Opening remarks of Michelle Bachelet at Africa Business Investors Conference

Date: Thursday, September 27, 2012

Speech by Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women at the Africa Business Investors Conference hosted by the Africa-America Institute. New York, 27 September 2012.

[Check against delivery]

Thank you, Mora, and Kofi Appenteng of the Africa-America Institute for organizing this important conference. And welcome to all of you.

I'm so pleased that Africa's two women leaders received recognition at last night's Gala for their exemplary leadership.

I would like to congratulate the Africa-America Institute for its continued work to strengthen human capacity in Africa. You have worked together with many partners and UN agencies throughout your history. UN Women is particularly delighted to host a joint panel with the Young Women's Christian Association this afternoon on young women entrepreneurs and job creation.

I would now like to take a few minutes to reflect on the question of why- to achieve job creation and economic growth- it is so important to unleash women's potential.

Africa is transforming! During the past decade, Africa has been the second-fastest growing region in the world. Poverty is declining, and the forecast for 2012 is still more GDP growth, at 4.8 per cent, which is higher than all advanced economies.

But Africa is not insulated from the global economic crisis.

Like all regions, Africa needs to build more robust economies that are better able to absorb shocks. Strong economies rely on inclusive growth and rising living standards for all. The encouraging developments we've seen in recent years- increases in jobs, in wages and in opportunities- can now be extended to reach more people. It is time to unleash the full potential of women.

Women want equal rights, equal opportunities and equal participation.

Even though they mainly engage in small and medium sized business, women own only one quarter of such businesses in sub-Saharan Africa. Many women still lack the right to own or inherit land, and their access to bank loans remains limited. Studies show that closing the gap between male and female employment rates can boost GDP in most economies.

Women still work more than men in the informal sector, in jobs that are part-time and more vulnerable. Women earn less worldwide than men for work of equal value. And this gender gap increases as they climb the career ladder. It is time to remove barriers and open opportunities to women.

The African population has a young and rapidly growing workforce. It is expected to expand by 122 million workers between 2010 and 2020. That's 122 million people who can transform the continent over the next few years. If in that 122 million, both men and women can participate as equals in the economy, Africa will enjoy more talent, creativity and growth potential.

Women's economic gains go a long way. They reinvest up to 90 per cent of their income into their children and families. When women hold the purse strings, there is a multiplier effect: it amounts to better health, better education, and improved well-being for families and future generations.

Women worldwide have clearly demonstrated their abilities as innovators, entrepreneurs and contributors to economic growth and recovery. Imagine what women could do if we removed all barriers and inequalities.

We at UN Women believe strongly in the reach of women's economic potential. That's why UN Women has supported microfinance institutions, training for thousands of women in marketing and business management skills, and new policies to support women entrepreneurs in 20 countries throughout Africa.

For countries to take advantage of all their talent, they need to take proactive measures. Equitable policies and laws can make it possible for women to start a business and protect them from discrimination in the workplace.

The whole economy gains momentum when women have access to education and training. And women will be able to participate fully in the workforce if men and women share responsibilities at home such as cooking, cleaning and child care.

Within those 122 million new workers in Africa, there are scores of women entrepreneurs. But they need support to get their businesses started. And when they do, they will create more job opportunities for other women, men and young people.

We can do better for women producers, too: by providing them with solutions, like better access to up-to-date market information and tools and assets that increase their productivity and add value to their products.

Studies show that companies with a higher proportion of women in management and decision making are companies with the best performance. I am a strong proponent of temporary special measures, such as quotas, until there is a level playing field.

We don't need to imagine what the world could be like if women had the chance to realize their economic potential. But governments can't do it alone.

We need the private sector, especially women business leaders. As sponsors and potential employers, private companies can influence national employment policies and set industry-wide standards for gender equality.

That is why UN Women has partnered with the UN Global Compact to promote the Women's Empowerment Principles. These principles offer guidance to the private sector on how to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community. So far more than 400 companies have signed on.

Just the other day, the South African Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities appealed to South African chief executives to follow the lead of those 400 CEOs and take action now to bring more South African women into senior positions in the business world. I encourage you all to do the same.

Together we can increase opportunities, reform laws and policies, and create a culture of equality and shared responsibility between women and men so they can realize their potential.

By opening doors of opportunity to women across Africa, allowing women's entrepreneurial talents to flourish, and developing successful businesses that create jobs that stimulate the economy, we can make economic growth rise even higher.

There is a new image of the young woman in the 21st century: She is well-educated, prepared to take on a steady job with fair pay. She is free to make important decisions, like when and whom she marries, and when and how many children she has. And she's active in her community and in public life.

This is the image of half the young labor force to promote in Africa: women and girls who are counting on a future of economic opportunity, ready to keep Africa growing and moving forward.

I wish you all a successful conference, and I look forward to the outcomes of your discussion and strategies for job creation in Africa. UN Women stands beside you!

Thank you.