Empowering Women to Change the World: What Universities and the UN Can Do


Keynote address delivered by UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet at the 5th Global Colloquium of University Presidents, University of Pennsylvania, 5 April 2011.

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President Gutmann, distinguished participants, honoured guests,

It is a pleasure to be invited to give this keynote address on “Empowering Women to Change the World: What Universities and the UN Can Do.

The issue could not be more important. Higher education, once the privilege of the elite, is increasingly within reach of the majority — including women and girls — in all countries. Education at all levels, but higher education especially, gives women options, empowers them to be independent thinkers and agents of change.

Because the world is changing. You cannot look at what is happening in North Africa and not see that countries that rely on promises of “stability — based on unchanging leadership and rigid conceptions of social and gender roles - are no longer sustainable. The frustrated dreams and aspirations of those left out have thrust millions into the streets — women alongside men, demanding opportunities to lead and contribute to the revitalization of their societies and economies.

This is an exciting time for women in all countries. Governments are recognizing they cannot continue to develop and prosper without fully engaging one half of their population. The historic decision by UN member states to create UN Women, consolidating four smaller entities into a larger and better resourced organization, is a clear sign of this. It signals a long-sought recognition that achieving gender equality and women's rights is regarded on a par with other pressing global issues, including ending poverty and hunger, reducing infant and maternal mortality and tackling the problems of climate change.

All of these issues also create challenges. As the impact of the worst economic crisis in the last 40 years continues to be felt, one of the most urgent challenges is to address the chronic poverty and insecurity faced by the majority of the world's women. Another is climate change, which women in many countries, particularly low-income countries, already experience as a daily reality. And a third, as the news headlines from Japan daily remind us, is the need to continue to search for safe, reliable and clean energy sources.

Fundamental to our ability to meet these challenges is a well-educated citizenry. The theme of the UN Commission on the Status of Women this year — access and participation of women and girls to education, training and science and technology — underlined this fact.

The transition from education to work remains fraught with many challenges, particularly in Africa and South Asia, where women lag behind in access to higher education, as well as in those countries — in Europe and elsewhere — where women now equal or surpass men in terms of advanced degrees, but still face barriers to professional employment opportunities.

This is especially true in science and technology, where few women head scientific institutions or large technology companies. Women are also underrepresented in research and development, whether in academia, the public sector or private companies. Globally women average only 29 percent of researchers in any of these fields.

Why is this so? While evidence shows little or no gender difference in performance, people still generally associate men with mathematics and science, and women with the humanities and care-giving fields. These gender stereotypes permeate society, and persist in academia and the media.

It is time to break this cycle. As the Secretary-General's report to the Commission on the Status of Women noted, science, technology and innovation can speed efforts to eradicate poverty, achieve food security, fight diseases, improve the quality of education, increase decent work opportunities and improve environmental sustainability — all critical to address challenges in today's world.

Developing women's competencies and ensuring their equal access to all fields of education will widen the talents and perspectives countries can draw on to meet these challenges, and enable women to compete for new jobs in the growing “green economy on an equal basis with men.

Universities have a major role in making this happen. An Economist survey in 2005 found that while universities are still one of the most important engines of the “knowledge economy, competition is obliging them to rethink their missions, find new ways to mobilize resources, and forge new partnerships. Those that seek to be at the forefront of the global agenda, as this Global Colloquium points out, are also seeking new ways to make their voices heard, create momentum for change, and generate broad-based impacts at all levels.

To a striking degree, these are the same issues and challenges that the UN system is currently grappling with. Certainly it is true for UN Women. As we develop our Strategic Plan for the next three years, we are addressing the same questions. How will “impact, “relevance and “effectiveness be defined and measured? At what level? How can we amplify women's voices and leadership, create momentum for change, and generate broad-based results at all levels?

What we are beginning to understand is that progress must be measured in absolute as well as relative terms. How far have countries come compared to where they started in terms of closing knowledge gaps, including that based on gender?

For example, a recent news report noted that only one African university, the University of Cape Town, is among the world's top-ranked universities. Yet according to UNESCO, there are now 4.5 million students in secondary school in sub-Saharan Africa, up from only 200,000 in 1970 — which is already an amazing achievement in terms of education. How will universities help open doors for these young graduates, giving them the knowledge and skills they will need to get decent jobs in today's world?

