Speech by Lakshmi Puri at the High-level Conference on Women’s Leadership in the Sahel

Date: Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Speech by Lakshmi Puri, Acting Head of UN Women, at the High-level Conference on Women’s Leadership in the Sahel, 9 April 2013, Brussels, Belgium

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High Representative Ashton,
Special Envoy Prodi,
Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,
And, most importantly, women leaders and representatives from the Sahel – with whom UN Women is working.

It is my pleasure to join you for this The High-Level Conference on Women’s Leadership in the Sahel region.

This important meeting reflects the strength of the partnership between the European Union and the United Nations, particularly UN Women. And it reflects the strength of our commitment to promoting women’s leadership to ensure lasting peace and security.

I thank the European Union for hosting this conference, particularly High Representative Ashton for being such a stellar champion of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment and a supporter of UN Women.

I thank our brave, inspiring women leaders from the Sahel for travelling a long way to share with us your concerns, insights, and expertise.

We all know that women’s empowerment and leadership can make a major contribution to solving the multiple, interlinked crises in the Sahel region. The courage of the people in the Sahel, and particularly women, living under very difficult circumstances over the last months, is a call for solidarity, responsibility, action and investment.

It will, we hope, signal a paradigm shift in the way all actors address these crises, making women’s participation, leadership and agency a deliberate driver of positive transformation which the Sahel needs.

Dear sisters from the Sahel, I am here, from UN Women, to publicly acknowledge your tireless work and contribution, and also to listen to you so that the UN, and especially UN Women, can better support you and women’s leadership in the region. We heard your messages and will respond as much as we can.

For UN Women, the participation and leadership of women in peacemaking and peacebuilding is a top priority, as is the implementation of the UNSCR 1325 and other resolutions.

We share a vision of a world where men and women have equal rights and opportunities, where women’s security is guaranteed, where women are empowered and where gender equality is both the condition and the outcome of all efforts to advance development, peace and security and human rights.

Since 2000, steps have been taken in the Sahel to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. I commend governments, regional and sub-regional organizations and civil society organizations, women’s networks and inspiring leaders for the progress that has been made in policy frameworks, normative commitments, in women’s leadership and participation in political, social and economic spheres and in addressing Violence against Women.

But as we all know and as you have testified today, women are being disproportionately affected by the crisis in the Sahel and stronger action is needed by all.

Despite the progress made over the last decade, the Sahel faces a number of overlapping crises. These four crises – environmental, security, developmental, and political – have increased human rights violations and deepened gender inequality.

Women are caught up in vicious cycles of chronic poverty, environmental stress and deprivation, denial of their basic rights and different forms of violence are compounded by the overlap of harmful traditional practices, social constructs and religious fundamentalism.

Today and every day is the time to promote and protect the rights of women in the Sahel region.

International law categorically prohibits rape and other forms of sexual violence in conflict. There can be no amnesty for these crimes. And there must be justice for anyone who has been a victim and survivor of these crimes – retributive and reparative justice. Impunity must end.

Whether in refugee camps, as farmers or traders, in rural or urban areas, women’s voices must be heard to help solve the overlapping crisis in the Sahel region.

When women are empowered and can claim their right and access to land, leadership, opportunities and choices, economies grow, food security enhances and prospects improve for current and future generations.

We know from experience that in political transitions and unstable environments, the already-organized political interest groups are most successful at seizing power.

We are here today to turn the tide so that women can testify to what is happening, so that they can organize themselves and be enabled to play a full and equal role in charting the way forward.

Women’s perspectives on tensions in social relations, their awareness of threats to personal, family and community security, are critical elements of stability and conflict prevention and constitute some of the most effective early warning systems.

Ahead of the 2012 presidential election in Senegal, UN Women, along with other international partners, supported a Senegalese Women’s Platform for Peaceful Elections, which set up a “situation room” for conflict prevention and mediation, as well as the coordination of election monitoring using a gender perspective. Since then, this initiative has been replicated in other countries in the region.

Beyond elections, I call for women’s full and equal participation in international and regional meetings and national forums for peacebuilding and decision-making in the Sahel region.

We are here today because we know we can and must do better. We must ensure that women in the Sahel region can enjoy their human rights, to live free of violence and discrimination, to have access to productive resources and essential services and to participate in politics and decision-making.

So let us move forward fully committed to the solutions:

First, women’s visibility and presence in formal and informal peace processes needs to be significantly enhanced – this is a matter of human rights and democratic participation.

Second, the engagement of women from civil society in public-decision making must be supported. Women’s civil society groups must be funded and their self-help groups and cooperatives must be fostered for economic empowerment as well.

Third, women should be supported to engage in peacebuilding processes, such as international contact group meetings and donor conferences.

In this regard, I would like to welcome the decision of Special Envoy Prodi to establish a women’s advisory group to guide his actions. Mr. Prodi, as we discussed, UN Women stands ready for full cooperation in this regard and in supporting the implementation of your mandate.

Fourth, we need to ensure the voices of women are heard and listened to at all levels. It is well established that peace – a peace that extends beyond the simple act of signing a peace agreement – is unsustainable if it is not rooted in justice for, and inclusion of, women. We need affirmative action, quotas and special measures in all areas.

Fifth and finally, we need to ensure that dedicated and sufficient funding for all aspects of crisis prevention and recovery addresses women’s needs and women’s rights. The United Nations has committed that at least 15 per cent of peacebuilding funds are allocated to projects dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment. Any Sahel Fund should be designed to bring concrete benefits to women in the region.

To move forward, UN Women has developed ambitious programmes in the Sahel on economic empowerment, on preventing violence against women, and to increase the political participation and leadership of women and on increasing the participation gender experts in conflict resolution, peacemaking and the transition to peace, democracy and stability, and economic recovery.

In closing, let me stress that UN Women stands beside you, the women from the Sahel. We pledge to work in close partnerships, along with the European Union and the UN family.