Building Equality with the Support of Civil Society at the Global Level

Date: Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Speech delivered by Michelle Bachelet, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, at a meeting with NGOs in Spain titled “Building Equality with the Support of Civil Society at the Global Level: UN Women Strategic Plan 2012-2013, Madrid, 31 May 2011.

Good afternoon to you all.

A special greeting to Secretary of State Bibiana Aído, to State Counsellor María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, to all decision-makers present, to all of you who represent Spanish civil society, women's associations, ladies and gentlemen.

For me it is a great honour to hold this meeting with such a wide range of representatives from organizations and movements of civil society in Spain who have for years been stalwart in their support of basic human rights such as gender equality and non-discrimination.

I am well aware of the role that you have played and which has, among other things, made it possible for UN Women to become a reality. Together we have sought to ensure that the status of women in the world has attained a more important profile until it has become on a par with the fight against hunger, poverty, and climate change.

The ultimate goal has always been to achieve greater political stature and relevancy when women — and men, who have also worked alongside women — have fought to achieve an institutional framework that would lend greater support to efforts to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women.

And I know that the people who support us today have participated in this undertaking from their various viewpoints and vantage points.

In all the countries that I have visited I have obtained tremendous support from governments but also from civil society. We are allies in this task and for me a good ally is a partner who stands beside you when things are going well but also when things are going badly. Because that is the best way to make adjustments and to move forward.

UN Women was founded after five years of negotiations by a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, consisting of four organizations, these being the United Nations Development Fund (UNIFEM), the Institute for Research and Training for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW), the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) and the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women (OSAGI). Taken into consideration was the fact that, despite all the efforts that the United Nations had made over many years in areas linked to women, progress had been distinctly uneven.

The mission, therefore, of UN Women is to lay the groundwork, together with member states, in order to make progress in the pursuit of gender equality and the empowerment of women.

I want to take advantage of the presence of Inés Alberdi who was the Director of UNIFEM until UN Women was born, as an opportunity to praise her expertise, her performance, and hard work which made it possible to open doors and avenues for women.

And in this expression of appreciation I also of course want to include your work and the work of your communities which has made it possible to take this leap at this particular historical moment, and we have to make the most of this opportunity if we are to move forward.

Nowadays there is political will to achieve decisive headway in efforts to promote equality and equity for women, including in some sectors of the world where prospects for such an outcome would have seemed dim indeed. As a result we have the moral obligation to work with great energy to seize the moment and to harness opportunities for women and girls.

From the beginning we asked ourselves what people expected from our new institution that generated so many expectations and what its core principles should be.

We decided that it was indispensable to consult with civil society regarding perspectives, policies and strategies deemed necessary for our work as UN Women, and we initiated a consultation process throughout the whole world with social organizations and governments.

On the one hand, UN Women has to continue with the task of defining international standards, guaranteeing observance of the Convention against all Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Beijing Platform, among other standards that are generated year after year in the commission on the legal status of women (The Commission on the Legal and Social Status of Women).

But, in tandem with this, UN Women should continue to work on the ground, with women's organizations, supporting governments. And the third mandate that we have — and this is a new development — is to ensure that the totality of the United Nations System provides a better response.

The purpose of UN Women is not only to build on others' achievements but to generate the incentives and synergies that are needed to ensure the success of this initiative. And for me UN Women is going to be successful when the whole system has positioned women at the forefront of the agenda, and has generated policies that undoubtedly have an impact on the life of women and girls and that can give them the importance that befits them.

I am convinced that unless we are capable of empowering women we will not be capable of ensuring equal rights.

It is for this reason that, when faced with the question of what our role is, the answer has been “let us focus; we are not capable of doing everything. There used to be a criticism levelled at women's organizations to the effect that too much was attempted but efforts were spread too thin, and as a result there were stupendous pilot plans in place but no success was achieved in generating lasting, broad-based impact.

And we have a lack of women's voices that could be influential when decisions are made in all their walks of life, and not only in gender issues. And this notable deficiency was even greater in the sphere of politics.

I am sure that for a democracy that is meaningful, strengthened and substantive, politics is central. We should obtain the political empowerment of women through efforts to enhance leadership, and to increase the extent to which the voices of women, their perspectives and proposals are listened to.

We should increase the participation of women in politics: women in local governments, in trades unions, female candidates, parliamentarians, Ministers, Presidents, women in all decision-making forums in politics. And this is the area in which we are behind. We know the figures: 19 percent of MPs are women. Fewer than 10 percent of Heads of State are women. Fewer than 5 percent of the Ministers in the world are women. We fare a bit better on city councils and town halls but this area continues to pose an enormous challenge.

The second central theme of this mandate of UN Women is that without the economic autonomy of women there are no equal rights. When women are economically empowered, they are also on a better footing to confront the whole host of other challenges that exist.

The third challenge is to eradicate violence against women.

