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Opening remarks by Lakshmi Puri on the MDGs, post-2015 development agenda, gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in the Arab region

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Speech by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri, delivered at the League of Arab States, in Cairo, 23 February 2014.

Date: 24 February 2014

It is a great honour and pleasure to join you today on behalf of UN Women for this important meeting.

I would like to express our appreciation to the League of Arab States for its strong partnership and for its leadership in convening these consultations and hosting us today.

Let me thank all of you, Ministers and high-level officials, who have traveled to Cairo from all over the Arab States region today, to take part in this meeting.

I would like to salute my colleague from UN-ESCWA, Samira Attallah, and I thank her for the strong partnership between ESCWA and UN Women.

Today, we will discuss challenges and achievements of the MDGs for women and girls and the way forward, with a focus on laying a strong foundation for gender equality and women’s empowerment to be comprehensively addressed in the post-2015 development agenda and Sustainable Development Goals.

Our meeting today is timely. In two weeks, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)  will meet for its 58th session in New York. This session takes place at a strategic moment. As the global community intensifies efforts to achieve the MDGs, it also formulates a new generation of development goals and a post-2015 development agenda. We are also approaching the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – an anniversary that must give impetus to the full and effective implementation of commitments made nearly 20 years ago. This nexus of interlinked events and processes represent a once in a generation opportunity to position gender equality, women’s rights, and women’s empowerment at the centre  of the sustainable development agenda.

But before we can look forward, we need to look back. And that is what our meeting today, as well as the upcoming session of the CSW, are all about: reflecting on the contributions of the MDGs, how we can accelerate all our efforts to achieve them, and how we can build on lessons learned to shape a new development agenda.

As we all know, the MDGs have made a significant contribution to development and poverty reduction. They have helped make a difference in hundreds of millions of people’s lives – lifting people out of poverty, improving education and health outcomes, as well as enhancing environmental sustainability. And in the Arab States region, there has been significant progress on many fronts, most notably in the area of education.

But as we also know, progress has been uneven both within and between countries. This is true at the global level and particularly evident here in the Arab States region. Inequalities hamper progress on all MDGs. And, in many areas, women – in particular the most vulnerable and disadvantaged women – continue to be excluded from full access to the benefits of development and MDG achievement.

The regional context is marked by tremendous political and social changes, and has important consequences on gender equality outcomes. The large and growing youth population, which is a characteristic of the region, represents both an opportunity and a challenge for the achievement of gender equality and women´s empowerment. In addition, conflict, displacement, rising fundamentalism, conservatism, and entrenched social norms and stereotypes are also some of the other trends in the region that severely impact women and girls.

This is seen, for example, in women’s participation in the labour force, which is the lowest in the world. Gains in gender parity in education   have not translated into more jobs for women. And, while the proportion of male workers in vulnerable employment is relatively low compared to other regions, women mostly work in the informal sector, in lower-paid and less secure jobs.

The low level of women’s political participation is another area of concern. No doubt, there has been progress in recent years. Algeria has reached the critical mass of 30 per cent  of parliamentarians being female and Saudi Arabia welcomed women to the Shura council. But with a regional average of female parliamentarians just above 12 per cent, the region remains far behind the already low global average of 20 per cent.

Progress in reducing maternal mortality has been slow. Access to sexual and reproductive health and the fulfilment  of women’s reproductive rights is an area of great concern, with uneven rates of skilled attendance at birth, antenatal care, and access to family planning both within and between countries. This is also linked to the prevalence of early and forced marriage. In this region, one in seven girls will be married by the time she turns eighteen, and other harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation, continue to infringe on the reproductive rights of women and girls. This situation does not only have a negative impact on maternal health, it also negatively affects child survival, poverty eradication  and other outcomes.

Violence against women and impunity also carry enormous human and economic costs. As elsewhere, violence occurs in private spaces, but also increasingly in public spaces, such as against women participating in social movements. Violence and fear of violence prevent women from exercising their political, social and economic rights.

