Empowering Women Worldwide

Date: 28 Apr 2011

Speech delivered by Ms. Michelle Bachelet, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women at the Women's Foreign Policy Group Luncheon, New York, on 28th April 2011.

[Check against delivery.]

Thank you. It is a great pleasure for me to be here. I realize that all of you will have much to say about women's empowerment and women's leadership, based on your experience in different walks of life — whether the academy, the corporate sector or international relations.

I do not need to tell you therefore that in all walks of life, women's empowerment requires overcoming a number of hurdles — including the gender stereotypes that relegate disproportionate responsibility for household caregiving to women, the risk of violence in public places, inadequate training and education to compete for good jobs or access global markets — and in poor households and communities especially, inability to think beyond daily survival needs.

In developing our new Strategic Plan, UN Women has identified women's economic empowerment and women's political participation and leadership as two of our five inter-related thematic priorities — together with ending violence against women and girls and engaging women fully in peace and post-conflict processes and in national development planning. In my remarks today, I will focus primarily on political empowerment, looking at women's representation at different levels as well as in democratic transitions and post-conflict situations.

First let me say that increasing the numbers of women in leadership positions is a sign of their empowerment, not a substitute for it. In terms of political participation, for example, election to public office reflects the ability to consult with constituents and develop a set of issues around which to mobilize support; it involves raising funds and in many cases, overcoming hostility, at times even violence. Above all, it reflects determination and the belief that women participation in political leadership is necessary to healthy and sustainable societies.

At the same time, however, there is much that governments can do to provide the conditions needed to create a level playing field — ranging from the elimination of discriminatory legal provisions — in family codes, electoral codes, penal codes etc. — to the provision of a basic level of physical and social security and access to essential services.

One of the proven ways governments can support level the playing field for women is through the adoption of temporary special measures, such as quotas for women's representation. Currently, among the 26 countries in which women's share of seats in parliament has reached at least 30 percent— recognized as the ‘critical mass' needed to take leadership on women's legislative priorities — at least 23 have adopted some form of quota system.

The key factor in adopting such measures is political will. But political will takes many forms. In Chile, for example, where quotas have never been popular, I realized that one thing I could do as president is appoint an equal number of women and men to Cabinet level positions, so I did that right away. While later this had to be reshuffled somewhat, the message was clear: women are qualified for and able to perform at the same level as men.
Recognizing the role of women's time burdens in determining their life choices, my government also provided an extensive network of free education and child-care centres, especially for poor households, so that women could work full-time or participate in community organizations or political parties in the full knowledge that their children were well cared for.

In fact, the reality is that it is difficult to separate economic and political empowerment for women, since they go hand in hand. On the one hand, women are more likely to take on leadership roles if they have some degree of economic autonomy; while on the other hand, greater numbers of women in leadership positions increases their ability to secure policies that advance women's economic empowerment in different sectors.

On both of these counts, however, despite some progress, there is still a long way to go.

Globally, women's representation in national assemblies is just over 19 percent, up from 11 percent in 1995. In the United States, women's share is just 17 percent, despite a record number of women candidates in the mid-term elections. There are only 19 women heads of state or government and women make up only 4 percent of ministerial positions worldwide.

While women's share of paid employment is now 41 percent, the top jobs still go to men; globally only one in five senior managers are women, down from one in four two years ago; in the United States only 15 percent of senior managers are women, while in some countries it is less than 10 percent. This despite the fact that women's increased labour force participation and earnings generate greater economic growth and positively impact health and education outcomes.

The focus on women's national political leadership can often obscure the importance of their leadership at the local level, where decisions are taken that affect women's daily lives. It is at the local level, too, that most women first become politically empowered — largely through participation in civil society organizations, where they organize for services ranging from clean water and sanitation to affordable childcare centers and effective law enforcement.

Local women's community groups also play an important role in supporting women candidates for elected office — and in demanding accountability from those they helped to elect, making sure that their leadership is built upon a solid foundation and in contact with their social base.

One of the most important factors in women's political empowerment is providing spaces for effective engagement with their governments so that they can negotiate for gender equality priorities in legislative processes and planning decisions. This is a major priority in democratic transitions, like those taking place in countries throughout the Arab States region.

In Tunisia and Egypt, for example, women played an active role in the popular protests that led to transitional governments — both on the front lines and as social media mobilizers. They have also been active in calling for the inclusion of gender equality priorities in constitutional and legal reform, citing the need to amend laws to ensure equal property rights, access to employment opportunities and greater political participation. In both countries, however they have been largely excluded from transitional decision-making, at least in the initial stages.

