Michelle Bachelet’s Keynote Address to the Inter-Parliamentary Union General Assembly


Speech delivered by Michelle Bachelet, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, during the meeting with women leaders from Panama, at the 124th IPU General Assembly held in Panama City on 16 April 2011.

[Check against delivery.]

It is an honour for me to have been invited by the International Parliamentary Union, the IPU — an organization with a long track record since 1889 in terms of the scope of its accomplishments and experience — to address all of you, parliamentary representatives of your respective countries.

Speaking before the representatives of the citizens of the 130 countries represented here at this General Assembly, as Executive Director of UN Women, is a source of deep satisfaction and a great responsibility for me.

In July 2010, UN Member States adopted a historic resolution establishing UN Women, the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, and recommending a minimum funding of USD 500 million to enable the organization to achieve its objectives — a sum that we are administering in order to reach the aforementioned level of funding.

With the launch of UN Women, a clear signal was sent to the world of the importance attached to women's rights and of the urgent need to accelerate the various processes aimed at eliminating the barriers hindering gender equality.

I would like to stress the fact that this resolution would not have been possible were it not for the many entities in the forefront working to advance the cause of women's rights — including parliaments, governments as well as women's networks and groups from across the globe.

Because of this — over and above the importance of the nature and content of the said resolution — our mission says a lot about the crucial role of “collaboration in this matter.

Now we need to demonstrate that we can rise to the occasion and accomplish what has been agreed upon and negotiated.

Not only do we have to collect the minimum funding that is considered necessary to be able to successfully accomplish this task, but we also have to demonstrate that once the necessary funds have been collected, they will be used in an efficient manner to achieve the objectives sought.

We have to persuade institutions, legislators and government leaders that working for gender equality in accordance with international agreements, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform for Action, the United Nations Millennium Declaration, will be beneficial not only to women but to society as a whole.

We need to work harder and more closely with those women that are excluded in our respective countries, including women suffering from poverty, the less fortunate, widows, elderly women, women discriminated against because of their ethnic origin or women in any other situations.

The challenges to be faced are quite considerable.

The huge difference in terms of income and riches that has accompanied growth in the global economy has been exacerbated even further due to the economic crisis. As a result, millions of workers, especially women, have passed over to the informal sectors of the economy.

Political conflicts and national disasters have caused the prices of various foodstuffs to increase, thus threatening the ability of households to survive. This is true in both developing and developed countries.

This state of affairs does not have to continue.

You legislators can champion the cause that an alternative way of operating is possible, another way of managing public affairs, a way that would enable economies to improve and that must include political and economic empowerment for women — thus safeguarding their security first and foremost.

I would like to tell you that we are making progress in certain areas. To be specific, 130 countries have passed laws to end gender-based violence, 67 countries have passed laws on gender equality, and 115 countries have guaranteed equality in terms of property rights.

We are witnessing the fact that in the Arab countries, especially in North Africa, women who were formerly excluded from the public arena are now defending the call for greater freedom and dignity for their peoples hand in hand with their male counterparts. These women are also defending their right to contribute to building the future of their respective societies.

Change can be achieved; it is possible. But UN Women cannot effect such change in an isolated manner. We must do so together and, in order to achieve such change, special emphasis must be placed on the need for close collaboration.

We need to work with key partners, with civil society, the private sector, institutions and, in particular, with you, the representatives of your citizens.

Every one of the partners associated in this collaborative effort must contribute their expertise, experience and knowhow, so that we can work in a comprehensive manner so as to better face the challenges that lie before us.

At the moment, we are drafting our Strategic Plan for the next three years. We have identified priority areas for which we assume major responsibility and a leadership role with the United Nations system. There are also other areas where we support other agencies as part of our joint efforts.

UN Women's strategic priorities include the following: the economic empowerment of women, female leadership and participation in politics, eliminating violence against women and young girls, working to defend the rights of women in conflict and post-conflict situations, and the inclusion of gender equality as part of national development schemes.

Each one of these priorities involves searching for and collecting information as well as analysing data in each country. Why so? In order to go beyond national and international averages and thus have a clear idea of the status of women living in low-income areas, migrant women, women living with HIV, or handicapped women.

Our success in these areas will depend on several factors, one of them doubtless being the progress that will be made in terms of women's leadership and participation in politics.

Women's participation in politics is a vital prerequisite for their empowerment, as well as an essential element for true democracy to exist.

Women's participation in the decision-making processes implies generating more openness in this key area, and reinforces transparency, thus facilitating increased accountability vis-à-vis citizens.

UN Women considers the key element of its efforts in this area to be the need to ensure that the decision-making processes are fair and inclusive, while catering to the specific needs of women.

To this end, I have observed that much has been achieved through budgets focusing on gender issues or new strategies, such as reports on the impact of gender laws that are being implemented in some countries.

