YWCA – 'An Agenda for Women and Girls for the Decade'


Tackling Gender Inequality on Multiple Fronts:

An Agenda for Women and Girls for the Decade

Speech delivered by UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet at the

World YWCA International Women’s Summit: Women Creating a Safer World,

Geneva, 12 July 2011.

It is a great pleasure to be here today and address this important gathering and join some of the world’s most ardent and articulate defenders of the human rights of women and girls.

I want in particular to thank World YWCA President, Susan Brennan and its General Secretary, Nyarazdzai Gumbonzvanda, for their leadership and to pay a special tribute to the World YWCA for more than a century of extending its vision, support and commitment to women’s rights to nearly every corner of the earth. We cannot build an effective and influential social justice movement for women’s rights without constituencies. And without organizations like the World YWCA, the constituency building aspect of our work, and the mobilization and engagement of millions of capable young women, would be much less impressive.

I am especially pleased to speak about the links between inequality, sexual and reproductive health, and HIV and violence, which you have underlined as critical to the lives of women and young women especially. To address them we need the kind of holistic strategies that can tackle the interwoven aspects of women and girls’ lives simultaneously. Just as few of you would not pursue employment or livelihood options without thinking about health and safety, neither can we support you by looking at one thing at a time.

Indeed it is this very connectedness that contributes to the power of women and girls to change the circumstances in which we live; to stand up for the rights of those who are most excluded everywhere; and to influence decisions that will determine the survival of the planet.

To back up that power we need to supply the evidence that women and girls make a critical difference; we need to develop or encourage a conducive legal and policy environment for change; and we need to support the capacity of women and girls to mobilize and build networks and institutions for social justice. Let me share some thoughts about each of these.

The evidence is mounting that women and girls are the key to the solution of so many of the world’s problems. In my visits to more than 15 countries in the past eight months, and through the large intergovernmental conferences I have participated in, I am reminded that promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment is not solely a plea for justice or human rights. It is both of those things, without question. But, it is also so much more. Where we fail to capitalize on the potential and talents of one-half of the population, we also squander the potential to reduce poverty, hunger, disease, environmental degradation and violence.

This is not just a rallying cry. It is a statement that is increasingly backed by data attesting to the costs of inequality and the wisdom of investing in women and young women; data that is now coming from every direction, from gender equality and women’s rights advocates to private sector companies to mainstream economists.

Let’s start with the costs. Reviews of 35 UN MDG Reports showed that the mortality rate for children of mothers with no education is more than twice that for those with secondary education or higher. The costs of domestic violence to health and lost workplace productivity is also significant; in the US, for instance, it is estimated to reach $5.8 billion each year. Moreover, a study in South Africa, published by the Lancet, found that women who experience intimate partner violence are 11.9 percent more likely to become infected with HIV.

And, while women and girls both experience violence, vulnerabilities are exacerbated for girls as they enter adolescence. Some 150 million girls experience sexual abuse every year. Up to half of all sexual assaults worldwide are against girls under 16 years old. The cost of this to health systems, to communities and to the well being of future generations is beyond calculation.

At the same time, the returns to equalizing opportunities are potentially very high. The most recent FAO report on the State of the World’s Agriculture estimates that closing the productivity gap arising from women’s unequal access to productive resources would reduce the size of the population who are undernourished by 12 to 17 percent. That translates into 100 to 150 million fewer people living in hunger. A McKinsey & Co. Report found that business profitability increases with more women on corporate boards and in top management.

So, the question is “How can power-holders fail to invest in equalizing opportunities when it has the potential to yield such high returns?”

This is a good question, and especially for young people, who are currently being hit by record unemployment due to the world economic crisis, whose opportunities will be most influenced by climate change, whose risks of sexual violence and HIV infection are especially high. Today, about 51 percent of those living with HIV are women. Young women make up more than 60 percent of young people living with HIV, and 72 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, young women aged 15 to 24 in sub-Saharan Africa are as much as eight times more likely than men to be HIV positive. The world can no longer continue to ignore their voices.

Last week, we launched Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice, UN Women’s first flagship publication, which looked at how countries are strengthening their legal and policy frameworks to advance gender equality. Consider this:

  • 139 constitutions have guarantees of gender equality; 117 countries have equal pay laws; 173 countries now guarantee paid maternity leave.
  • More and more countries have legal frameworks to penalize violence against women: 117 have laws or policies to forbid sexual harassment in the workplace. And 125 countries have adopted laws to outlaw domestic violence.

These statistics also suggest however, that in 67 countries women and girls could lack the protection of a domestic violence law; and that in 75 countries they would have no legal claim to equal pay, although globally they average 75 cents for every dollar earned by men. Moreover, access to reproductive health care and planning is never easy, in any country, especially for young women. This is an agenda for this audience to take up.

Where there are laws in place, they need to be enforced — and here is where investment comes in. I am sure that you will hear from my UN colleagues, Margot Wallstrom, the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence and Rashida Manjoo, the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, that innovative actions are emerging everywhere. But you will also hear from them about how impunity for perpetrators and stigma for survivors is still the norm rather than the exception.

There are many reasons why this is so, but one of them is the difficulty women face in getting access to justice. For one thing, it is expensive, and while this is as true for men as for women, the assumption that justice is gender neutral makes it harder for women, and harder still for young women. Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice showed that, of the US$4.2 billion that major bilateral donors spent on justice in 2009, only 5 percent was specifically targeted to increasing women’s access to justice.

