UN Women and Lakshmi Puri are amplifying voices of the women’s movement and leading a worldwide quest for equality and empowerment.
Since 2010, Lakshmi has traveled the world to speak for women who cannot speak for themselves, turning obstacles of social progress into opportunities for global change. Tackling universal issues like poverty, violence and unemployment head-on is all in a day’s work for UN Women’s Acting Head, but Lakshmi’s remarkable career and inspiring story still carry a meaningful message for the everyday woman. This month, Lakshmi Puri spoke with Dress for Success about how economic independence is more than a personal goal—it’s a global movement—and why sometimes standing on your own two feet means leaning on others for guidance and support.
Named after the Hindu goddess of prosperity, Lakshmi grew up in an Indian culture that worshipped women in the temple, but turned a blind eye to their poverty in the streets. “Particularly in Asian cultures, there are contradictions in the way women are regarded. On the one hand, there is a deification of women as powerful goddesses. But, at the same time, religion, culture and tradition are interpreted to strengthen patriarchy.”
Lakshmi knew she was destined for more than a life of dependency on a man, setting her heart on self-sufficiency from an early age. Soon, the freedom of her nation became the independence of her people and Lakshmi witnessed a momentous era of progress for women first-hand. “I belonged to a generation of women who, after the independence of India, went into the professions with a completely different perspective on gender equality and women’s empowerment.”
For Lakshmi, pursuing a professional career meant embarking on a journey to independence on the road less traveled. So, she looked for direction from the greatest support network of all—her family. “My family was very empowering. We were all girls, three sisters, and each one of us chose a different career path, but my father and mother were both very clear that we should have a life, identity and career of our own.”
By the age of 21, Lakshmi’s strong family foundation had helped her childhood dreams evolve into a flourishing career as she began working with the diplomatic service. And when the opportunity to work with the UN came along, Lakshmi jumped at the chance and joined the Indian delegation to the Commission on Human Rights in 1981. Finally, in 2002, the hardworking diplomat joined the UN as an international civil servant and climbed the professional ladder to become Assistant Secretary General and one of the most influential women in the world.
But even though Lakshmi’s career took off with an international leap, she still packed her small town values in the pocket of her power suit before she left the ground. Lakshmi was determined to help women around the world pull themselves up by lending them a helping hand and, in the last three years, she’s been working around the clock so that one day all young girls will have the resources to turn their most challenging barriers into windows of opportunity for success.
“My work with the UN really shaped my whole perspective on the gender equality issue globally. Advocating for women’s empowerment is a big challenge, but also a big opportunity. We have made great gains, but there is still much to do, especially in ending violence against women. We at UN Women are addressing all of these issues.”
And no one knows women’s issues like Lakshmi. The meaning of independence may change across cultures, but women in every corner of the Earth need guidance and encouragement to thrive in life. If there’s one thing Lakshmi’s learned throughout her world travels, it’s that there are certain freedoms that all women simply cannot live without.
“As I travel from Africa to Asia to Latin America and the West, I find that there are basic rights all women want and need– the right to live a life free from violence, the right to an education, the right to be able to choose how many children they bear and educate those children, the right to see a doctor. All of these rights are common aspirations for women everywhere.”
Just as Dress for Success believes in women helping women, Lakshmi believes in bringing people together to build a structure of support for their empowerment. Just last March, at the Commission on the Status of Women, governments adopted a historic agreement on ending violence against women. With the support of UN Women and thousands of civil society members, local voices were brought to an international level.
Now, Lakshmi wants every woman’s voice to be heard in the fight for a brighter and more prosperous future for generations to come. So, where do you fit in? Just remember those two magical words: economic independence. As a Dress for Success supporter, you’ve probably heard us say this phrase a thousand times—truth is, it’s become as much a part of our slogan as our beloved “Going Places. Going Strong.”—but what you didn’t know is that this powerful word set has become the motto of organizations the world over, including UN Women.
“Economic independence is key, and it’s all about access to resources – natural, productive, financial, skill-building, and social—and essential services like health, education, transportation and decent work. Economic empowerment for women is essential to their ability to resist violence, benefit from education, pursue further skill development and training, participate in politics and become leaders in the corporate sector.”
So, what’s next for Lakshmi and UN Women? With the next generation of anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals to work towards for the next several years and plenty of hurdles still left to clear on the track to success, their work is far from over. “We hope through Dress for Success that we can send a message to women and men who want to support women and girls’ empowerment around the world.”
Lakshmi may lead UN women on a global scale, but she still knows a thing or two about individual success. Here are three tips inspired by Lakshmi’s words of wisdom to help you get your career off the ground.
1. Know what you want, and go after it! Lakshmi thought she wanted to be a doctor, but sidetracked into humanities and history instead and found her passion for diplomacy. Sometimes our career dreams change, and we can’t be afraid to follow them!
2. Make your voice heard. Lakshmi’s global work teaches us that many women struggle for the right to choose the life they want to live, but they fight to make their voices heard. Don’t let someone else dictate your success.
3. Break the glass ceiling. It’s easier said than done, but it’s important for women to take their careers to new heights with leadership positions and well-paying jobs. Don’t worry, women like Lakshmi have already started to pave the way!