How will they make sure that the avenues of social mobility that universities open up are as broad for women as they are for men — both as faculty and as students? How can UN Women, and other UN agencies help?

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan created the Global Colloquium to seek the expertise of scholars on major problems facing the world and to explore how to promote the value that higher education offers to society, not just individuals. One of the major problems today, as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has stated, is increasing inequalities, including those based on gender, that have accompanied economic growth in the last two decades. He has brought this network of university leaders together with UN Women so that we can work together to reduce social and gender inequality and promote women's leadership in all sectors of society.

In the five months since I have been here I have spoken to many people, in UN agencies, in governments, in women's groups and other civil society organizations. The messages I have heard are that UN Women must focus on a few issues, and achieve visible results; we must work in partnership with the UN system, not in competition; we must build on what we have achieved, but at the same time do even better, and we must think outside the box.

To meet these expectations, we intend to work closely with a variety of partners, including governments, civil society, academia and the private sector. We will build on the strengths of the four entities that became UN Women — combining our ability to advance global agreements on gender equality with programmatic support to countries to implement those agreements. But we will also go beyond this and generate support and results that extend far beyond the sum of our parts.

As the first head of this new entity, I am determined that UN Women will be a catalyst for change, offering new energy, generating new ideas, and bringing together men and women from different countries and constituencies to advance the gender equality agenda.

My vision for UN Women is one where women and girls, men and boys have equal opportunities and capabilities — where women are empowered and the principles of gender equality are embedded in all efforts to achieve human rights, peace and security.

UN Women is currently developing a research and action agenda based on our five thematic priorities: 1) women's leadership and participation, 2) ending violence against women and girls, 3) engaging women fully in peace-building processes, 4) enhancing women's economic empowerment, and 5) making gender equality goals central to national development planning.

Each of these priorities entails research and data analysis, particularly at country level, with indicators against which to measure gender gaps and progress in narrowing them — designed to make the case that progress in gender equality benefits society as a whole.

Each of these areas also entails action for results — both in long-term programming and short term support — with quality and impact measured against established criteria. And finally, each requires us to share stories of transformation, demonstrating what is possible when the power of half the world's population is harnessed for economic growth, political vitality and social development.

Take women's leadership and participation. The percentage of women in national legislatures has increased slowly over the past decade, but still averages just over 19 percent — which means that there are still more than five men for every one woman legislator. To address this gap UN Women works to build capacity of women to run for and win elections, including training to help them develop political platforms and mobilize constituencies. The Gender Equality Fund, which UN Women administers, awards substantial financial grants to governments and civil society organizations working to achieve women's political and economic empowerment.

Already we see success stories. In countries as diverse as Albania and Rwanda, Nepal and South Africa, gender equality advocates have partnered with governments and parliaments to put in place positive measures, such as electoral quotas, which have had proven results.

Quotas doubled the number of women parliamentarians in Albania, to over 16 percent. Nepal attained South Asia's highest ever percentage of women legislators — nearly 33 percent, up from 2 percent. And in Rwanda, the adoption of a 30 percent quota resulted in increasing women's representation to over 50 percent of legislative seats.

Or economic empowerment. Women who earn their own income can challenge social gender relations. Their income and earnings can drive the larger economy. The World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Report calculates that for 114 countries for which data is available, advances in gender equality correlate positively with higher GNP. This makes sense: as the World Bank and others have shown, increasing women's labour force participation and earnings generates greater economic growth and produces additional benefits in terms of family health and education.

But in many countries, women remain economically marginalized. The UN's MDG Report for 2010 indicates that in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 80 percent of women workers are in some form of vulnerable employment, with no benefits or security, low pay and in many cases, no pay at all.

To address these gaps, UN Women will be working with UN partners and the international financial institutions, to develop a UN policy that will prioritize reaching the most economically marginalized women, especially in rural areas. As UNICEF has concluded, investing in the poorest and most marginalized segments of the population is not only a justice and rights issue, it also offers high rates of return — as much as 60 percent. Women who have little to start with can achieve more progress with the same amount of money.

We will also focus on improving the environment for women in the workplace, so that women no longer face deficits in wages and promotion. Together with the ILO, we joined UN partners in advocating for a social protection floor that can support those who can no longer work, due to illness or age, as well as those unable to find employment.

