Gender Equality and Women’s Human Rights: Unfinished Business

A speech by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the “Women’s Human Rights Forum: 20 years of the Beijing Platform for Action for Women” side event to the Nordiskt Forum on 15 June, 2014, in Malmö, Sweden.

Date: Monday, June 16, 2014

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Distinguished members of the Panel, colleagues, friends,

I am pleased to be here today at this event, and to see so many of you here to commemorate 20 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

This meeting marks the first in a series focused on the 12 critical areas of concern of the Beijing Platform for Action.

These events will take place across the globe in partnership with Member States, the UN System, civil society organizations and the private sector, at global, regional and country levels.

Our goal is seize this historic opportunity and re-energize the spirit of Beijing to advance women’s rights, women’s empowerment and gender equality. We must not take baby steps. We need big leaps forward!

In the past 20 years, we have seen progress at the international and national level to promote and protect women’s human rights and full and equal participation.

Twenty years ago, just 12 per cent of parliamentarians were women. Today 22 per cent of MPs are women.

Twenty years ago, 40 per cent of women were engaged in wage and salaried employment. Today 48 per cent of women worldwide are being paid wages and salaries.

Twenty years ago, 15 per cent of young women were enrolled in college level education compared to 25 per cent today. There are now more women than men enrolled in universities, and this trend started in the 1990s.

Globally, 139 constitutions include guarantees on gender equality; 125 countries outlaw domestic violence; at least 117 countries have equal pay laws, and 117 outlaw sexual harassment in the workplace.

Women have equal rights to own property in 115 countries. In 93 countries, women have equal inheritance rights. And yet discrimination against women continues in law and in practice.

Even though nearly every country has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, discriminatory laws and gaps remain in constitutional and legislative provisions.

Inequality in the law exists in all regions of the world and in all legal traditions.

Fifteen years ago at the Beijing+5 review, the year 2005 was set as the target date for the revocation of laws that discriminate against women.

This deadline has come and gone and we must make it a priority now to remove and amend all laws that discriminate on against women and girls.

A World Bank study last year of 143 economies found that 128 countries still have at least one legal difference in how men and women are treated, which constrains women’s economic opportunities. These barriers include laws that make it impossible for a woman to independently obtain an ID card, own or use property, access credit or get a job.

And women themselves continue to lack awareness of their rights, and particular groups of women, such as migrant or indigenous women, remain especially marginalized.

Even when new legislation has been passed for women’s rights, a wide gap often exists between the law and its enforcement.

And stereotypical attitudes continue to constrain women’s opportunities and choices. Crimes of violence against women continue at alarming rates – and far too often with impunity.

As we meet today, violence against women and girls is one of the most pervasive human rights violations.

Recent global figures indicate that one in three women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in her lifetime.

In some countries, this figure is as high as 7 in 10 women.

And still, in at least 10 States, customary laws on marriage, family and property rights are not subject to constitutional provisions on equality and non-discrimination.

In 50 countries, the minimum legal age of marriage is lower for females, exposing girls to the risks of early marriage.

The restrictions faced by women, the objectification, the silencing, the exploitation and oppression prevent women from exercising their fundamental human rights.

Gender equality and women’s human rights remain unfinished business. So how can we as an international community overcome the challenges to the realization of women’s human rights?

How can we as individuals do our part to advance women’s rights and gender equality? As I said before, Instead of baby steps, we need to take big leaps forward.

We need new approaches that make transforming gender relations an integral part of all that we do.

My message to you today is that we have never had a better opportunity.

This year, the United Nations will assess progress on implementation of the Platform for Action, based on national reports currently being prepared by Member States.

At the same time, the nations of the world are coming together to accelerate the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and to define a new post-2015 global development framework.

As we meet, the Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals is currently in the final stage of its work.

The Co-chairs are leading a process of defining goals and targets for the 16 focus areas.

According to the most recent text of the Co-Chairs of the Open Working Group, the proposed goal 5 is to attain gender equality, empower women and girls everywhere by the year 2030. 

The 11 targets are to: 

1. End all forms of discrimination against women and girls
2. Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in public and private spaces
3. Eliminate all harmful practices, including child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilations
4. Ensure equal access to quality education and eliminate gender disparities at all levels of education and training
5. Ensure women’s equal access to full and productive employment and decent work, and equal pay for work of equal value
6. Reduce and redistribute unpaid care and domestic work through shared responsibility
7. Ensure women’s equal access to, control and ownership of assets and natural and other productive resources, as well as non-discriminatory access to essential services and infrastructure, including financial services and ICT
8. Ensure full, equal and effective participation and leadership of women at all levels of decision-making in the public and private spheres
9. Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD)
10. Promote the availability of gender-disaggregated data to improve gender equality policies, including gender-responsive budgeting
11. Fully engage men and boys in efforts to promote and achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls

My friends, this goal and these targets have yet to be finalized. We must keep pushing and we must do more. As we meet, debate continues about the inclusion of language on the realization of the human rights of women and girls.

We must stand strong on human rights for women and girls as this was an omission in the MDGs, which we must now rectify.

The post-2015 development framework must be human rights based. And it must be universal and inclusive. We must place the human rights of women and girls at the centre of our work, and at the centre of the global agenda.

Every woman and girl should be able to claim her rights, including sexual and reproductive rights.

It is critical that legislation and policies be backed by adequate resources, and be fully enforced and implemented. This includes the establishment of accountability mechanisms.

We must rethink the approach to education in order to transform educational curricula to eliminate stereotypical presentations and discrimination against women and promote women’s human rights.

We must engage the media as partners in promoting gender equality. We must stand up for the SHE Imperative:

S is safety and security from violence.
He is human rights, and
E is for equality!

I also call on every man and boy to join the HeForShe movement.

Lastly, I would also like to emphasize that the international community must also ensure that those who promote and protect human rights are safe.

I have recently traveled to Nigeria, to Rwanda, and to the Central African Republic, and I want to acknowledge the commitment and courage of women human rights defenders in those countries and around the world.

These women, like my fellow panelists here today, overcome great challenges to establish and defend women’s human rights: the right to vote, to hold property, to get an education, and to live free of violence.

During their work, some face violence themselves, discrimination, and even death.

They are attacked by those who consider them to be challenging traditional notions of family and gender roles in society.

It is crucial that the work of women human rights defenders is recognized as not only legitimate but as essential – at the highest levels of national and international governance.

Their example – on the front lines of our struggle – must be instructive as we work to lock down and implement a people-centred, transformative development framework, with human rights at its core.

Only then can we ensure real progress for all women and men and girls and boys.

I am looking forward to hearing and sharing ideas on how we can work together towards an equal society where women enjoy full human rights.

I thank you.

See here for more information on this event and the Beijing+20 campaign