accumulates experience as a professor and researcher at the State University of Norte Fluminense (1996-1999) and the University of Brasilia (2000-2003).

Luiza Carvalho holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Essex (UK) and a Master of Planning and Social Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science (UK). She graduated in Management of Public Policies for Employment Generation, from the University of Campinas (Brazil) and Planning and Administration from the University of Brasilia (Brazil).

She is the author of several publications in the areas of employment, gender, female-headed households, social planning and policies.


1. In November 2014 you were appointed Regional Director of UN Women for Latin America, an organization spearheading the United Nations’ work for equal gender rights. Over the course of your professional career you have always advocated on behalf of children and Women.  What are the biggest challenges you have faced so far in this job?

For nearly four years now, we have been seeing considerable progress in Latin America and the Caribbean. But as hurdles are crossed, new challenges spring up before us. We have made important achievements in the legislative arena, driving through laws recognizing femicide in 18 countries and outlawing child marriage in nearly the entire region (except for one country where it has yet to be forbidden), and punishing harassment on the streets. Nevertheless, the laws in the region still fail to provide women with protection over essential issues, such as female land ownership or sexual and reproductive rights. A good example of the changes for women in the region is in the political scenario. In 2014 there were four countries at the same time presided by women. Today there is not a single female president in Latin America.

The good news is that in the Caribbean, women have asserted leadership. Think of Paula-Mae Weekes as the President of Trinidad and Tobago, Dame Sandra Mason as the Governor General of Barbados, Cécile Le Grande as the Governor General of Granada, and Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson as the leader in the Turks and Caicos Islands. At the same time, we have seen more and more women in congressional and local government positions. However, there are still those who speak out against any progress in the rights of women, who oppose granting us sexual and reproductive rights, who are against closing the gender wage gap, or guaranteeing access to land ownership for rural women. Which just goes to show how much work we have yet to do in the region.

2. Goal 5 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals is gender equality and women’s empowerment. What countries in the region can be taken as role models to follow in achieving the goal of gender equality and women’s empowerment? What measures have been most effective?

The region is extremely diverse, but in all countries that are features that have made it possible to push forward the gender equality agenda. The first thing is to acknowledge feminist and women’s movements in civil society in general. We have seen mass mobilization of women of all ages and conditions who are defending their rights, who are demanding security, justice, education and healthcare. The March 8th demonstrations have been historic in cities such as Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Bogotá, Sao Paulo, Río de Janeiro, Mexico City and Lima. In Colombia, the first post-conflict agreements took place with a gendered perspective.

We should also acknowledge the leadership of women in decision-making positions, who have brought women’s empowerment to the forefront of national and international affairs. For example, in Panama, the vice-president, a woman, has become the regional champion of the Equal Pay International Coalition (EPIC), which has triggered a movement to put this issue on the agenda. This year, Argentina will host the G20 meeting and will also lead the W20, a platform to take the gender equality agenda to the G20 countries. We already have 18 countries that have put femicide on their statute books, while local governments in cities such as Quito, Mexico City and Guadalajara, and shortly El Alto, in La Paz, are pushing through integrated public policies to guarantee women’s safety in the urban environment with the support of our Safe Cities program.

19 countries in the region now run surveys looking at time use. These measure the burden of paid and unpaid work done by men and women, and demonstrate the inequality of the division. In response to this, countries such as Uruguay, Costa Rica and Cuba are providing National Care Systems. Brazil is in the vanguard with its intersectionality policies, recognizing that different women need different measures and focusing particular attention on the situation of women of African descent, indigenous and rural women. This makes it possible to bring to life the Agenda 2030 slogan of no one being left behind, a matter at the very heart of UN Women. With the hurricanes in the Caribbean, and the earthquakes in Mexico and Ecuador, we have seen a major transformation in how populations are helped after a natural disaster, because we have incorporated a gender perspective with all the people involved in the prevention, response and post-disaster reconstruction. This has taught the international community a great deal. And I could carry on giving examples from every country, because we live in a very rich, diverse continent, with strong women, but I know your space is limited.

3. Men and boys are key agents of change in the fight for gender equality and women’s rights. That is the thrust of the solidarity campaign HeForShe, launched in September 2014 by UN Women. What progress has this initiative made?

