The Future of UN Women


Speech delivered by UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet at the New York City Bar Association, 21 June 2011.

[Check against delivery.]

Good evening. It is a great pleasure to be here this evening and to have the opportunity to speak to you about the vision and goals of UN Women, and how we see the challenges and opportunities for advancing women's rights and gender equality in countries worldwide.

First let me say I think this is an exciting time for women — despite the many challenges we face. And I think the creation of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, or UN Women, reflects this.

UN Women was created by the merger of four smaller agencies, under the leadership of an Under-Secretary-General, in the expectation that it would have the position and authority, and the resources, needed to advance gender equality across the entire UN system.

Our mandate is to coordinate and lead the work of the many UN agencies and departments so that the United Nations as a whole can better assist countries to meet their commitments to gender equality under a series of global agreements — including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform of Action, and most recently, the Millennium Declaration and Security Council resolutions on women, peace and security.

The creation of UN Women represents the recognition by UN Member States that if gender equality is indeed central to achieving all national development goals, then we need to be able to speed up the pace of change — so that we can make gender equality a lived reality, not just a mantra. It signals that gender equality and women's rights are on a par with other global imperatives, such as ending poverty and hunger, fighting chronic diseases and combatting climate change.

I want to underline the fact that this would not have happened without the work of women's rights advocates, from the North and from the South and including many in government, all of whom united in networks and built alliances to press for the creation of UN Women. Their hopes — and expectations — are high about what we will be able to do.

Now we need to show we can live up to these expectations. Not only do we have to raise the promised resources, we have to demonstrate they will be put to good use. We have to persuade governments, not only presidents but also finance ministers, that delivering on gender equality commitments will bring benefits to women and also to society as a whole.

The challenges we face are daunting. The huge gaps in wealth and income that have accompanied global growth have deepened since the economic and financial crisis and pushed millions of workers into permanent informal employment. Both political conflict and natural disasters are driving up fuel and food prices, threatening livelihoods and food security in many countries and straining household coping strategies.

This does not have to be the case. Politicians and policymakers — from all political parties — can be persuaded that things can be managed better, so that we can keep our countries safe and our economies prospering — by investing in the future, building stronger safety nets, guaranteeing basic physical and social protection for everyone.

In fact, we are seeing progress, including on women's rights. Today, 125 countries have laws against domestic violence, 115 guarantee women equal property rights, and at least 43 have adopted election law quotas to increase women's representation in national parliaments. Women in countries worldwide are protesting lack of employment, demanding freedom and dignity, and an equal say in how their countries are governed.

So I know change can happen. But I also know that we cannot make it happen alone. That is why partnerships are so essential. Working together, we are not only more comprehensive, bringing together knowledge and expertise from across the UN, from government, civil society, professions and the private sector, but we are also more powerful, working with multiple constituencies to accelerate change.

In developing our Strategic Plan, we therefore identified the priority areas in which we will take the lead within the UN system as well as areas where others are leading, where we can add our support. In all of these, as well as new areas that will emerge, we will reach out to partners old and new to see how we can work together to build the needed momentum for change.

UN Women's strategic priorities include: women's economic empowerment, women's political participation and leadership, ending violence against women and girls, and engaging women and women's rights fully in peace and post-conflict processes and in national development planning and budgeting.

Each of these areas entails action for results — both in long-term programming and short term support — demonstrating what is possible when the power of half the world's population is able to fully contribute to economic growth, political vitality and social development. And, because each of these priority areas also involves issues of justice, achieving results also involves improving and expanding women's access to justice.

I would like to talk a little bit about each of these areas, including their links to access to justice, where I see momentum and why we need new partnerships to accelerate this momentum.

First, there is growing interest in women's economic empowerment — across the UN system, the corporate and business sector and international financial institutions. The World Bank and others have shown that women's increased labour force participation and earnings generate greater economic growth and have a multiplier effect on society as a whole, particularly in terms of education and health outcomes.

Women who earn their own income can challenge the way decisions are made in households, demand the right to engage in the political arena, and claim their right to be safe from violence. And women are organizing to demand that labour standards and social protection be extended to the kinds of work that they do.

