RAPAPORT… On the 10th anniversary of International Day of the Girl,
Martin Rapaport speaks with Iris Van der Veken, executive director of the Watch
& Jewellery Initiative 2030, on how we all need to step up and take action
on the United Nations fifth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG).
Martin Rapaport: Why is this day so important?
Iris Van der Veken: This year, we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the
International Day of the Girl. The day focuses on the need to address the
challenges girls face and to promote girls’ empowerment and the fulfilment of
their human rights. In the last 10 years, there has been a significant increase
in attention on gender equality and more opportunities for girls to have their
voices heard on the global stage. Yet, we remain woefully short of where we
need to be to achieve SDG 5 by 2030. Simply put, we are not on track to achieve
gender equality by the end of this decade.
A cascade of crises in recent years – the global
pandemic, violent conflict, accelerating climate change – have caused us
further setbacks toward this goal. These crises have tested and even reversed
progress in expanding women’s rights and opportunities. Women’s participation
in industry and government, their incomes and education gains have all been
There is an urgent need to accelerate progress. I
strongly believe that cooperation, partnerships, and significant investments
are essential to put us back on track.
What is the current status in the world?
The current state of affairs does not look good. Here are
some startling (and personally for me, heart-breaking) facts from a recent
report published by UN Women and the UN Department of Economic and Social
Affairs (UN DESA):
Achieving full gender
equality could take close to 300 years if the current rate of progress
Furthermore, it will take
140 years for women to achieve equal representation in leadership positions in
the workplace, and 40 years for the same to happen in national parliaments.
Globally, women have lost
roughly $800 billion in income due to the pandemic.
By the end of the year,
roughly 383 million women and girls will live in extreme poverty, compared to
368 million men and boys. Many more will have insufficient income to meet basic
needs such as food, clothing, and adequate shelter in most parts of the world.
Only 47% of data required
to track progress on SDG 5 are currently available, rendering women and girls
These are sobering findings
and should, in my opinion, provide us with an even stronger call to action. It
is clear that without action, the erosion of rights of women and girls will
continue. A clear example of this is the current events in Iran, where a
22-year-old woman died in custody of the “morality police”, sparking outrage
and protests in Iran and beyond.
We have a long road ahead and no time to lose. We need to
recover lost ground and re-commit to efforts with renewed zeal and vigor.
Why are you such an activist on gender for our
I was fortunate enough to be raised, mentored, and guided
by several strong and inspiring women in my life. Looking back at my childhood,
my grandmother stands out as a strong female presence – a young widow who
raised three children largely through her grit and resilience, qualities that I
hold in high regard. I have a mom and dad and younger brother that have always
fully empowered me.
First in my family and then in my workplace, it was these
women and men who taught me what I know today about justice, beauty, and the
power of individual expression. It is through them that I have come to believe
in our shared responsibility to act and strive toward a fair and equal world
I am also equally concerned and passionate about our
planet and know that the rapidly accelerating climate crisis affects women and
girls disproportionately. We cannot save the planet from the impending climate
emergency without meaningful advances in women’s rights and gender equality.
There must be a reason we call the planet Mother Earth!
How is our industry doing? What can we do? How?
In the jewelry industry, the case for supporting women’s
empowerment is particularly strong. According to most estimates, women drive
demand for more than 90% of the world’s jewelry. Also, in the rapidly growing
ethical consumer movement, millennial and now Gen Z women and girls are driving
consumer decisions toward products and companies that act consciously and
protect their supply chains.
Women’s roles in jewelry supply chains have been
conditioned by existing gender disparities, skewing them towards lower skilled
activities where they are not fully rewarded or recognized. Also, the focus of
public commitments from companies has been largely related to women in
retail-facing operations and corporate leadership, and less to lower-income
roles in the supply chain. For progress to span the value chain, it is crucial
to expand gender considerations to the entire jewelry supply chain.