Such strategies can prove very useful to improve decision-making, approval of legislation, norms and public policies that are the first step towards achieving lasting changes that will be beneficial to women and society as a whole.

We have made a lot of progress over the last few decades, but such constant progress is being achieved at a rather slow pace — we could even say at a “snail's pace.

Thanks to data provided by the IPU, generally speaking, we know that in 26 single-chamber parliaments or lower chambers coupled with 17 upper chambers, more than 30 percent are female parliamentarians: 16 in Europe, 13 in the Americas, 11 in Africa and 3 in the Asia/Pacific region.

What's more, in several countries the numbers almost represent the aforementioned 30 percent magic figure — an indication of the minimal equality threshold.

The Nordic countries in Europe have maintained their leading position in this area with an average of 41.6 percent; sub-Saharan Africa has 19.2 percent, while in the Asia/pacific region, with many important elections taking place this year, the average has dropped from 18.5 percent to 18 percent.

Female representation in the Arab countries has also increased, from 4.3 percent in 1995 to 11.7 percent in 2010.

Having analysed this data, we know that of the countries that have surpassed this 30 percent figure, 27 have adopted some sort of affirmative action or quotas.

The role of women is equally crucial at the local level, where many of the decisions that are taken will have a major impact on their lives. In this sphere, we have also seen progress in some regions.

In India, more than 1 million women are female municipal councillors following a constitutional change in 1992 establishing that 30 percent of all seats must go to women. In Latin America, only 8.5 percent of all mayors are women, according to ECLAC's Gender Equality Observatory (2009).

I would like to focus on the events that have occurred this year in some Arab countries located in North Africa. The key characteristics of these movements have been street protests, with very visible participation by women and the use of new technologies and social networks to organize themselves and support each other.

This has been the case especially in Tunisia and Egypt and has led to the formation of caretaker governments.

I am happy to have seen the news this very week that the new regime in Tunisia has approved an electoral code related to elections to the Constituent Assembly on July 24th, 2011. It is based on the principles of parity and alternating roles — i.e., 50 percent of all members must be male, and the remaining 50 percent female.

This is a huge step forward for which we congratulate and applaud the people of Tunisia.

Increasing women's presence and visibility as well as the number of women in politics and institutions is very important. Not only is it a model to be adopted but also because women can be powerful agents of change.

For instance, when women wield power in the political arena, they can promote initiatives that will facilitate economic empowerment in the private sector.

Eight years ago, Norway passed a law establishing the condition that 40 percent of all board members of companies listed on the stock exchange must be women. Today, women represent 42 percent of all such appointments, Norway leading the way in this particular area as far as Europe is concerned.

In 2007, in Spain, a law was passed forcing companies with more than 250 workers to prepare and implement a gender equality program, and which recommended the need to have more balanced representation on their executive boards.

Other European countries are thinking about passing similar legal rules and regulations. It is also an object of debate within the European Commission.

In all the countries where women have access to quality education, good jobs, land and other assets, there is higher economic growth, a lower mortality rate for mothers giving birth, better infant nutrition, higher food security, and less risk of contracting HIV.

However, there are still few women who are part of the decision-making process. We have to ensure that there is a higher level of female representation and that these decision-making spheres are close to the community and friendly in nature.

Several other obstacles still exist, and must be overcome so that women can — and please allow me to add “would like to — enter politics. A few obstacles are easy to pinpoint: for instance the difficulty in reaching the highest echelons of political parties.

We know that in Latin America, for instance, women constitute 50 percent of all members of political parties. However, 19 percent of them manage to hold decision-making posts within these parties.

We also know that 92 percent of political parties claim to have a Women's or Gender Equality Unit, though its influence in terms of the parties' strategic decisions is minimal.

Or that 65 percent of political parties claim to have empowered their female members, but hardly 24 percent assign a specific budget to deal with women's empowerment. What's more, we know that in most cases, the communications media are not neutral as regards women in general, and especially regarding women in politics.

The 2010 study from the Global Media Monitoring Project highlighted the fact that subjects related to women only represented 37 percent of all newspaper articles, radio and television programs that were examined. Only 24 percent of all news articles covered any subjects related to women and their environment, and 82 percent of all issues considered as important by the communications media were represented by men.

In studies we as UN Women carried out together with IDEA in six countries of Latin America (Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Colombia and the Dominican Republic), aimed at monitoring the communications media and focusing on a gender approach in election campaigns, we know that the media did not apply the same treatment to women candidates as they did for the men. What's more, during the election campaigns, there was an absence of debate about gender equality and women's rights.

Other less-visible obstacles also exist, and we must broach such issues and reflect on them: Why is there such a high rate of female “turnover in politics? Why do women's political careers not last as long as those of the men? What prevents women from acquiring the necessary experience to be able to have posts that are more relevant? Why, in so many countries, do many women quite simply not wish to enter politics?