An exciting example is that of domestic workers, performing services that until last week were not recognized as “work. Following a two-year campaign by the Domestic Workers Network and their many supporters, governments, employers and workers together adopted the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, affirming that domestic workers have the same fundamental rights at work that all workers have.

UN Women has pledged to work closely with the International Labour Organization and other UN partners, governments and other stakeholders — including domestic workers and women's rights organizations, as well as legal professionals — to support ratification of the Convention, together with the formulation and implementation of legislation and programmes for domestic workers.

As in other areas in which we work, we will support efforts to draft needed legislation, monitor its implementation, advise women domestic workers of their new rights under the law, and provide legal assistance to claim those rights if they are denied.

We will work with UN system partners to develop a coordinated strategy for advancing women's economic opportunities and rights, including access to decent work and sustainable livelihoods, social protection, land and inheritance rights — and prioritize reaching those most excluded.

Closely related to this is another priority, namely, ensuring that women and gender equality expertise are an integral part of all stages of national development planning and budgeting, including sectoral budget allocations, and that women can effectively engage in monitoring implementation and evaluating impact.

Another priority is women's political participation — a basic prerequisite for women's empowerment as well as for genuine democracy. It facilitates women's direct engagement in public decision-making and helps to strengthen government transparency and accountability.

While progress in this area has been glacial, today there are 19 women elected heads of state or government, and women's representation in elected legislatures in 28 countries now reaches or exceeds 30 percent — widely viewed as the “critical mass needed to bring about positive change.

Of these countries, at least 23 have adopted quotas or other positive action measures, which have been shown to be the fastest way to increase women's political representation and leadership.

UN Women is working with partners to secure the adoption of such measures in all countries where we work. So it is possible that in this area too, we will see growing momentum.

And women are eager to take on political leadership, especially in post-conflict countries or countries in transition. As we see most recently in countries across the Arab States region, women who once stayed away from the public arena have actively participated in public demonstrations to demand political change. They are now insisting on the right to share in reshaping their societies — including running for office and participating in constitutional reform processes.

I met with some of these women in Cairo and in Tunis, where they came from different parts of their countries to develop a common agenda and speak with one voice — their determination and courage should inspire all of us to support them in whatever way we can.

A third priority — and urgent challenge — is ending violence against women and girls, which is endemic in all countries. Freedom from violence or threat of violence, in both public and private space, is fundamental to women's empowerment.

And countries are also starting to count the costs. In the US, for example, an estimated US$5.8 billion a year goes to extra health and mental health costs and lost productivity; in Canada, with a much smaller population, the total is still US$1.16 billion.

This is a wake-up call — to governments, the corporate sector and societies as a whole. UN Women is working with WHO and other UN partners to promote a standard module 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 in responding to such violence, such as by setting up hotlines and shelters, ensuring access to health care for survivors, and guaranteeing police protection for those at risk.

In most countries, UN Women programming takes a two-pronged approach, concentrating on prevention of violence against women from happening in the first place, and on strengthening women's access to justice on the other.

Access to justice is an essential aspect of economic and political empowerment and vital to development, peace and human security. Difficulties for women stem from the fact that legal and judicial institutions and authorities tend to share the gender-specific norms and assumptions of the society at large. They also stem from the fact that many women, especially poor women, or members of racial and ethnic groups, are not aware of the rules that govern these institutions, and how to use these institutions to claim their rights.

UN Women is launching its first flagship report, Progress of the World's Women 2011: In Pursuit of Justice next month. The report points out that some of the social barriers women face in accessing the justice system include lack of knowledge of their rights, dependence on male relatives for assistance and resources, and the threat of sanction or stigma, which is especially acute in cases of sexual and domestic violence.

Sexual violence is the only crime for which the victim is more stigmatized than the perpetrator, with women who report such crimes being shunned by their families and communities. In Canada, the most common reason that women cited for not calling the police was “fear of retaliation by the abuser, family or community. And in Afghanistan, research in 30 out of 34 provinces found that, in almost every case investigated, rape victims had themselves been charged with extramarital sex.