As for violence against women and girls, while we lack comparative data on the incidence of, we know it is widespread and persistent in all countries of the world, costing countries billions of dollars. In the US, for example, conservative estimates put it at US$5.8 billion a year in extra health and mental health care costs and lost productivity; estimated annual costs in Canada total US$1.16 billion.

But more rigorous data is needed. UN Women is working with WHO and other UN partners to develop a standard set of questions that countries can include in household surveys — so that no country can say we didn't know that the problem was so bad because we didn't have the data. We are developing a set of minimum standards and services for countries to adopt in responding to such violence, such as by setting up hotlines and shelters, ensuring police protection for those at risk and access to health care for survivors of such violence.

And finally, what about peace and security? During the first UN General Assembly in 1946, Eleanor Roosevelt insisted that women should have the opportunity to “share in the work of peace and reconstruction as they did in war and resistance.

However, UN Women's research found that in 24 peace processes over the past two decades, women formed less than 8 percent of negotiating teams — with the predictable result that women's needs and concerns are almost entirely missing from peace agreements.

A study of 585 peace agreements concluded between 1990 and 2010 found that just 16 percent contained any reference to women at all. Just 3 percent of these peace accords contained a reference to sexual or gender based violence. In just six ceasefire agreements, ever, has sexual violence been identified as a ceasefire violation.

But change is happening. The UN, led by the Security Council has begun to shift from a relief response to a protective response. This means recognizing the need for customized security measures to prevent mass-atrocity crimes against women in conflict.

Progress on this agenda accelerated following the Secretary General's appointment of Margot Wallström as his Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, with whom I work closely. Currently we are working with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to train peacekeepers from major troop-contributing countries on preventing and responding to conflict-related sexual violence.

To help us advance this research and action agenda we are seeking to link up our research and policy unit with key research faculty in the universities in countries where we work. As dynamic and important leaders in your countries, you are not only important role models; you have the power to open doors, to make change happen for women and girls.

This is why the partnership with academia and universities is so important, and why I included this Colloquium among the priority actions in my Vision and Action Plan.

How can we work together to support women to play an equal role in setting the economic and political agenda, making sure that as Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said last night, “Change keeps coming from within.

For, as one of you wrote in response to the background paper, whatever universities and the UN do together cannot be limited to educating individuals, but must consider the roles women play in their social groups and the structures of society which ascribe such roles, and which are reflected in constitutions and laws that legitimate them.

We also have to anticipate the future. We need universities to continue to support the ground-breaking research that UN Women can promote in countries worldwide. For years, for example, academics have pioneered new ways to measure women's unpaid work, including time use surveys, to ensure that women's reproductive labour is taken into account in economic modelling. It is only now that this is starting to be taken up by policymakers and there is much further to go.

I would like to put forward four proposals. Proposal 1 is to explore how interested faculty can collaborate with UN Women's senior policy advisors to contribute to the UN Women research agenda in each of our five thematic priorities. Proposal 2 is to establish a UN Women Fellows Programme, which would create a network of engaged professionals who can forge an ongoing link between the universities and the UN system. Proposal 3 is to establish a UN Women Internship Programme for master's degree students — along the lines of those in other UN agencies. And Proposal 4 is to support the Secretary-General's Global Strategy for Women and Children's Health. Proposals 1 and 4 are offered for consideration by the faculty experts during their parallel session, and proposals 2 and 3 for consideration by the university presidents' session.

Before we break into working groups, I want to say that education has made it possible for me to do what I have thought was important throughout my life. After graduating from high school, I decided I wanted to be able to treat people I saw in communities who were suffering from all sorts of preventable diseases. So I went to medical school, first at the University of Chile and later in East Germany, where I also studied German.

Later on, after practicing medicine in Chile for a number of years I decided to learn about the military — so I went on to study military strategy, both in Chile and in the US, earning a master's degree from the Chilean War Academy.

Then when my party was voted into office in Chile I was appointed first as Minister of Health and later as Minister of Defence. I am sure that both of these appointments helped people understand, when I decided to run for President, that I could also do that job.

No wonder I believe that education — quality education, available to everyone — is the most fundamental basis for advancing gender equality and women's empowerment. Armed with such an education, and the self-confidence that comes with it, there is no limit to what women can do — provided they have equal access to job and career opportunities and the determination to change the world.

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