Keynote address of Michelle Bachelet at Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference of Women Speakers of Parliament in India


Keynote address of UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet at Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference of Women Speakers of Parliament. New Delhi, India, 3 October 2012.

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Mr. Anders B. Johnson, Secretary General of the Inter Parliamentary Union,

Ms. Meira Kumar, Honorable Speaker, Lok Sabha the Lower House of India's Parliament,

Distinguished women speakers of parliament from around the world,

I am so happy to be here with all of you and I would like to pay tribute to each and every one of you as women speakers and leaders in 44 parliaments. I thank honourable Speaker Meira Kura and IPU Anders Johnson for inviting me. I remember in the old days they used to say a woman's place is in the home. Now we know that women are also at home in the parliament, in the high court, and in the executive office.

I have been a leader long enough to know that leadership is not a personality trait or a list of qualities, or something that can be taught in school or in a seminar. Leadership requires vision and it depends on trust. Leadership is about listening and learning, and getting people together to do something that you believe in.

That is why I am so pleased to be here today in New Delhi with all of you at the 7th IPU meeting of women speakers of parliament. UN Women stands with you and the Inter-Parliamentary Union to advance equality between women and men, and girls and boys at home, in the larger society and in every country's parliament.

We have achieved success. The world now recognizes that solving the world's problems requires the full and equal participation of women. Now we need to match this recognition with action. And one the best places to accelerate gender equality—to pass the laws, policies and budgets needed to advance women's empowerment and equality—is within each national parliament.

Now I know this is not an easy task. The road to equality is long and as many of you know, it can be treacherous. There are hijackers who take away the keys when you start the engine, and roadblocks put in place to stop you from going forward.

I have been the head of UN Women for 21 months. During this time, I have travelled around the world, visited many of your countries and listened to women, men and young people. And I can tell you that the human drive for freedom, justice and equality remains strong, alive and beating in the human heart.

At the same time societies are experiencing rapid change. And social, political and economic stress threatens hard-won gains for women. So we must stand together, and expand our circle of friends, partnerships, alliances and coalitions. We must remain strong and united.

Expanding the roles and rights of women is the agenda to complete during the 21st century.

All over the world, parents want the same opportunities for their daughters and their sons. Every baby boy and baby girl should be welcomed into our world with the same joy, love and celebration.

The case for gender equality is a case for human rights and human dignity, and for justice and democracy.

Democracy is about the right to vote and also the right to run for office and be elected. Democracy is based on the principle of representation - and you cannot have representation of a population that is half women without having them be part of decision-making.

Given the challenges that we face today—from climate change to economic meltdowns to expanding insecurity, we can no longer afford to marginalize or exclude women. Wherever I go, I call for more women in decision-making. The world needs more women leaders.

And let me say this: Women are not asking for more, we are just asking for a fair chance and our fair share.

Women are increasingly active as voters. Research finds that across south Asia the percentage of women who turn out to cast the ballot equals or exceeds the percentage of men - 54 per cent to 52 per cent. More women are casting their votes even though they face violence and intimidation by those who seek to keep them disenfranchised.

However, the progress of women as voters is not matched by their increased presence in parliaments. Women constitute 51 per cent of the world's population, yet they are under-represented in the allegedly representative bodies that make key decisions affecting their lives: currently women average a mere 20 percent of parliamentarians worldwide.

That is why I am a strong advocate for affirmative action, for temporary special measures, such as quotas, until we have a level playing field.

Here in India, quotas have spurred one of the world's greatest successes in women's empowerment and grassroots democracy. Just a decade ago women comprised less than 5 per cent of elected leaders in village councils across this great nation. Today more than 40 per cent of local council leaders are women. This dramatic and rapid change is the result of quotas.

The Constitution was amended in 1993 to reserve at least one-third of the seats for women in India's village governing bodies. Today a million and a half women across India have been elected into these panchayats, which administer public services and resolve disputes on matters ranging from violence against women and girls to marriage to property.

From Rajasthan to West Bengal to Andhar Pradesh, women are raising their voices, demanding change and strengthening justice, equality and democracy.

This experience holds lessons for the central government's current effort to extend quotas for women to the national level, and the world is waiting to see the outcome.

The Women's Reservation Bill, passed by the upper house of Parliament, would set aside one-third of the elected seats for women in the lower house of the Parliament and in all legislative assemblies. If it becomes law, it could potentially lead to one of the most significant changes in India since independence in 1947. It will send a strong message to the women of India. And it will send a strong message to the world that India is leading the way for democracy, for women and for equality.

