Speech: UN Women Deputy Director John Hendra at the 4th Pacific Women Ministers’ Conference


Speech delivered by UN Women Deputy Director and Assistant Secretary-General John Hendra, At the Pacific Women Ministers' Conference, 20 July 2011, Tanoa Hotel, Nadi, Fiji.

[Check against delivery.]

Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Deputy Director General, Ms Fekitamoeloa Utoikamanu,

Honourable Ministers and Heads of Government Delegations,

Development Partners,

The representatives of non-governmental organizations, regional organizations, multilateral organizations, and in particular, our hosts, the Secretariat for the Pacific Community and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.

I would like to thank you very much for your very warm welcome. At the outset, I bring warm greetings to all of you from Michelle Bachelet, the Under Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, who has asked me to convey to this conference her very best wishes for a highly successful outcome.

For me, it is a real honour and privilege to have the opportunity to speak to you at this Fourth Pacific Women Ministers' Conference during my first formal mission to the Pacific Region, in my capacity as Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director for UN Women. And, it is really timely for me to have this opportunity to interact with a group like this during my very early days in UN Women.

The many of you who have followed closely the birth of UN Women know that its founding resolution was crystal clear on two points. First, it states explicitly that UN Women should work in consultation with the respective national machineries for women and/or the focal points designated by Member States. And, secondly, it recognizes the critical role of civil society and women's organizations, and encourages UN Women to continue the existing practice of effective consultation with civil society organizations and encourages their meaningful contribution to the work of the entity. There is probably no better forum to exercise the wishes of the UN Member States in the Pacific than this one.

And, finally, this Fourth Ministerial Meeting also provides an opportunity for me to better understand the work of your intergovernmental regional organizations, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) with its technical support role and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, with its important regional political convening mandate.

In this context, I commend the SPC for its establishment and sponsorship of the Pacific Triennial Conferences on Women, the 11th of which was held last year. We very much recognize the importance of the Triennial Outcomes to guide and benchmark further action, advocacy, change and reporting of Pacific Governments on gender equality in line with your national commitments. These include the Millennium Development Goals, the Beijing Platform for Action and CEDAW. And, in that regard, let me congratulate the Pacific for importantly adding one more country to the 186 that have ratified CEDAW, as I understand that Nauru ratified the Convention just last month.

Let me say first, from the outset, that UN Women's commitment to support and, wherever possible, expand our work to accelerate progress towards gender equality and women's empowerment in the Pacific is unwavering. The four predecessor organizations that have now merged into the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, UN Women, create a firmer basis for stronger partnership.

As you know, we are already cooperating closely with many countries and regional organizations in the Pacific on issues that are on your agenda: from ending violence against women to enhancing women's economic empowerment, from increasing women's leadership in national and local political bodies, and to amplifying women's voices as champions of peace and resolving conflict.

The Pacific Beijing Plus 15 Report affirms that there remain persistent challenges in this region that require urgent responses. The Triennial Outcomes have provided the guideposts for our work in the region in the past, and as consensus priorities of Pacific leaders and gender equality advocates are the starting point for our future action going forward.

But you, and constituencies around the world, did not join together to advocate for the creation of UN Women just so that we could continue to do a little more or a little better than we had before. We know that the expectations for UN Women are enormously high, and while our ability to meet expectations depends on many factors, please be assured that our commitment is to work with you to over time create a sea change in our collective efforts and our transformational results to advance gender equality and women's empowerment.

Women in the Pacific and for that matter worldwide have been vocal in their demands that the gender equality agenda cannot be put on hold. It is an agenda that is fundamental to the development, peace and security of communities, countries and regions the world over.

As you are aware, UN Women launched its first flagship report, Progress of the World's Women: In Pursuit of Justice, which makes a case for the urgency of addressing the most egregious threats to women's rights, threats that have as much of an impact here as anywhere else. For instance, in too many parts of the world, violence against women remains one of the world's most hidden pandemics. Based on prevalence surveys from 70 countries, up to 60 percent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes.

While we've seen great progress with 125 countries now having outlawed domestic violence, there are still six hundred million women and girls living in countries without this legal protection. Only 52 countries have explicitly criminalized rape in marriage, leaving 2.6 billion women and girls without this legal protection. This is particularly serious, since surveys have found that in countries without domestic violence laws on average, 50 percent of people think that it is sometimes justifiable for a man to beat his wife and 19 percent of women report experiencing physical violence in their lifetime.

The power of laws to shape attitudes and influence behaviours is significant, but it's not enough. There is an important distance to travel in the Pacific to ensure that the countries in the region are learning from each other's experiences and have these laws in place, with too many countries amongst those that have yet to outlaw the multiple forms of violence that women and girls face.

So, too, the underrepresentation of women in leadership and in political life worldwide is a manifestation of gender discrimination that must be corrected. Global data paints a still disturbing picture, women currently make up 19 percent of all Parliamentarians and 17 percent of Ministers. Only 19 women worldwide are serving as elected or appointed Heads of State or Government.

While we do not have reliable data at this point, in local councils there is also significant underrepresentation despite the fact that local level political positions are the best training ground for higher-level opportunities. And, beyond formal political positions, the potential of changing gender discrimination from seeing more women in leadership roles in other sectors — from the police, where women represent just 9 percent globally, to judges, where the global representation of women is at 27 percent — is being lost because of inadequate incentives and policies to ensure that women can access these influential spaces.