I believe that one way we can change these realities is to support women’s leadership, including that of young women. Public participation and leadership is part of women’s empowerment and necessary for genuine democracy. It facilitates women’s direct engagement in public decision-making and helps to strengthen government transparency and accountability.

Women in leadership positions are also powerful role models, as I have seen first-hand. When I was in Finland not long ago, I asked a group of primary school children what they wanted to be when they grew up. To my surprise, none of the boys said they wanted to be President. When I asked them why not, they explained that only women could become president. For most of their young lives a woman had been President of Finland, so it was a woman’s face they saw on television and in the news media, it was just a fact of life.

So we welcome the addition of Ms. Yingluck Shinawatra, who was just elected Thailand’s first woman Prime Minister, to the ranks of women elected heads of state or government, bringing the total to 20. A survey by one newspaper, asking what people in Thailand thought of having a female Prime Minister found that 70 percent saw it as a move in the right direction.

While progress in this area has been slow, women’s representation in elected legislatures in 28 countries now reaches or exceeds 30 percent, widely viewed as the ‘critical mass’ needed to bring about positive change. Of these countries, at least 23 have adopted quotas or other positive action measures, which have been shown to be the fastest way to increase women’s political representation and leadership. Currently some 43 countries have adopted some form of election law quotas to increase women’s representation in national parliaments, so there is hope that we may see faster progress soon.

Women’s leadership extends to other areas of decision-making as well, including as peace negotiators and peacekeepers, and as policy experts on HIV and AIDS. And women are eager to take on such leadership roles, especially in post conflict countries or countries in transition. As we see most recently in countries across the Arab States region, women who once stayed away from the public arena have actively participated in public demonstrations to demand political change and are now insisting on the right to share in reshaping their societies, including running for office and participating in constitutional reform processes. I met with some of these women in Cairo and in Tunis where they came from different parts of their countries to develop a common agenda and speak with one voice.

Without women’s organizing, it is unlikely that the members of Tunisia’s reform commission would have agreed that the elected constitutional assembly, which will draft the country’s new constitution, should be made up of women and men equally. The commission declared there must be “gender parity” on the ballot papers; moreover, party electoral lists must not only include an equal number of men and women, but must alternate between the two — referred to as the “Zebra System.”

Women’s mobilizing and organizing is the key to unlocking women’s power. The organizing of grassroots women for land rights — in Africa, Latin America, Central Asia — of HIV positive women in all regions for access to services and treatment, or of indigenous women everywhere to leadership opportunities in their communities – these and many other examples have required enormous courage and, at times, have met with enormous success.

And without women’s organizing, we would not have the growing number of inspiring initiatives to create Safe Cities for Women and Girls. I pay tribute to Women in Cities International, Women and Habitat Network of Latin America and the Caribbean, the Huairou Commission, and many other supporters of these initiatives, which are now drawing mayors and local councils in more and more cities to increase the voice and safety of women and girls.

Safe Cities initiatives have empowered women through practical and immediate measures, such as better lighting, more hotlines, and safer transport to more long-term results, such as including women at city decision-making tables, and working with men and boys to stop sexual violence and harassment from happening in the first place. Earlier in June, UN Women launched a new partnership with UNICEF and UN-Habitat to support safe city initiatives in about 40 cities over the next three to five years.

And finally, women’s organizing has been pivotal in the very creation of UN Women. I want to underline the fact that it would not have come about without the work of women’s rights advocates, from the North and from the South and including many in government, all of whom united in networks and built alliances to press for the creation of UN Women.

As Executive Director of UN Women, you asked to talk about an agenda for women and girls for the next decade. This year is the 100 year anniversary of International Women’s Day, so it is a good year to renew an agenda that focuses on empowering women and girls, including not only their right to sexual and reproductive health, not only to lives free from violence and HIV, but also their ability to claim these rights, and to make them a reality for all women and girls.

The best way to do this is to empower women and young women, economically and socially. Women of all ages who earn an income of their own are able to challenge power relations in the home and with intimate partners, and demand the freedom to participate in public life. Young women have a reservoir of energy and creativity. They can raise awareness among their peers, be advocates for policy reforms, get crucial information about HIV prevention for example to other young women through word-of-mouth and online networks.

We need to also focus on boys and young men. Childhood and adolescence is where gender identities and attitudes are shaped, often for life. Boys who witness domestic violence or are victims of sexual abuse have a higher chance of repeating the abuse later in life, while most perpetrators will have committed their first acts of gender-based violence as teenagers. So it is important to start working with them. We can engage young men as spokespersons and non-violent role models who can encourage their peers to take responsibility and help stop violent attitudes, by unpacking traditional notions of masculinity and what it mean to be ‘a man’.

We must also prioritize putting women’s rights advocates in leadership positions, as lawmakers and judges, finance ministers and budget advisors, corporate directors and labour leaders, peacekeepers and enforcement officers. I am sure that all of you could add to this list.

Since I have been Executive Director of UN Women I have met with many women and girls, in many different countries. One cannot fail to be energized by them. From the young women in Tahrir Square who inspired us with their creative use of Facebook and Twitter to mobilize calls for a more dynamic and equitable society; to the Liberian market women who were determined to learn to write so that they can sign their ballots for the next election; to the Bangladeshi women police officers in Haiti, and the women who staff the gender desks in police stations in Latin America, and the women in Addis Ababa’s safe home who were able to rebuild their lives.

It is among these women and girls, and others like you, in countries, cities, towns and villages worldwide that the new leaders have come and will continue to come, empowered and committed, they will lead us into a world that is safer, more equitable, and more sustainable.

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