HeForShe is one of UN Women’s core campaigns, and has succeeded in signing up more than 1.3 million individuals throughout the world. And we are particularly happy that Brazil and Mexico are two of the countries with the highest number of people coming onboard. Solidarity from men is critical if gender equality is to be achieved. The campaign has generated commitments from presidents, ministers, businesspeople, academic authorities, sportspeople and celebrities. Above and beyond the commitments that each of these parties has made, HeForShe is making change possible. Although that change is intangible, that does not make it less important. It is a paradigm shift from patriarchal societies to equal societies, because a very important part of this transition takes place at a cultural level. It is visible in how men behave as fathers, how they take responsibility for household tasks, how job descriptions are written using non-sexist language in order to avoid segregation. Sowing the seed of equality needs transformative behavior patterns such as those shown in campaigns like HeForShe.

Furthermore, the media’s reach and influence are essential allies in this task. They must set an example from the home, promoting fair and equal labor practices between men and women, principally ensuring that women have the right to lead decision making. And also encouraging a vision of a world that is possible, by re-programming it so that gender inequality becomes a thing of the past. This is a foreseeable future where women play leading parts, are in charge of their own destinies and lead the development of their communities, of their countries and of a fairer world.

4. What do you think is still left to do in this area?                

There is still so much to do to make solidarity widespread. We often see how forums and workshops about gender equality or women’s empowerment are mainly attended by women, and that state of affairs cannot continue. In the same way, we can no longer continue to see panels entirely made up of men. And that still happens, particularly in spaces of power, in sciences, in technology and in sport. When we see 50/50 parity in all these spaces, we will have made enough progress.

5. The economic empowerment of women is one of UN Women’s working areas. What programs would you highlight of those that have taken place, are ongoing or planned on this issue in Latin America?

In UN Women we have a number of platforms to get both the public and private sectors involved in the challenge of women’s economic empowerment. In a context in which, regionally, there is a 15% wage gap between Latin American women and their male counterparts, the Equal Pay International Coalition (EPIC) is an initiative that we have launched in conjunction with the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) in the region at the beginning of this year, inviting governments, trade union and employers’ organizations and academic institutions to join in to tackle wage equality in all its complexity.

In the private sector we have also achieved very significant progress with the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEP), seven principles that combine guidelines to work towards women’s empowerment in the workplace and in the whole value chain (influencing clients and suppliers) and in the community. Today more than 1,800 companies have signed up to the WEP (including BBVA), and Brazil leads the global ranking in numbers of members. Promoting gender equality from within corporations is not just the right thing to do, it is also the intelligent thing to do, as it has been demonstrated that companies doing so earn themselves social credibility, retain their talent, reduce staff turnover and generate other benefits that improve their productivity.

6. Discriminatory gender laws pose obstacles to women’s economic empowerment. Do you think the regulatory framework needs to be changed to help women’s economic empowerment?

When we talk about discriminatory legislation we are referring to laws or regulations that prevent a group of people from fully exercising their rights. In the past, we used to see cases in which women were not able to vote, study or take remunerated work. Although most of this legislation has been repealed in the region, we still suffer from some discriminatory regulations, particularly in the working, economic and family environments. For example, in several countries, laws still exist forbidding the hiring of women to certain jobs (for example, night-time jobs or those involving manipulation of certain substances). The legislator’s intention may be “to protect”, but nowadays we must have a statute book that protects the safety of both male and female workers without preventing women from choosing certain professions or job positions if they wish.

Furthermore, legislation in our region is still very backward when it comes to rural and indigenous women, those of African descent and LGBTI’s. These people suffer twofold discrimination, especially in the case of indigenous and rural women, which regulatory frameworks must contribute to stamping out.

7. UN Women’s report Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016 states that in Latin America “there are more women than men living below the poverty line and the proportion has grown since 1997″. What do you think are the reasons for this inequality? How can this proportion be reduced, and in the process make a contribution to reducing poverty in the region?

