Helen Clark: 2015: Speech to Women’s International Forum, "An Important Year for Gender and Development"

Jan 12, 2015

It is a pleasure to address the Women’s International Forum this afternoon. I thank the President of the Forum, Sahar Baassiri Salam, for her kind introduction, and the previous President, Nareumon Sinhaseni , for extending the original invitation to me.

We are at the beginning of a very important year for gender equality and women’s empowerment. This year marks important milestones on two landmark, global agendas on gender equality: the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and the fifteenth anniversary of Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. The UN will review progress on implementing both agendas this year.

As well, in September, the General Assembly is due to adopt a new sustainable development agenda, replacing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which run their course at the end of this year. Gender equality and women’s empowerment will be crucial to achieving this new agenda, as they were for making progress on the MDGs.

These are issues of great personal importance to me. I consider myself fortunate to have been born into the post-war baby boom generation in New Zealand, where the doors of education, health care, and opportunity were wide open to me, and where, as a woman, I was able to pursue a career of my choice, and meet my professional aspirations.

That is not to say that the road was always easy. Having been the first woman elected as Prime Minister of my country, and before that the first to hold the position of Leader of the Opposition, I am very well acquainted with the challenges which women face when entering hitherto male-dominated domains. Making the path to leadership easier for other women across all sectors is a top priority for me.

I believe it is important for women who do reach the top despite the odds to help build an overall environment in which all women can thrive. For me in New Zealand, that meant leading a government which opened up choices for women through policies like free early childhood care and education for twenty hours each week – creating opportunity for children, and also for women to have a genuine choice to enter the paid workforce if they wished; entitlement to paid parental leave when babies were born; expanded annual leave; and more financial support for tertiary education – on average women earn less across their lifetimes than do men, which means that student debt can be particularly burdensome for women. My government tackled that by providing “no interest” student loans for all students who stayed in New Zealand.

In my remarks today, I will comment further on why gender equality and women’s empowerment matter, and highlight progress made and challenges remaining. I will share some examples of how UNDP integrates gender equality and women’s empowerment into its work. I will conclude with a few reflections on the process now underway towards the new, post-2015 sustainable development agenda and the importance of prioritizing gender in that agenda.

Why gender equality matters

Gender equality matters in and of itself. It is a basic human right for women to enjoy full legal equality and equality of opportunity, and for girls born today, in any country, to have the same life prospects as their male counterparts.

But, as Hillary Clinton and others have observed, gender equality is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do. Basic arithmetic tells us that if all members of society are equally empowered to contribute, the sum of their efforts will be far greater than if whole groups, like women, do not enjoy equal opportunity.

As well, investments made in opportunities and services for women and girls are great multipliers of development progress. The benefits to child and maternal health – MDGs 4 and 5, respectively – are very clear. Children born to women with some formal education are more likely to survive to their fifth birthday, receive adequate nutrition, and be immunized and enrolled in school. Access to sexual and reproductive health services enables women to plan their families and expand their opportunities, and it also helps reduce maternal and child mortality.

Access to midwives and/or other skilled birth attendants is crucial to ensuring that women can access sexual and reproductive health services. As Minister of Health in my country 25 years ago, I was responsible for the passage of new legislation providing for the independent and autonomous practice of midwifery. I strongly believe that empowered midwives play a critical role in improving maternal health.

The economic benefits for families and for whole nations of empowering women are clear too. Ensuring that women farmers have equal access to agricultural resources boosts women’s incomes and status, and has a positive impact on a country’s agricultural sectors and food security. According to a report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by twenty to thirty per cent. That could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 to four per cent per annum, and reduce the number of hungry people in the world by twelve to seventeen per cent.

Women in many countries still have unequal access to credit and other financial services, such as savings, digital payment methods, and insurance – all critical inputs to livelihoods. Women with equal rights as basic as being able to own and inherit land and property, access credit, and open bank accounts can play an even greater role in the development of their societies.

UN Member States have affirmed time and time again the importance of gender equality and their commitment to achieving it. Gender equality is affirmed across a number of UN instruments, conventions and decisions, including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and the Millennium Declaration. These agreements provide the foundation for the support which the UN system provides to countries on achieving gender equality and empowering women.

Progress and challenges on gender equality

So how is the world doing on its commitments to gender equality?

There has been progress in some important areas, but it is slow and uneven.

On average around the world, gender parity in primary education has been achieved. Most children now enrol in primary schooling, although completion rates and the quality of education are not high across all countries.

While the rate of maternal mortality has dropped in the last two decades, approximately 800 women continue to die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. It is one of the MDG targets on which the least progress has been made – a sad commentary on the priority which tackling these tragedies has had.

Sexual and gender-based violence sadly continues in every country of the world – developed and developing. It has been seen to reach horrific levels where there is war and conflict. Then, in these traumatized and destabilized societies, the war or conflict may not end for women when a peace settlement is reached, with the incidence of rape and other sexual and gender-based violence often remaining high.

More women than ever before are participating in the work force, but generally women earn less than men. Women’s earnings fell short of men’s by 23 per cent from 2008 to 2009. This represented only a small improvement since 1995, when women’s earnings were 26 per cent less than those of men. At this rate, according to the International Labor Organization, it would take 75 years to achieve equal pay for work of equal value.

Around half of all working women have jobs which lack security and benefits. Globally, more women than men have such jobs. The disparity is much larger in certain regions; for example, in North Africa, 23 per cent more women have insecure jobs than do men, and in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, the difference is about fifteen per cent. Following the global financial crisis of 2008, women suffered almost two-thirds of the total job losses - despite the fact that they comprised less than one-third of the actual labor force.