Such cases are also often marked by high rates of attrition, especially in the case of rape. In one province in South Africa, for example, only 17 percent of reported rapes reached court and just 4 percent ended in a conviction for rape. Nearly half were dropped at the police investigation stage and another third of cases were dropped at the prosecution stage or were disposed of by the courts before trial. This means that for women to have real access to justice we must support efforts not only to reform the laws but to persuade judges and lawyers to incorporate a gender perspective in their work.

The report also highlights landmark cases around the world where women have sought redress not only for violations of their own rights, but also to establish a broader remedy for all women.

I know you are familiar with such cases in this country, particularly with regard to employment discrimination as in the high-profile case against Wal-Mart, but may not have heard of some of the others. Let me just briefly mention a case in India.

When a social worker in Rajasthan was gang-raped in the course of her work, she brought criminal charges. Supported by five women's organizations, including one called Sakshi, she took the case to the Indian Supreme Court, winning a landmark decision recognizing sexual harassment in the workplace.

One of the presiding judges, who had earlier taken part in a Sakshi workshop to explore the impact of judicial perceptions on women who came to court, recognized that the right to a safe working environment was guaranteed by both the Constitution and by India's obligations under CEDAW. The Court used the case to produce the first legally enforceable guidelines on sexual harassment in both the public and private sectors.

The Vishaka decision — so named after one of the five supporting women's organizations — has inspired a similar case in Bangladesh and brought about law reform in Pakistan, so that today almost 500 million women of working age in these three countries have the legal protection needed to carry out their work free from harassment and abuse.

The report shows, first, that laws matter: where there are domestic violence laws, prevalence is lower and fewer people think that violence against women is justified.

Second, implementation matters: it's no use having good laws if they are not implemented or enforced. Clear mandates and procedures are needed to instruct public services to implement the law. Funding for implementation and monitoring is essential.

Third, the infrastructure of justice matters: courts and the justice system provide a vital accountability mechanism for women.

Finally, of course, women's empowerment matters.

All of these measures are gaining attention in another priority area for UN Women, that of conflict, peace and security. In situations of armed conflict, women and girls are often targeted for sexual violence, including as a tactic of war, to humiliate or dominate members of a community or group. While there have been important advances in international law, prosecutions for such crimes remain relatively few, and convictions fewer.

In the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, where sexual violence was included in charges, conviction rates were lower than for cases that did not include such charges — in some cases due to women's reluctance to testify about rape.

Successful prosecutions require high-level commitment and a comprehensive strategy, including protection for women who testify. Including women on legal teams and as judges can also be helpful.

A study of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found that defence lawyers showed more respect when questioning female witnesses in front of a female judge, and women spoke more freely.

At the country level, it is important to strengthen justice systems in order to close the impunity gap and foster long-term peace and security.

UN Women and the United Nations Development Programme are working with partners to support activities such as a gender desk at police headquarters in Rwanda; the provision of legal aid centres across Darfur and other areas of Sudan; and the provision of mobile courts in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo to bring justice to remote areas.

Another important aspect of the peace and security agenda is peacekeeping and post-conflict recovery. Here it is vital that women be empowered in order to enable them to fully engage in all aspects of these processes. Some of you may know that 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.

She would be disappointed. 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 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 referred to women at all — only 3 percent had a reference to sexual or gender-based violence.

Yet, here too there are signs of progress. The Security Council for example, now recognizes sexual violence in conflict not only as a humanitarian issue but also as a security issue, one which they have the responsibility to prevent. The UN now requires that at least 15 percent of all UN spending in conflict and post-conflict situations — including on economic opportunities — be targeted to gender equality goals, up from the average total of only 5 percent.

I invite you to be creative and bold in finding ways to support women's access to justice and to seek opportunities to work with UN partners, including UN Women, to help women to use the law, and international human rights instruments to bring about a more just world, not only for women, but also for all those who seek greater access to justice.

Thank you very much.