UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet was honoured with the Newsmaker of the Decade Award at Women’s eNews’ 21 Leaders for the 21st Century Gala, held in New York, 3 May 2011.
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I am especially pleased to be here with so many outstanding leaders, who have brought attention to issues that otherwise might go unnoticed. You offer inspiration to all of us seeking to empower those who are most vulnerable. As the first head of UN Women, I have pledged to champion the rights of women and girls in all of these areas — including ending violence against women and girls and promoting their leadership in all fields.
In creating UN Women, which consolidates four smaller agencies, UN Member States recognized that if advancing gender equality is to accelerate progress on all development goals, they needed to send a signal that gender equality and women’s rights are on a par with other global imperatives, like ending poverty and combatting climate change.
We know that, to bring about change that is needed, we will need to build strong partnerships — with all parts of the UN system as well as with governments, civil society, the private sector, foundations and the media — to enable us to build on the momentum for change.
As I said on my arrival at the UN last year: “The words that we hear at UN conferences — that gender equality and women’s empowerment are goals in their own right and central to all other goals — must be more than a mantra. It must become a lived reality — in all countries.”
Women’s economic empowerment has already caught the interest of key players, including corporations and the media. The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report shows that across 134 countries, greater gender equality correlates positively with GNP per capita. A study of Fortune 500 companies found that those with three or more women board members outperformed others by 53 percent.
This kind of news makes governments pay attention. But economic empowerment is not just about harnessing women to economic growth. Women who earn their own income can also challenge the way household decisions are made and demand the right to be free from violence.
Empowering women economically is therefore a key priority for UN Women — and one on which we will pull the UN system together. We must work together to support women’s economic autonomy, including opportunities for good jobs and asset-building and the extension of social protections to all workers.
Another priority is political participation — a basic prerequisite for women’s empowerment as well as for genuine democracy.
And women are eager to take on this role. Across the Arab region, women who once were not in the public arena are now demanding the right to participate in revitalizing their societies — including running for office and participating in constitutional reform processes.
High on the UN Women agenda is also ending violence against women and girls, which is endemic in all countries. And countries are starting to count costs. In the United States, for example, costs run an estimated US$5.8 billion a year in extra health and mental health care and lost productivity; in Canada, with a smaller population and lower health care costs, the total is still US$1.16 billion.
The costs to women go far beyond these estimates, especially in conflict situations. The blurring of the line between the battlefield and the home in many of today’s conflicts means that civilians are increasingly targeted and subjected to sexual violence and abuse.
Here too there is momentum for change. Rape is now recognized and punished as a war crime or a crime against humanity, depending on the specific circumstances.
But much more is needed, from all of us.
To get the results we know are possible, UN Women needs to strengthen our own capacity and that of our partners, including women’s rights groups — because change is fastest when a whole range of forces are working for the same goal.
Together, we need to find a way to harness our energies, the knowledge and wealth created in countries like this one and channel it to those who are still left out, so that we can make the achievement of women’s rights and gender equality the banner headline of the decade.