Here too, this Conference can take important steps. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union database, women's participation rate in upper and lower houses of parliament in the Pacific stands at an average of just over 14 percent. Changing these percentages is possible, as we have seen in countries that have made huge strides in a very short period of time, such as Rwanda. This year's Progress of the World's Women Report: In Pursuit of Justice points out that where women have reached a critical mass of Parliamentarians, laws and policies to advance women's rights, health care, labour rights and property often follow.

Later in the Conference agenda, we will be briefly presenting the highlights of the recently adopted UN Women Strategic Plan 2011 to 2013. For now, I would emphasize that the creation of UN Women represents the recognition by UN Member States that if gender equality is indeed central to achieving all national development aspirations, then we need to speed up the pace of change, so that we can make gender equality a lived reality, not just a mantra.

It also signals that gender equality and women's rights are on par with other global imperatives, such as ending poverty and hunger, fighting chronic diseases and combating climate change and that achieving gender equality is central to achieving the MDGs solving the global challenges of the 21st Century. And it signals that no country, whether in the Pacific or in any other region, can afford to squander the talents and contributions of one half of its population because of gender inequality and discrimination.

For me, what is particularly important about this Conference and about the birth of UN Women is that we are increasingly identifying strategies that offer significant promise toward advancing gender equality. Many of these strategies are being tested or discussed in this region, including in the context of efforts to accelerate progress to meet the Millennium Development Goals over the next four years:

  • We know, for instance, that Temporary Special Measures are an assured pathway to increasing women's political participation and that these are now being discussed in a number of Pacific countries. In fact, of the 28 countries in the world that have met or exceeded the goal of achieving 30% representation of women in Parliaments, at least 23 of them have used some form of Temporary Special Measures;
  • We know that increasing women's economic opportunities, economic options and economic security has considerable knock-on effects for the health, education and well-being of both children and communities. We are encouraged by the still nascent but growing recognition of the importance of guaranteeing women's land rights and of the critical role that women traders and women in markets in the Pacific play in generating local revenues and community well-being;
  • Through UN Women's new flagship publication, Progress of the World's Women: In Pursuit of Justice we now know that ‘one-stop' centres for women and girls — where they can get legal advice, health counselling, and other services for survivors of violence against women — respond to a number of constraints and can really help facilitate access to justice, whether in the UK, South Africa or right here in the Pacific. I very much look forward to personally travelling to Rakiraki this week to inaugurate such a Centre here in Fiji.

The challenge then, Honourable Ministers, is to ensure that we move from better analysis to a much more robust evidence base, to more effective pilot programmes, to an improved legal and policy framework for gender equality and to a more dynamic “whole of government approach so as to scale-up implementation and financing of innovations that are proven to work. The challenge is to ensure that the voices and perspectives of women and girls, alongside those of men and boys, are present at every key decision-making table, whether regarding education, health, security sector reform, food security, or climate change mitigation strategies.

Globally, the rest of 2011 and 2012 present important opportunities for advocating for this sea change in action on gender equality and we hope that your deliberations over the next two days take into account how the Pacific region will best contribute to these.

In November, the Fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness will take place in Busan, Korea. There we will have an opportunity to put strong demands for financing for gender equality on the global agenda. UN Women Pacific will, this week announce scholarships to develop the capacity of Gender Equality advocates in Government and Civil society, to advocate and monitor the incorporation of Gender in the mainstream aid effectiveness discourse and to accelerate adoption of gender responsive budgeting.

In March, the UN will host the 56th Commission on the Status of Women in New York, with a particular focus on rural women. We look forward to strong participation from the Pacific Islands and to presentations of concrete experiences and recommendations for ensuring that rural women are equal beneficiaries of, and contributors to, progress toward the MDGs. In the Pacific, we have prepared substantial annotated bibliographies and literature reviews to share knowledge evidence and data to inform regional and national advocacy and action.

And, in December of 2012, the UN will host “Rio Plus 20, with a strong focus on sustainable development. Here, too, is an opportunity for the Pacific Islands to bring forward the steps that it is taking and the global agreements that it wants to ensure that women are leading the way toward a world that guarantees all of its citizens a more sustainable future. In particular, our offices in Samoa and Fiji are advocating for more green jobs for women in the informal and local economy in a broader framework of the MDGs, legal empowerment of the poor, and Article 14 of CEDAW.

Many of these critical issues are on your agenda this week. Hence, I very much look forward to listening, learning and engaging with you on matters related to our collective commitment to advancing gender equality, and determining how UN Women, as part of the broader UN Family of Agencies working in the Pacific region, can best support your efforts.

To close, let me offer a heartfelt thank you to the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and the participants of this Conference, which includes so many of those who advocated and campaigned tirelessly for the creation of UN Women. I would not be here as a representative of UN Women if not for 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.

Your hopes and expectations are high. They should be; many of you worked long and hard to see this Organization come into being so as to accelerate the achievement of women's rights worldwide. While we have much work ahead to quickly enhance our capacity, expand our partnerships, build our evidence-based policy work and grow our Organization, our partnership with you is the essential ingredient that we require to enable us to succeed and most importantly meet the high expectations that really matter — improving the lives of women and girls both here in the Pacific, and around the world, who need us most.

Thank you very much for inviting me to be with you and thank you for your kind attention.