Although the gap between women’s and men’s access to their own incomes has fallen over the last decade, the differences are still considerable. The number of women in the region who currently do not have their own income is double that of men.  We also need to bear in mind that access by women to their own income does not in itself tell us whether they have the capacity to access a reasonable standard of living. In fact, the high percentage of women who, despite having their own income, are in poverty -24%- is much higher than that of men, where it is 10%. This is a reflection of unequal patterns of labor participation and of access to social protection, which are closely linked to another type of poverty, “time poverty”.

Surveys into the use of time in the region have revealed the unequal distribution of paid and non-paid work between women and men. Women work more hours than men in total, but a very small proportion of this time is in remunerated work. This is more pronounced in certain moments of the lifecycle (when they have children or family dependents) and also varies by social class, since families with lower resources cannot afford to pay market rates to obtain help with care. Women’s time poverty is often the reason that employment or training policies fail, since if the work/life balance cannot be struck, there are women who just do not have the option of accessing them.

8. Gender inequality is also present in access to the financial system since, as the World Bank points out, the latest data show that “only 58% of women in the world have a current account, compared to 65% of men”. What recommendations would you make to balance this ratio and increase women’s access to the financial system?                 

This was one of the principal factors highlighted by the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment. The qualitative data also show how institutions providing financial services are unaware of women’s specific needs. As a result, the products they design often fail to be helpful for women. Financial institutions should work on a greater understanding of women and design products that meet their needs. Suppliers of financial services can and must cooperate with consumer protection regulators to ensure fair treatment for women. At UN Women, with the support of the European Union and the Government of Italy, we are starting two programs this year that we hope will contribute to this: one aimed at generating a model to attract private-sector investment on gender-equality issues, and another to improve access to training and services (including financial services) for female entrepreneurs, particularly in rural areas.

9. 60% of the vulnerable entrepreneurs whom the BBVA Microfinance Foundation supports with productive finance are women. How do you see the contribution that microfinance makes as a tool to empower women and contribute to their socio-economic development?

Access to credit, together with other productive resources, is a key component of women’s empowerment. However, if microfinance is going to be an effective tool for women’s socio-economic development, it must be developed within the framework of an integrated approach directed at widening opportunities and rights. The efforts must be complementary and should not be a substitute for trying to transform productive structures and extending the reach of institutional financing mechanisms. We need a set of inclusive financial institutions, such as credit cooperatives, group lending and local development banks, to ensure that credit is accessible to poor women and for the micro-enterprises on which they depend. But this vision has to permeate through the financial system as a whole, as well.

A good number of SMEs are started up by women and they need financial products tailored to their specific reality. We have also seen that in practice women are reliable credit customers: the statistics show that they pay on time and use their resources more responsibly. And this activates the economy in a positive way, driving social development. That is why it is so important for the financial sector to see women as key allies for economic and social development. An essential issue is that of public/private partnerships. The Chilean government, for example, has made a big effort to enable women producers to be included in a major agribusiness register.

10. In recent years it has been widely believed that the private sector can contribute to women’s empowerment and to greater gender equality. How would you rate the progress made by the private sector in Latin America in this area?

The private sector is not only in a position to contribute to the empowerment of women and gender equality, it is a critical player in achieving it. Particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, the private sector is the main source of employment, and is increasingly seeking to recruit better qualified people. At the same time, the trend in the region is for more women than men to graduate from university. However, the data shows that they are still not reaching the highest decision-making jobs. We face a huge challenge there, but I am convinced that it is a question of time, because companies are already noticing the advantages of signing up such well-qualified women and, at the same time, appealing more to the female market, whose purchasing power is also growing. It’s a win-win situation.

11. What do you consider your greatest professional and/or personal achievement?

To have had the opportunity to work at decisive junctures in three of the UN’s areas: peace, development and humanitarian response. Only with this perspective can sustainable development and long-lasting peace be built.

12. If you could send a message to the millions of women entrepreneurs in Latin America, what would it be?                                                              

That we have to know where we want to go if we are to reach key targets; that we have to work using group solutions if our achievements and responses are to have greater scope until we succeed in overcoming the obstacles and barriers we face today. We must have a clear vision and open the channels for dialogue and changes in order to transform our realities.

13. A dream for 2030…

Beating inequality. Our region, Latin America and the Caribbean, is not poor; it is unequal. If we act accordingly to respond to that, we get rid of two problems, poverty and inequality, on a sustained basis.