Fortunately, in Egypt, despite some concerns that the 12 percent quota for women's representation in parliament would be revoked, this has been retained in the draft amendments to complementary laws to the constitution announced in March. And in Tunisia, it was announced that the Electoral Council has adopted an electoral law mandating gender parity within the Constituent Assembly that will be elected in July. This Assembly is expected to draft a new constitution, appoint a new interim government, and act as a parliament when needed.

However, the speed of the transition favours already organized groups, particularly in Egypt. Following consultations with a wide range of women's and other civil society organizations, including many grassroots groups, UN Women is supporting women's organizing, bringing different groups together to speak with one voice, and advocating for their meaningful participation in the current transitional processes.

In the lead up to the September election in Egypt, UN Women is supporting civil society and women's rights groups to hold a national women's convention, providing a space for urban and rural women to come together to articulate their demands and develop a platform of gender equality priorities they can present to legislators and the newly emerging political parties.

In both countries, women have also sought capacity building support to enable them to influence governing bodies during the transition and participate in shaping constitutional, legal, social and institutional frameworks. They recognized the need to put in place mechanisms of accountability in order to demand better service provision and the inclusion of women's concerns in public planning and decision-making, including policies for employment and poverty reduction.

Many of these same issues are involved in peace and post-conflict situations. And until the adoption of Security Council resolution 1325, women and women's rights were largely excluded from peace and recovery institutions and decision-making. Resolution 1325 was groundbreaking in this regard, recognizing first that women's experience of war and crisis is different from men's and second, that a nation's women are an untapped resource for building peace.

In the 11 years since its adoption, additional resolutions have gone a long way to address women as victims of conflict, recognizing the responsibility of the international community to prevent and respond to sexual violence in conflict and affirming that there can be no impunity for those who condone or commit such crimes. In terms of women's role as agents and leaders of conflict resolution and peacebuilding, progress has been much less impressive.

Some of you may know that during the first UN General Assembly in 1946, Eleanor Roosevelt insisted that women should have the opportunity to share in the work of peace and reconstruction as they did in war and resistance. Yet 66 years later, the “work of peace is still carried out mostly by men. UN Women researched 24 peace processes since the mid-1990s and found that women averaged fewer than 8 percent of the negotiating teams. And to this day no woman has been appointed as chief mediator of a UN-managed peace process.

In post conflict situations, where women's needs and perspectives can easily be overlooked, it is vital to ensure women's political representation. Electoral quotas are again the most effective way to do this — in such systems, 34 percent of elected representative were women, while in countries without quotas, women were just 12 percent of such representatives.

I am happy to report that the UN Secretary-General's Action Plan for Gender Responsive Peacebuilding, issued last year, and to which the entire UN system has pledged support, includes a number of measures to address these problems. These include a requirement that at least 15 percent of UN expenditure be devoted to gender equality goals, as well as institutional changes to advance women's empowerment through economic recovery and rule of law interventions.

UN Women is working to to increase our presence on the ground in order to respond to calls for support from women's rights groups. A primary goal is to build the political voice and institutional capacity of women's organizations, many of which have been severely damaged during the years of conflict. We are also advocating for the establishment of an international facility to support women's institutional participation, consisting of on-call experts that can work with local women to facilitate their involvement in all official processes.

What we are talking about is not only support for women's engagement in mediation and conflict-resolution, but also for the direct involvement of women and gender-equality specialists in all transitional institutions.

In advancing women's empowerment, attention is also focusing on public spaces, especially in urban areas. While much of this attention has focused on urban violence, it is important to recognize that cities also can offer both women and men new opportunities for autonomy and empowerment, freeing them from gender-specific restrictions on their life choices.

To realize this potential, UN Women and UN HABITAT are partnering to bring public planning, police and other municipal officials together with women's groups in order to make sure streets, neighborhoods and other public places are spaces where women and girls have greater personal safety and security, and the right to enjoy cities and the opportunities they offer. In so doing they can demonstrate how women's expanded access to participation in public and political life can help transform social and public norms about women's roles and contributions to public life.

Ultimately, however, women's empowerment depends on ending all forms of violence against women and girls, including in private homes, schools and workplaces. Here, too, we are seeing some momentum for change, as political and corporate leaders begin to count the costs. In the US, for example, costs resulting from violence against women run an estimated US$5.8 billion a year in extra health and mental health care and lost productivity; in Canada, with a much smaller population and lower health care costs, the total is still US$1.16 billion.

This is a wake-up call — to governments, educators and corporations in all countries. They need to take action to enforce the laws against domestic violence that now exist in over 130 countries, enabling women themselves to bring about change in their own political conditions. In UN Women, they have a committed partner.