The evident complexities in jewelry supply chains and the
fact that large parts of the upstream supply chains involve artisanal
small-scale mining (ASM) make these efforts even more challenging. A
significant portion of these supply chains are located in developing countries
where low wages, poor working conditions and exposure to health and safety
hazards are more prevalent. An estimated 100 million or more people work in or
rely on ASM. The majority of ASM communities are found in sparsely populated,
rural, and often remote regions.
Best practices suggest that development programs in the
ASM sector need to approach gender inequality as a cross-cutting issue. It
should be an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring, and
evaluation of ASM development policies and programs. ASM sector programming
should aim to:
Reduce gender disparities
in the sector by enabling women and girls access to, control over, and benefit
violence in and around mine sites; and
Empower women and girls economically,
socially, and politically
For really meaningful progress, the private and public
sector will need to collaborate and place women and girls at the center of all
aspects of decision making, including through gender-responsive laws, policies,
and budgeting. We need a truly multidimensional and multi-sectoral approach.
That’s why I so strongly believe in partnerships. Within the Watch &
Jewellery Initiative 2030, inclusiveness is a key pillar where we want to make
a real impact. Gender equality is at the heart of this pillar.
How have you personally experienced your career –
being a woman in the industry- challenges? Learnings?
I started in the jewelry industry about 20 years ago. It
was an entirely new environment, coming from a stock market technology company.
I was at a family-owned business, and it gave me the kind of head start that
was essential and immensely empowering at that stage of my career. Based in
Antwerp, I got the chance to visit operational sites in countries as diverse as
South Africa and India, all while raising a five-year old son. The industry was
clearly changing at an accelerated pace.
In hindsight, I feel lucky to have received the equality
of opportunity and mentorship that I received, which is still not a given for
women across so many different industries and organizations. It wouldn’t be a
stretch to say that back then, in the year 2000, the gender ratio in our
industry, especially at higher levels of management was very skewed. I would
visit sites in China and India and see many women working on the manufacturing
floor, but that thinned out, unsurprisingly, as you went up the management
chains. I was brought up with a strong work ethic and a value system that taught
me to push my boundaries. I learnt that the path to real growth was neither
linear nor smooth, and sometimes, despite one’s best efforts, things don’t turn
out as one wants them to.
Today, I find myself becoming increasingly vocal about
inequality and injustice. Like most women, I have had my share of sexism and
have encountered people who don’t share the same principles of gender equality
that I do. However, at every step of my professional and personal growth, I
have also met mentors and role models. Men and women, from both inside the
industry and elsewhere, who continue to inspire and renew my faith in the principles
of human dignity and the transformative power of collective effort.
I am grateful to work currently with such inspiring C-suite
leaders to build our initiative and am committed to continue to be not only be an
activist for gender equality but to work closely with our members and key
stakeholders to find meaningful opportunities that accelerate measurable impact
on this topic.
What is your call for action?
I am calling on our industry leaders and stakeholders to
join forces and ramp up and accelerate efforts to make gender equity a reality
for all. We know that the origins of these challenges are structural and
centuries old. Therefore, we need approaches and solutions that are also
systemic to achieve comprehensive results and long-term effects, i.e., structural,
and cultural transformations. Join our initiative and work closely together to
drive the change that is needed.
Despite the recent setbacks, there is cause for hope. The
world is home to over 1.1 billion girls under the age of 18, and they are
poised to become the largest generation of female leaders, entrepreneurs, and
change-makers the world has ever seen. There are countless examples of women around
the world who are rising, assuming leadership, taking their destiny into their
own hands, inspiring all of us. It is time for us all to stand accountable –
with and for girls – and to invest in a future that believes in their agency,
leadership, and potential.
I will conclude with inspiring words from a young woman,
Malala Yousafzai, who stood up to the insurmountable and daunting challenges
facing her, and now continues to inspire countless women and men around the
“I raise up my voice—not so that I can shout, but so that
those without a voice can be heard. We cannot all succeed when half of us are
To learn more about the Watch and Jewellery Initiative 2030 please visit https://www.wjinitiative2030.org/
Image: Iris Van der Veken. (Watch and Jewellery Initiative 2030)