The Role of Women in Democratic Transition

Date: Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Remarks by Ms. Lakshmi Puri Deputy Executive Director of UN Women at High Level Human Rights Conference Sakharov Prize Network Public Event “Role of women in democratic transition Panel on “Women's Rights in Times of Change European Parliament. Brussels, Belgium, 23 November 2011.

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I am honored to be part of this Sakharov debate on the “Role of women in democratic transition. I would like to thank the European Parliament for organizing this event and commend all the Sakharov laureates for the impressive work they were and are engaged in. You are an inspiration for all of us.

Women's full participation in national and local politics, in the economy, in academia and the media is fundamental to democracy and essential to the achievement of sustainable development and peace in all contexts — during peace, through conflict and post-conflict, and during political transitions. If a political system neglects women's participation, if it evades accountability for women's rights, it fails half of its citizens. Indeed, true democracy is based on the realization of human rights and gender equality. If one of these falters, so do the others. Weak democracy remains a major barrier to the enjoyment of human rights. Likewise, the failure to respect human rights is an impediment to effective democracy.

Women represent 3.5 billion citizens, yet in many countries they face a wide range of constraints to effective participation — as candidates, voters and elected officials. The consequences of constraints on women's participation are well-known. Women make up less than 10 percent of world leaders. Globally less than one in five members of parliament is a woman. And the 30 percent critical mass mark for women's representation in parliament has been reached or exceeded in only 28 countries. Women have found themselves consistently limited by traditional gender stereotypes regarding women's ability to assume leadership positions. This is unfortunately true even in healthy democracies. These constraints must be removed.

Moreover, true democracy must be based on checks and balances and accountability of institutions that allow women to seek redress when their rights are violated. The judiciary, parliamentary oversight processes, and other institutions must act as guarantors of the rule of law and of women's enjoyment of their human rights. Ensuring that avenues of redress are open to women's needs and protect their rights is a major step towards the realization of equality. We have seen women all over the world use the courts to get justice and obtain decisions that benefit themselves and millions of other women in relation to citizenship, inheritance, sexual harassment and other issues.

Gender equality and women's empowerment are a matter of justice and human rights, but they are also essential for the achievement of all human rights for all, for the development of all societies and for our collective global future. We must ensure that we capitalize on the potential and talents of all citizens, not just of one-half of the population. We need the best leaders we can find to confront our challenges — poverty, hunger, disease, environmental degradation, violence — and many of these leaders are women. Women bring their own insights and perspectives, and this improves decision-making.

Empowering women also makes good economic sense. The World Bank and others have shown that increasing women's access to quality education, good jobs, land and other resources contributes to inclusive growth, sustainable development and long-term prosperity. The most recent FAO report on the State of the World's Agriculture estimates that closing the productivity gap arising from women's unequal access to productive resources would reduce the size of the population who are undernourished by 12 to 17 percent. Empowering women and girls and creating an environment that is conducive to making these rights a reality is a responsibility of the tallest order.

There has been progress and we must continue to build on our successes. In 1911, women were allowed to vote in just two countries in the world. Today, a century later, that right is virtually universal. Currently some 43 countries have adopted some form of election law quotas to increase women's representation in national parliaments. This year, for the first time since the United Nations was founded more than 60 years ago, the general debate of the General Assembly was opened by a woman, President Dilma Roussef, the first woman President of Brazil.

An event was also held during that session with women leaders across the world, including High Representative Catherine Ashton, who all signed on to a joint statement to increase women's political participation and decision-making in all countries. UN Women is committed to this and it supports countries throughout the world to increase women's roles as candidates and voters.

There is now a clear recognition that the realization of gender equality is the responsibility of all of us. This summer, we launched Progress of the World's Women: In Pursuit of Justice, UN Women's first flagship publication, which looked at how countries are strengthening their legal and policy frameworks to advance gender equality. We found:

139 constitutions have guarantees of gender equality; 117 countries have equal pay laws; 173 countries guarantee paid maternity leave;117 countries have laws or policies to ban/forbid sexual harassment in the workplace; 125 countries have laws to outlaw domestic violence; and 115 countries guarantee women's equal property rights.

All countries should follow suit. And of course all these laws must be backed by adequate resources and fully implemented so that women can actually benefit from them.

In the Middle East and North Africa, we are at a decisive moment. We have been impressed and awed by the women and men who are risking their lives for democracy. The Arab Spring has demonstrated to the world that women are prepared and determined to fight for human rights and democracy. They have protested with men for better living conditions, equality, and political systems that are genuinely accountable to the public. They want to remain at the forefront of these political processes that will determine their future and the future of their countries.

It is now critical to ensure full participation of men and women and the integration of women's rights in transitional structures and the reforms undertaken. Women's rights must be part of the foundation of these new beginnings, and not something to be dealt with at a later time. Change comes through working collectively to achieve concrete progress. This will only be possible with the solidarity of both women and men. This solidarity must be built through the sharing of everyday tasks and responsibilities within our homes, in our communities, and in public life.

In Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere, the speed of the transition favors already organized groups. Women's groups require significant strengthening and need our help to be positioned (i.e. properly informed and briefed on opportunities) to engage in political debates. Otherwise, they will lose out to other better-organized groups that may not have gender equality on the top of their agenda.

In Tunisia in April, we celebrated an achievement of the political reformers and women's civil society that had been unthinkable only months earlier: a draft electoral law calling for full parity in the composition of the constituent assembly. However elections on 23 October resulted in low representation in the Constituent Assembly among women.

Before closing, I would like to recall that this coming Friday we will be commemorating the International Day to end Violence against Women. Today 125 countries have specific laws that penalize domestic violence, a remarkable gain from just a decade ago. The UN Security Council now recognizes sexual violence as a deliberate tactic of war. And significant advances in international law have, for the first time, made it possible to prosecute sexual violence crimes during and after conflict.

And yet, globally 603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not yet considered a crime. Feminicide claims far too many women's lives. Over 60 million girls are child brides. Violence against women is one of the most widespread human rights violations yet one of the least prosecuted crimes. Our joint action is needed and I know that many of the Sakharov laureates are engaged to make this happen.

Back to democracy: we have to ensure that democracy become real for all. Governments and international organizations must support the courageous and visionary individuals we salute today. UN Women appreciates and looks forward to the European Parliament's continued commitment to gender equality, human rights and democracy. We look forward to working with all partners, including the Sakharov laureates, on gender equality, human rights and democracy in the world.

Again, congratulations on a successful day to foster the Sakharov network.