Michelle Bachelet Addresses Opening Session of the Fourth UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries

Date: Monday, May 9, 2011

Speech delivered by UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet at the opening session of the Fourth UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries, Istanbul, 9 May 2011.

[Check against delivery.]

Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

First let me express my appreciation to H.E. President of the Turkish Republic and the Government of Turkey for hosting the Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) here in the beautiful city of Istanbul. The LDC Conference is an important venue for all of us to come together to reaffirm our commitments and identify key areas for supporting the LDCs in achieving the internationally agreed development goals, including the MDGs.

UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet addresses the opening session of the 4th UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries
UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet addresses the opening session of the 4th UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries, Istanbul, 9 May 2011. (Photo: UNDP Turkey.)

Let me acknowledge at the outset the considerable progress, often overlooked, that LDCs have made towards achieving the MDGs. For example, recent data illustrates that the ratio of girls to boys enrolled in primary education in LDCs ranged from 0.7 to 1.1. Female literacy rates have increased on average, with almost 10 percent over the last decade. It is important to build on and sustain this progress.

As we know, education of women and girls have important multiplier effects for poverty reduction and benefit families, economies and societies at large. More progress is needed to address the fact that around 80 percent of the 800 million people in LDCs continue to live on less than two dollars a day. The majority of these are women and girls.

One area that particularly concerns me — as a medical doctor and former Minister of Health — is rural women and children's lack of access to health care facilities. One out of 16 women in LDCs risks dying in child birth. Infant and child mortality rates are also very high. In sub-Saharan Africa young women are eight times more likely than men to be HIV-positive.

These figures clearly illustrate the urgency for action.

Most critical is the need for greater investment in agriculture and rural development. Globally, rural areas have lagged far behind in terms of progress on all of the MDG indicators, including those related to gender equality. This is particularly significant for the LDCs, since more than 70 percent of their populations live in rural areas.

In laying out my Vision and 100-day Action Plan for UN Women, I therefore identified the economic empowerment of rural women as a key priority.

One key area that needs increased attention is the reduction of women's unpaid care work. Globally, 2.7 billion people rely on open fires and traditional cooking stoves to earn a living and feed their families. In Africa, households may spend as much as a third of their disposable income on fuel-based lighting, and women devote at least a quarter of total household labour to wood collection.

Labour-saving technology and alternative energy sources for cooking and food preparation and other unpaid care work have proven effective in reducing women's time from many hours of work to mere minutes.

In Tanzania, it has been estimated that a one-hour reduction a week spent on these kinds of tasks, could increase women's engagement in off-farm business activities by about 7 percent.

However, rural women and men, in particular those living in areas with low-density populations, are challenged by large infrastructure deficits in the transport and energy sectors and by a lack of critical services for survival, such as energy and water supply.

Renewable energy can offer win-win solutions in terms of sustainable rural development, poverty reduction and improvements in health, education and gender equality outcomes.

Solar energy, for example, can provide entire villages with lighting, pumped water, refrigerator facilities to preserve medicine and food, and the electrification of health centres, schools and other public facilities. Renewable energy can also improve women and men's access to information and communication facilities (e.g., Internet, television and radio), providing a window out to the world.

Investment in rural communities' access to clean and renewable energy is critical for boosting the development of rural communities, especially in LDCs. Women will particularly benefit, since they are responsible for providing the free labour when access to energy is limited or unavailable.

Due to their high dependency on food imports, LDCs have been particularly affected by rising food prices that have pushed 44 million people into poverty globally over the last year. More than 300 million people living in Africa, most of them living in LDCs, lack food security. Increased productivity of the agricultural sector can greatly contribute to increased food security.

Women constitute half of the agricultural labour force in LDCs. Investments in rural women's access to productive resources and financial services can have critical multiplier effects on rural development with benefits to women and men, girls and boys. However, currently in rural sub-Saharan Africa, women in smallholder agriculture access less than 10 percent of available credit.

FAO has estimated that, if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent. This could have a powerful impact on both food security and nutrition in LDCs.

So, why is not greater investment being made in increasing agricultural productivity through increasing women's access to these resources?

The OECD estimates from recent years show that only 5.6 percent of aid directed to the agricultural sector specifically focused on gender equality. I appeal to governments and the international community to step up support to rural women and women farmers in LDCs.

To empower rural women, UN Women will work with governments and rural communities in identifying viable solutions to reducing their burden of unpaid care work by promoting investment in renewable energy and labour-saving technologies. We will also promote rural women's increased access to productive resources and financial services.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I will now turn to the broader issue of women's livelihoods and access to employment and decent work outside of agriculture.

Both women and men find it difficult to find employment when economies are not able to generate sufficient productive jobs and livelihoods for the growing number of the young women and men entering the labour force every year. Many young women and men have had to turn to look for work in the informal economy. In the LDCs, the share of own-account and contributing family workers in total employment reaches 81 percent.

This calls for increased provision of a social protection floor to provide employment guarantees, income support benefits, basic income security guarantees for the elderly and persons with disabilities, and child benefits. It would also be critical to increase informal workers' access to essential public services, such as health care, primary education, housing, water and sanitation.

Elements of the social protection floor are already in place in many LDCs, and have been shown to be effective to combat rising inequality and persistent poverty.

Here, I would like to point out that social protection should be considered an investment, and not a cost. It delivers significant future paybacks in terms of improved human development outcomes and as a key instrument for unlocking women's productive capacity. This would enable them to more fully participate in economic life, as workers, employers, consumers and citizens.

The high number of own account workers also calls for increased attention to strengthening women's economic literacy and awareness of the exigencies of the market, such as quality and standards, their access to markets, and the support from local authorities and trade support organizations. Existing practices that have proven successful should be scaled up and replicated. One of those is creating women-friendly markets and multi-service facilities for women entrepreneurs and business owners to overcome the barriers they face.

The importance of such assistance and the economic empowerment of women more broadly are increasingly recognized by governments, the private sector as well as the IFIs [international financial institutions]. It has now been well established that gains in gender equality correlate positively with gains in GNP, and that it has positive spill-over effects on women and children's health and education. When we empower a woman, we empower a community.

Women's economic empowerment is also fundamental to enhancing women's independence and control over their own lives. Over the next few years, UN Women will partner with UN entities and the international financial institutions to accelerate women's economic empowerment, in particular in poor and rural areas, to ensure that women are equipped to compete on an equal footing with men in the economy. UN Women will lead the development of a UN system-wide strategy and action plan on women's economic empowerment.

We stand ready to support countries to graduate from their LDC status and to find creative solutions to their development challenges, particularly by making women a subject of positive action.