UN Women encourages India and governments around the world to adopt special temporary measures such as quotas to increase the number of women in parliament and positions of decision-making and to advance gender equality.

Our position is in line with international standards-the international women's treaty, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence and Discrimination against Women, and the Platform for Action of the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women.

To take this vision forward, one year ago during the General Assembly, leaders signed a declaration to increase women's political participation as fundamental to democracy, peace and sustainable development. And the world's nations adopted a General Assembly resolution to increase women's political participation. I urge all of you to use this General Assembly resolution to hold leaders accountable.

Today one year later, we are making progress. From Algeria to Libya to Senegal, more women serve as representatives in their national parliaments. The number of countries reaching the 30 per cent mark of women in parliament has risen from 27 to 33, and 30 of these countries achieved this through temporary special measures such as quotas.

UN Women has been privileged to be a part of the process in most of these countries. For example, in the most recent case - Senegal- where the proportion of female parliamenarians nearly doubled in the last election, UN Women played a critical role. Starting in 2008, we supported the committee responsible for drafting the legislation and the coalition of political parties to advocate for the passing of the parity law. This paved the way for the 45 per cent women parliamentarians now in its National Assembly.

In every region, countries have increased women's political participation by passing laws and reforming constitutions, building coalitions, training women leaders, and supporting women's movements and women voters.

It is a matter of straightforward justice, and it is also a matter of improving the democratic quality of representation. By having more women as legislators, more concerns - different concerns, will be brought to the public arena to respond to the diverse needs of society. Women leaders have proved themselves to be strong advocates for many issues including girls' education, clean water and sanitation, sustainable energy, decent work, healthcare, and pensions for the elderly.

Having more women in politics also has a positive effect in terms of creating positive role models and a new vision of the future and what is possible. A 2007 study in India found that the increased presence and visibility of female politicians in local government raised the academic performance and career aspirations of young women. Seeing women leaders in action also changed for the better the attitudes and expectations of boys and parents, paving the way for equality for current and future generations.

I believe that parliaments and government should lead by example. As speakers and members of parliament you are the bridge between people and politicians in power. By listening to women from the grassroots, you can make sure that their needs are addressed and their rights are protected through the passage of laws, policies and budgets. And women and men at the local level need your expertise and support to translate national laws and policies into real change and impact at the local level.

My friends,

In a democracy with free and fair elections, often we focus narrowly on numbers. While a critical mass of women is necessary to ensure women's representation, the quality of that representation and effectiveness as political leaders is equally important for sustaining that leadership and for advancing gender equality as elected officials.

The IPU surveys and studies since 2008 have pointed out that women are increasingly visible as advocates of gender equality in Parliaments.

We know from recent research - as well as from our own experience at UN Women - that for women parliamentarians to be effective leaders, and advocates for gender equality, they need to work together with civil society partners, women's movements, men, and allies in academia. It is only through working in partnership that true change happens and can be sustained.

We also know that lasting change requires parliaments that respond to both the needs of men and women, in its structures, operations, methods and ways of working. The collection of laws and policies for promoting women's political participation are necessary but insufficient. There must be capacity building - not only training but also mentoring and networking, and awareness raising to tackle harmful gender stereotypes and increase the electability and perceived legitimacy of women candidates.

And we must acknowledge once and for all that gender equality and ending violence and discrimination against women are not only matters of concern for women. These are issues that can and should be taken up by everybody. Gender equality is not for women only. It is of deep and lasting value to men, women, boys and girls and to society as a whole.

When girls and boys can get an education, when girls can avoid child marriage, when girls and women can live free of fear and cruelty, and women and men can enjoy equal rights and opportunities, families and societies are healthier, and economies are more prosperous.

Now and in the future, our economies and societies will increasingly rely on women's ability to realize their potential. It is estimated that if women received equal opportunities and equal pay, GDP would rise by 9 percent in the US, 13 percent in the Eurozone and 16 per cent in Japan. In fact, unleashing the potential of women could raise economic growth here in the Asia Pacific region by an estimated $89 billion a year. And it is not just a matter of growth alone. By strengthening women's economic role and economic rights, growth can be more inclusive and more sustainable.

The 21st century is the time for gender equality and women's empowerment. UN Women is working worldwide to increase women's political participation and leadership, to enhance women's economic opportunities, to end violence against women and girls, to expand women's role in peace-making and peace-building, and to support planning, policymaking and budgeting that promotes gender equality.

We look forward to working with all of you to strengthen equality, justice and democracy.

I thank you.