Women and girls key to meeting the challenges of sustainable development in the Pacific and worldwide

Date: Thursday, August 30, 2012

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

I am very happy to be here today with you in Rarotonga. I would like to thank at the outset the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Cook Islands, our chair, for hosting us today.

It is a real pleasure for me to be representing the Secretary General at the 43rd Pacific Islands Forum Meeting and to have a chance to discuss with all of you how women's empowerment can help meet pressing challenges faced by Pacific countries.

First, let me say, gender issues do not happen in a vacuum and cannot be discussed separately from other issues such as the the global economic crisis, the food crisis, the role of remittances in the islands, the problem of youth and employment, climate change, or for that matter sustainable development which is the focus of today's meeting.

We have come to a point that I hoped I would never see: a real and dangerous threat to the Earth's natural systems on which we, as humans, and our civilizations rely. As I recently emphasized in Rio, we simply cannot continue on our current path of rising inequality, unstable economy and environmental decline.

Since 1992, global economic growth has soared 75 percent. And now comes the BUT: more than one in four people still lives in extreme poverty; two-thirds of natural resources vital to humankind are declining; by 2030, the world will need 50 percent more food, 45 percent more energy and 30 percent more water; and rising sea levels and climate change pose an unprecedented threat to humanity.

You, in the Pacific countries know these risks and challenges better than most as they are part of your immediate reality which is already complicated by many factors that are unique to the region as that of distance, associated costs in providing basic services, pressure on limited land, etc.

My proposition for you today is that women and girls are key to meeting the many challenges of sustainable development, here in the Pacific, as in the rest of the world. Sustainable development requires women's rights, equal opportunities and women's full participation. Or, as I like to say in a few words: a world in balance requires gender equality.

This is something that Pacific leaders have actually recognized. The Pacific Plan, endorsed by Leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in 2005, explicitly cites gender equality as a key element in achieving sustainable development. This is, as importantly, something that world leaders have recognized in Rio and that we need today to put into action.

Everywhere I have travelled in the world, I have met resilient and dynamic women who use their ingenuity, their entrepreneurship talent and their knowledge to create wealth, reduce poverty and transform their families, their communities and their societies with very little resources.

We need to empower these women as a matter of priority.

Women's knowledge and experience from working with the land and local environment makes their input invaluable to any resource management strategy. As providers of food, water and other means of survival, women possess the experience and familiarity with these resources that provide invaluable insights into sustainable practices.

Women, in particular those in indigenous communities and rural areas, have developed ways to both benefit from their surroundings and adapt to changes. There is no chance for ecosystem-based management without the input of women. And just as importantly, they stand the most to lose as biodiversity continues to decrease and environmental priorities are neglected for short-term economic gain.

Today women in developing countries make up 43 percent of agricultural workers, but can't get equal access to land, credit or new technologies. This is a problem all too well known in the Pacific region. While many countries are traditionally matrilineal, modern land use policies largely disregard women's traditional relationship to the land.

The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates however that giving women the same access as men to fertilizers, seeds, tools and other types of agriculture support would raise agricultural output and result in 100 to 150 million fewer hungry people. Is this something that we can really afford not to do?

Today millions of mostly rural women still cook over smoky, polluting stoves. As a result, two million people die each year from respiratory ailments; 85 percent are women and children. This is not sustainable. Women need clean energy.

Initiatives in Kiribati and Tokelau to introduce solar energy into households, as well as in Fiji, Tonga and Tuvalu to establish total energy independence have major consequences for women. The transition to solar means increased safety, as well as time and money saved in procuring sources of heat and energy.

I call therefore upon you today and upon the Leaders of the Pacific Island Forum to take urgent action, just as I did in Rio a few months ago.

Action so that the right to sexual and reproductive health is turned into reliable information and quality, affordable and accessible health services where they are needed.

Action so that decent work and equal pay are turned into jobs that protect workers' rights, including the rights of women.

Action so that violence against women and girls is turned into new attitudes that promote zero tolerance for these crimes and zero impunity.

Action so that leadership that is today monopolized by men is turned into equal opportunities and equal participation by women and men. Diversity makes for more sound and responsive decision-making.

Action so that climate change and environmental decline are turned into the urgent priorities that they are and dealt with in an intelligent, cooperative and urgent manner.

Action so that women and men enjoy equal rights, opportunity and participation.

I thank you.