In some instances, the fact that violence against women who enter politics is a reality is already a strong deterrent; in others, the need to strike a balance between work and family life means that women do not wish to continue to assume this double or triple responsibility or — finally — women do not share in the special principles regulating politics, and want this situation to change before they can participate in the political sphere.

UN Women is working to overcome such visible and less visible obstacles and is doing so in partnership with many different partners and institutions in the various countries.

Among the latter, we would like to maintain our special relationship with you parliamentarians and also our special relationship with the IPU, with whom we have already collaborated for quite some time, but with whom we would like to deepen our relationship even further.

With the IPU,

  • We would like to continue to collaborate to ensure greater female representation in parliaments. We would like to work with the IPU on the legal systems that determine and facilitate such entry, whether it be through policy change or constitutional reform. A good example of this — and of such collaboration — is what we have seen unfolding in the Arab countries located in North Africa.
  • We would like to work with the IPU in supporting and developing the skills and competencies of female parliamentarians.
  • We would also like to provide technical assistance to parliaments in relation to women's rights and in line with those that have been established in the CEDAW, doing away with all legislation containing discriminatory content regarding women in light of the international treaties that have been signed by the countries.
  • We would like to propose research projects to collect data in areas that will promote female empowerment in society as well as to promote gender equality in the various legislations.
  • Eliminating violence against women is also a possible area of collaboration between the IPU and UN Women, especially in terms of the implementation of legislation and the various mechanisms to be used to enforce the norms.
  • We are very happy to learn of the launching of an all-encompassing study that IPU has spearheaded concerning parliaments that are sensitive to gender equality issues. This innovative study will go far beyond female access to parliaments and will focus on the parliamentary environment to determine whether or not it is “friendly in nature and sensitive to gender equality issues. We are of the opinion that this is a tool that will help us to design new strategies, study other priority issues and promote new changes in behaviour with a view to achieving gender equality in these institutions.

Esteemed Parliamentarians,

My offer of partnership with the IPU is not just limited to the issue of the parliaments. I would like to suggest to all delegations that UN Women and each and every one of IPU's member parliaments sign a partnership agreement.

You are the representatives of your citizens and you have the ability to legislate, you monitor the Government's actions and approve the budget. These are one of the three main powers exercised by the State and, given this fact, we need to work together with you on this immense undertaking.

I would suggest that we make a diagnosis of all possible issues on which we could work together at the beginning of each new legislature. Let us set the agenda of possible legislative reform of all laws containing discriminatory content regarding women, and which legislation could be examined further to promote more involvement and leading roles by women in politics.

All legislation has a gender impact; there are no neutral laws, no laws that do not affect half of the population; but there are laws that can facilitate greater progress or recognize drawbacks to gender equality or in terms of women's social security, working conditions, care of their families, economic growth, pensions, or even foreign policy.

All legislation should be analysed from this perspective in the same way that we study the impact of environmental legislation or the impact of such and such a norm on our economic policy.

However, as you well know, introducing legislation is not enough; the “magic of the law in itself will not suffice; resources are needed to implement them as well as human resources to do the work.

This also constitutes a great legislative task to be accomplished. This is why we believe that, whenever legislation and budgets are approved, adequate resources must be established to implement them.

We would like to work with you and learn from your legislative experiences, sharing such experiences with other parliaments, analysing the results, and promoting changes in the necessary initiative.

Parliaments monitor government actions, and this is crucial for gender equality.

You can assess whether or not governments are doing all that is needed to achieve the MDGs, or in the area of eliminating gender-based violence against women, and even if laws have been passed in this respect, whether or not women continue not to be able to denounce these facts, or do not receive adequate protection, or specific health and psychological care.

These are the areas where your role is quite relevant and useful.

We know that UN Women has a limited capacity to be aware of everything and know the data pertaining to all the countries. However, we are counting on you to share with us your vision of what is really going on, of what is happening in your country and the necessary monitoring that all of us should try to implement in this area.

Together we can visualize what is happening, but especially, what is lacking, so that we can do away with this problem once and for all, an issue that is limiting the development possibilities of women and young girls.

We look forward to our collaboration — conducting joint diagnoses with each legislature, taking concrete and efficient strides forward, and conducting better research and knowledge sharing on the subject — a closer partnership, so that these objectives and structural changes are more viable.

We want to rely on your experience as parliamentarians, and we would like to increase the number of women represented in the parliaments.

Towards the end of 2013, which will mark the end of our first strategic plan, we would like the percentage of female parliamentarians to have increased to around 21.5 percent.

Excellencies, I know from experience that there are different ways of operating in politics, that nothing is predetermined, that challenges can be faced head-on naturally, in line with the time frames and forms peculiar to each country. I know that wide-ranging consensus is needed within the parliaments in order to move forward. Nevertheless, first and foremost, I am absolutely certain that improving female representation will lead to better and more representative democracies.

At UN Women, we know that this can be made a reality and we know that we can count on you in this regard.

Thank you very much for your attention.


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