In rich and poor countries alike, women carry a disproportionate burden of unpaid care work – looking after children; caring for elderly, sick, and disabled family members; obtaining and preparing food; and, particularly among poorer, rural households, collecting and carrying water and wood for fuel.

UNDP’s support to gender equality and women’s empowerment

UNDP is very committed to supporting countries to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment, and we do so in a number of ways.

Gender equality is integral to our work on democratic governance, a key part of which is to support countries to ensure that women are included in political processes. We do this by partnering with constitutional commissions, governments, parliaments, and civil society. In Tunisia, which adopted a groundbreaking constitutional provision last year on gender equality, UNDP assisted the Constitutional Assembly to engage civil society around a range of constitutional themes, including gender equality.

In Libya, UNDP has been working with partners across political parties who want to advance equal rights for women, and has supported them to articulate what they would like to see included in the new constitution. Issues like citizenship being able to be inherited equally from mothers and fathers, and the upholding of international conventions and human rights mechanisms protecting women’s rights, are being raised by our Libyan partners. We have supported many other countries to legislate for and implement the international commitments on women’s rights which they have made.

Addressing gender-based violence has been a particular feature of our work – we have supported more than one hundred projects around the world in this area with total funding exceeding USD$300 million. As well as supporting the drafting and adoption of laws on gender-based violence, we support their implementation by working closely with police officers, judges, court administrators, and civil society. I received very positive feedback on this aspect of our work in Iraq from women’s organizations when I visited there.

Another practical example: in Sierra Leone we have supported regular sittings of 'Saturday Courts', which managed to eliminate a backlog of cases on sexual and gender-based violence, ensuring more speedy delivery of justice for survivors.

As the fifteenth anniversary of Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security is marked this year, UNDP, along with other UN agencies, is taking a fresh look at how we support women to participate fully in building peace and security, and in helping their countries recover from crises.

Around the world, UNDP has worked to promote women’s participation in peace processes. For example, we have supported the networking of over two thousand women community leaders across the Asia Pacific region who are actively engaged in mediation processes in their localities. We host an annual award celebration to recognize these women in partnership with N-Peace, a multi-country network of peace advocates in Asia which supports women’s leadership for conflict prevention, resolution, and peacebuilding.

While the proportion of women in national parliaments has grown, women still comprise only 21.9 per cent of the world’s parliamentarians – a level well below parity. In some regions, the average is much lower, and some countries still have no elected women members of Parliament.

Time and again, we have seen how a critical mass of women decision-makers makes a difference in bringing forward issues which previously went unaddressed. In 2006, Rwanda passed a far-reaching law to combat gender-based violence – I am sure it is no coincidence that Rwanda had the highest proportion of women parliamentarians in the world at that time at 49 per cent. Today, the proportion of women parliamentarians is even higher at 63.8 per cent – and is still the highest in the world.

Making progress for women can be accelerated when women have that critical mass of seats at decision-making tables. Where women are out of sight, they are out of mind. In my own experience, those women participants also need to be determined to make a difference for women. At UNDP, we support women’s leadership and participation, particularly in political institutions and public administration.

In El Salvador, UNDP supported the women’s group in Parliament to design a quota law which required a minimum of thirty per cent of seats to go to women. The law was subsequently adopted two years ago. We have worked on legislation for parliamentary quotas in a number of other countries too.

We also work in practical ways around the world to support women’s economic empowerment, and to ensure that women can take advantage of programmes for micro-entrepreneurs. In The Gambia, for example, we supported co-operatives of women who harvest oysters and cockles. Through the co-operatives women learn about the sustainable management of these fisheries and have been able to boost their incomes. From Colombia to Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Egypt, and beyond, I read of initiatives we are involved with to ensure that women have the skills and knowledge to lift their incomes.

Prospects for gender in the post-2015 sustainable development agenda

2015 is a big year for global development – and it must be a big year for gender equality, too. The current global development agenda – the MDGs – will come to an end, and it is hoped that at the General Assembly a new sustainable development agenda will be adopted in September.

The emerging post-2015 agenda can be bolder and transformational. There is broad agreement that it should be a universal agenda – applying to all countries. This recognizes that development is not just something which happens somewhere else to other people. Developed countries have substantial development challenges too, as I know well from leading one for nine years. This new development agenda must be bold and transformational for women too.

Since late 2012, UNDP and the broader UN development system have reached out to the world’s citizens for input into the post-2015 agenda, supporting large-scale consultations through 88 national dialogues, eleven major thematic consultations, including one on inequalities, and an ambitious social media platform.

The worldwide survey, MY World, has had an especially wide reach: so far more than seven million people, about half of whom are women, have participated by voting on their priorities for the new agenda. Over 2.2 million people put “equality between men and women” in their top six priorities –alongside better education, health care, jobs honest and responsive government, and affordable and nutritious food.

The Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, consisting of seventy governments and drawing on technical inputs from the UN system and civil society, has proposed seventeen goals and 169 targets. The proposal builds on the legacy of the MDGs with goals on poverty and hunger eradication, health, education, gender equality, and environment, but also broadens the scope with goals on infrastructure, energy, peaceful and inclusive societies, and reductions in inequalities. The agenda would be applicable to all countries, and aims to shift the world towards sustainable consumption and production.

The UN Secretary General’s recent Post-2015 Synthesis Report, “The Road to Dignity by 2030,” welcomes the Open Working Group’s proposal and provides an integrated set of six essential elements to help frame and reinforce the sustainable development agenda. These six elements are dignity, people, prosperity, planet, justice, and partnership.

The post-2015 agenda is an enormous opportunity to finish the unfinished business of the MDGs and accelerate inclusive and sustainable development for all – girls and boys, women and men. Through our support to Member States and their partners, UNDP is committed to doing its part to deliver on an ambitious agenda which will improve the lives of people everywhere.

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