Violence against women and other forms of gender-based discrimination are often rooted in misinterpretations of history, culture, traditions and religion. This is true globally and particularly visible in the Arab region. Instead, it is essential to leverage the positive power of culture and religion to foster a culture of gender equality and women’s empowerment, dignity, and respect for the human rights of women and girls.

Evidence shows that gender equality has a catalytic effect in achieving all of the MDGs and  on inclusive and progressive human development, good governance, sustained peace and a more harmonious relationship between people and planet – all of which  are at the core of sustainable development and the achievement of human rights. That is why it is so critical that with just over 700 days left, we must do everything possible to accelerate achieving the MDGs with a focus on women and girls.

And beyond that, any new-generation goals adopted as part of the post-2015 agenda must build on the lessons learned from the MDGs, and be anchored in a broader context for the realization of gender equality. It must address multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, and build stronger institutions, governance and accountability to deliver real change for women and girls.

MDG3 has been critical for signaling gender equality as a global priority. However, the targets of the current framework do not address several structural issues. These include for example the disproportionate share of unpaid care work carried out by women and girls, women’s lack of access to assets and productive resources, women’s low participation in decision-making at all levels, women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, and widespread violence against women and girls. We cannot expect to make progress unless we address these underpinning barriers to gender equality, women’s empowerment and women's rights.

Looking forward, the post-2015 advocates for women´s empowerment, including UN Women, believe that a transformative, comprehensive goal that builds on MDG3, together with the comprehensive integration of gender concerns in all goals, targets and indicators, is required. Such a stand-alone goal on gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment must address three critical dimensions:

First, to end all forms of violence for women and girls. Gender equality, women’s empowerment, and sustainable development are simply not possible if we do not end violence and fear of violence against women.

Second, to expand women’s capabilities and access to and control over resources, so that they have full choice and options about how to live their lives. This includes education, knowledge, health and equal access to resources and opportunities, including land, decent work and equal pay for work of equal value. In this region, the returns could be enormous. According to the World Bank, raising women’s participation in the workforce to the same level as men’s could boost GDP by 20 per cent.

Third, to ensure gender equality in the decision-making process, in all sectors – public, private, and household . Increased efforts are needed to ensure women’s equal participation in all spheres – the legislative, the executive and judicial branches of power, in local governments, in corporate boards, in the media, within political parties, and in the household. Again, this is critical in this region where women are not only underrepresented in parliaments, but also in senior positions in the private and public sector.

As we prepare for CSW and for discussions on the Sustainable Development Goals and the post-2015 agenda, we cannot miss this opportunity to establish a framework that ensures that the rights of all – and in particular women and girls – are fully realized. The new development framework should seek to be firstly, transformative, and tackle the structural factors that constrain progress; secondly, universal, applying to all countries regardless of economic status; and thirdly, rights-based, fully aligned with key international instruments such as CEDAW, with gender equality at the centre.

There is already a consensus emerging in discussions of the Open Working Group, including just two weeks ago, that gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment must feature prominently in the post-2015 development agenda. There has been resounding support from Member States for a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment and there have also been calls for gender perspectives to be mainstreamed across the framework.

It is now essential to ensure that existing commitments in the Beijing Platform for Action and CEDAW be adequately reflected as part of the new development agenda. This will ensure the transformative and comprehensive approach we seek.

In this discussion, the Arab region can be an active and positive force for gender equality and women’s empowerment. It must claim its place of leadership in keeping with progress made and the growing recognition of women’s contribution to sustainable development in the region as well as globally.

The next milestone will be the adoption of strong agreed conclusions at the upcoming CSW that address gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment across the MDG framework, and lay a strong foundation for a post-2015 agenda that is truly transformative, universal, and rights-based, with gender equality and women’s empowerment at its heart.

Last week, civil society representatives from the region came together in this room and strongly affirmed these points. We now count on your support and on the leadership of governments.

I look forward to a strong outcome that we can take forward from this regional consultation into the CSW and beyond.

Thank you. Shokran!