Speech delivered by UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet at the Making a Difference for Women Awards Dinner, hosted by the National Council for Research on Women, 28 January 2011.
I am overwhelmed by the warm reception I have had from all of you. Ever since I arrived — almost five months ago — to take the leadership of the new United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women — UN Women — I have been amazed at the outpouring of enthusiasm, friendship, support, and enormous goodwill. Everyone I meet hopes that UN Women will be the beginning of a new era for women’s rights.
And not only for women’s rights, but for the rights of everyone: women and men of all ages, in all groups, and in every country. We must show that a new era for women can also bring about a better world for all.
I am sure that you are inspired, as I have been, by the images of women in countries throughout the Arab region, together with men, calling for a profound transformation. Last Friday at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, three Egyptian women shared their experiences of these events. One of them said that her life will be forever shaped by the moment in Tahrir Square when she realized that “this was a revolution that was owned by everyone, with no boundaries between rich and poor, Muslims and Christians, women and men.” She told us that if UN Women wanted to help, it should be supporting women to play their equal roles in the struggle to create a free and just system — not just for women and girls — but for the whole Egyptian society.
We need to ensure that women’s voices and women leaders are contributing, on an equal basis, to create more equal and just societies in all countries, north and south. Women’s organizing during the past 25 years — through the Cairo conference to advance reproductive rights, to the Beijing World Conference on Women, and many other UN world conferences — generated a truly global agenda for gender equality. Some of the women who called for a UN voice for women back then have been in the frontlines to create UN Women. I am grateful to all of them, and to everyone here for your dedication and commitment. I am determined that UN Women will be the organization you hope it can be.
I also want to say that this is not going to be easy. We can only succeed if we can pull in the vision, ideas, talents and hard work of allies and potential allies, in foundations, academia, in women’s rights and social justice networks, the media and the corporate world.
Our aim is not to take on everything that affects women’s lives, but partner with those already doing good work, so that progress is faster and the impact is much broader. On the basis of what we have heard as priorities from initial consultations among women’s groups, we will bring greater voice and energy to our shared efforts to end violence against women and girls, to empower women economically, to expand women’s political leadership and their participation in national development planning, and to ensure women’s full participation at all peace agreement tables and post-conflict planning processes.
The violation or neglect of women’s rights in all of these areas is directly connected to the underused social and economic potential of fully half the population. To tap this potential, we must open up spaces for women to take political leadership, free women from the fear of gender-based violence, and champion their recognition as economic actors and policymakers. This simply makes sense: evidence shows that where women have access to good education, good jobs, land and other assets, national growth and vitality are enhanced, and we see lower maternal mortality, improved child nutrition, greater food security, and less risk of HIV and AIDS. In addition, where women take on leadership, in numbers, change is more likely. There is a saying in Latin America that when one woman comes into politics, she changes; but when many women come into politics, politics changes. That is the kind of change that UN Women hopes to support.
My own experience has taught me that there is no limit to what women can do — from those who support their families in the hardest of circumstances to those who become ministers of health, foreign affairs, or heads of state or government. Women’s strength, women’s industry, women’s wisdom are humankind’s greatest untapped resource.
I am determined that UN Women will bring new energy to the struggle for gender equality, bringing together men and women from different countries and communities. My vision for UN Women is to be both a political space and a political force — for women’s rights, for gender equality, and for a more just world.