The fourth is to take women into account in the agenda for peace and security. It is important to consider how we have prevented violence, rapes in countries in a state of conflict and post-conflict, and how we have drawn on the capacity of women as rebuilders of peace and new countries.

We have advanced a great deal in the decade since Security Council Resolution 1325 which refers to protection and reparations for women. Consciousness has been raised, resolutions have been adopted, and there is decisiveness and determination in the air. Nonetheless, we have still not achieved the empowerment of women, including them at the negotiation table and promoting women's issues in peace agreements.

To carry forward a process of reconciliation or reunification in a country, while overlooking that half of the population that is represented by women, is frankly a difficult task.

Many years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt said that women can have in peacetime the same role they had during wartime — in other words, that they were fighters who fought for peace but later, during peacetime, they disappeared from view. And yet there are extraordinary stories to tell. There are cases in which women have said, “No, this time we shall return!

You will ask yourselves why Roosevelt did not refer to other issues that are just as vital to women, such as education, health, sexual and reproductive rights, migrations, domestic workers etc. We are going to work in these areas as well but there are also other agencies that have such a mandate and UN Women is going to build alliances.

It is obvious that we cannot afford to preach to the choir. On the contrary, we have to work very hard with those who are unconvinced. We have to work with those who already have difficulties in understanding that gender equality is not just a women's question but a prerequisite for achieving societies with greater prosperity, a higher degree of social justice and less inequality.

Democracy is pluralism, diversity and if, in countries that are setting out on a democratic process, women are not an active part from the beginning, these will not be fully democratic societies. UN Women should work to generate societies that are more comprehensive and based on greater solidarity — in short, we must create better societies. And this is not easy because such developments typically call for combating stereotypes and customs, generating cultural changes in customs that are deeply rooted in our communities. A steep learning curve is involved, along with generosity and patience.

And yet we must also stand firm in the defence of our rights.

On other occasions I have said that I do not want to make compromises with injustice, I do not want to make compromises with violence. And there are things that I am not prepared to make compromises about. Because, finally, this is an issue of injustice, an issue of rights, for when we have less discrimination and more equality between genders, our society is better, our quality of life is better, and the welfare state and the creation of wealth benefit accordingly.

If we eliminate gender inequality we then begin to tackle the broad spectrum of inequalities that we have in a society. I implemented this strategy in my country as a matter of policy when I was the President of Chile but not as a sectoral policy but rather as a a cross-cutting policy to be mainstreamed across the board.

This is no easy undertaking. It entails many changes, and cultural shifts in particular, and these are not occurring at the speed that we desire, yet we know that this is the right moment because now it is women's turn.

Making efforts on behalf of women benefits the whole of society. And evidence shows this to be the case, from the political, economic, social and cultural points of view. And, of course, there is research that shows to us the importance of gender equality as a way to strengthen political structures, to enhance social welfare, but also to improve economic and business performance. The World Economic Forum has studies that show to us that in 134 countries greater equality between genders has a positive correlation with the Gross Domestic Product or, in other words, greater equality means better economic growth. The study of companies in the Fortune 500 list shows us that companies that have three or four women on their boards perform 53 percent better than the others. In short, even from the viewpoint of the performance and efficiency of a society, broad-based representation of women is of the utmost importance.

The fact of having women in places of representation does not mean that all women are sensitive to the gender issue. On the contrary, I have come across women who believe that being sensitive to the gender issue weakens their position. Let me be clear about this. I believe that in order for women to be validated and to enjoy credibility as leaders — especially in politics — they have to truly understand and learn about gender issues. Mere talk is insufficient.

In my experience in the world of politics, when I was a member of the Central Committee of my party, I always advocated including the gender perspective and not only in issues strictly linked to women, but by ensuring that each policy component incorporated a gender perspective which we have had to fight for, defend and uphold.

If more women are present in institutions there is better representation, there is greater transparency and there are more systems in place for accountability. From our vantage point at UN Women we are going to work to extend democracy and ensure that political systems truly represent both men and women.

We are at a moment in time when we have to act with energy, on the ground, at the grass-roots level, for the sake of girls and women.

I want to point out that we have a global mandate that we are not going to work only with developing countries. All countries have achievements, challenges and room for improvement in each of these dimensions.

There can be no doubt that Spain is a country that has advanced considerably with regard to equality but challenges do still exist: violence and its victims, the pay gap, the absence of women at the decision-making level in companies, and this despite the fact that some good initiatives do exist; the difficulties involved in striking a balance between family, professional and political life, among others.

And we at UN Women want to work with you in the pursuit of efforts to achieve equality and cooperation; we have formed an Advisory Committee of women in civil society who can tell us how we are progressing, what we should improve, and whether we are reaching the point that we wish to reach. This Advisory Committee will be in a position to give us the benefit of its experience and expertise, to share the capabilities of many women, from the most renowned to grass-roots women who work anonymously every day in order to build their communities, their families, and their societies.

At UN Women we count on you.

Thank you so much.