Women’s Empowerment in the Middle East and Worldwide


UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, statement at the Women's Foreign Policy Group, 20 April, 2012 Washington, DC.

[Check against delivery]

Good afternoon! I am so pleased to join you again this year and I would like to thank Patricia Ellis for inviting me and for bringing all of us together.

Thank you Patricia, and thank you every one for coming today, and thank you to Judy Woodruff.

Last year when I addressed the Women's Foreign Policy Group in New York, I spoke about the role of UN Women in empowering women worldwide.

Today, now that UN Women is more than one year old, I would like to give you an update on two priorities, which I am placing special emphasis on this year. These are women's economic empowerment and women's political participation.

Within this context, I will also speak about my recent visits to the Middle East, the changes that are happening over there, and how women are faring in the transition.

I would like to start by providing you with a snapshot of women's political participation. This is so important for many reasons. Today I will name just two.

First, women's participation in politics and the economy reinforces women's civil, political and economic rights.

Secondly, women's participation strengthens democracy, the economy and sustainability. It's not just the right thing to do, having parity and equality make for a healthier society!

Last month, during the UN Commission on the Status of Women, UN Women and the Inter-Parliamentary Union launched a 2012 global map on women in politics. The map shows that progress remains very slow and uneven and needs to be accelerated to achieve equality.

Out of 193 countries, only 17 have women Heads of State or Government—up from 2005 when only 8 countries had women leaders.

Only 17 percent of ministers are women, up from 14 percent in 2005.

And only 19.5 percent of legislators are women, a mere half point increase from two years ago.

These are worrying statistics at this point of history and impossible to justify.

If we look at the total percentages, we see that the Nordics have the highest percentage of women ministers at 48 percent followed by the Americas at 21 percent, and sub-Saharan Africa at 20 percent.

In Europe the percentage of women ministers is 15 percent. In the Pacific, 11 percent, followed by Asia at 10 percent, and the Arab States remain the lowest at only 7 percent.

The number of countries with more than 30 percent female parliamentarians has gone up from 26 in 2010 to 30 today. This is an important indicator because attaining 30 percent of women in parliament is a target in the Beijing Platform for Action from the Fourth World Conference on Women. So this is something that we need to keep pushing for.

We need to keep pushing because we know that temporary special measures, such as quotas, accelerate women's participation in politics. Out of the 59 countries holding elections in 2011, 17 of them had legislated quotas. Women gained 27 percent of parliamentary seats in these countries compared to 16 percent in countries without quotas.

We also know that when there are more women in parliament, when women and men lead together, decisions better reflect and respond to the diverse needs of society.

Wherever I go, I call for more women parliamentarians, Presidents and Prime Ministers. I encourage countries to use quotas to expand women's participation. This is so important because democracy grows stronger with the full and equal participation of women.

This is especially relevant to the transitions in the Arab world - from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya and Yemen, where calls for justice, freedom and dignity echoed throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Women were at the forefront of these movements, leading protests, marches and social media campaigns to change the status quo. And women should be at the forefront now in meaningful political participation so they can help chart the future of their countries.

Yet over the course of the year it has become clear that women will face significant challenges ahead in seeking equal participation in the political arena.

I've visited the region several times, most recently to Libya and Morocco, and before that to Beirut for a regional conference on democratic transition in the Arab world, and to Cairo three times to meet with women and young people from Egypt and the region. UN Women is supporting women's rights, empowerment and participation.

While the Arab uprisings and transition have created the opportunity for greater gender equality, they also render the previous gains by women in the region vulnerable. There is constitutional redrafting taking place in several countries including Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

And we have to stay focused on women's participation in political processes so that women's rights—economic, cultural, social and political rights—are protected and advanced, and enshrined in the new constitutions.

Furthermore, the transition in the short term has not been inclusive of women in decision making bodies as evidenced by the recent Tunisian and Egyptian elections, and the composition of the transitional council in Libya.

If we examine the situation of women's political participation and representation, we see that although there were some encouraging developments such as Tunisia adopting a law securing parity on candidate lists and the introduction of quotas for women parliamentarians in Morocco which resulted in a 6 percentage point increase in women legislators last year, the so-called Arab Spring has yet to deliver for women in politics.

Indeed by the end of 2011, women represented only 10.7 percent of parliamentarians in the Arab States—more or less the same proportion as that in 2010 and, despite the promising start to the year, the Arab region remains the only one in the world without any parliament that includes at least 30 percent women.

In Libya, the adopted Election Law stipulates that the General National Congress (constituent assembly) would be composed of 200 members elected freely and directly, and requires parity on party lists for 80 of these seats.

In Egypt, however, the new law on the Exercise of Political Rights amended the previous quota for women, which used to allocate 64 seats (or 12 percent) in the parliament to women. The amended law required each political party to include one woman on their candidate list, but did not require women to be placed in “winnable slots.

The January 2012 parliamentary results in Egypt saw a dramatic drop from 12 percent to only 2 percent of women now in parliament out of 508 members.

Needless to say, these developments are less than satisfactory, given that temporary special measures have been a key strategy for including women in countries emerging from conflict. In fact, a third of all parliaments with more than 30% of women have been in States in democratic transition.

So this period of transition is critical for women and for those seeking democracy.

Women's rights advocates are calling for genuine transformation that ensures the equal rights of all citizens, and provides women and men with equal opportunity and participation.

Another key factor is economic empowerment because there is high youth unemployment and a low level of women's participation in the labour market. The percentage of women in the labour force in Arab States is 26 percent, half the rate of 52 percent globally.

And overall it is clear that having the world's lowest representation of women in politics and the labour force hurts both Arab women and also current and future prospects for the region.

And here I would like to say a few words about Afghanistan. As I wrote recently in the International Herald Tribune, the once remarkable gains in protecting and promoting equality between women and men are now facing their most serious challenges as the world redefines its role in Afghanistan.

For over 10 years, Afghan women have fought to ensure their rights and important gains have been made, namely a Constitution that enshrines equality between women and men, a Parliament in which women hold 28 percent of the seats, the implementation of the country's first law on ending violence against women, and the establishment of shelters and services for women and girls recovering from violence.

We also see that girls are back in school — constituting 2.4 million of the more than 7 million children in primary and secondary education. The Women's Affairs Ministry and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission have been strengthened.

That Afghanistan has taken so many steps in so short a time is highly notable — and a sign of hope for a stable, just and democratic country.

But as the peace and reconciliation process evolves, as the International Security Assistance Force draws down, and as more and more parties are encouraged to come to the negotiating table, Afghan women are seeing that the pace of change as regards women's issues has not only slowed down but in some ways has gone into reverse.

Early-warning indicators are there, but not yet being heard. Violence against women and girls — in the form of physical and emotional abuse, and forced marriages — remains at almost pandemic levels. Impunity of the perpetrators of violence is almost absolute.

Women who run away from forced marriages continue to be jailed. Women are often pressured to withdraw complaints and opt for mediation by elders even in cases of serious crimes of violence, leaving them without any protection or justice. Religious leaders recently released a statement justifying certain types of domestic violence, proposing limitations on women's education and employment opportunities, and calling for the wearing of the hijab.

The single most important recourse we have to mitigate these risks is to ensure that women are engaged, that their voices are heard and their perspectives are taken into account in the peace and reconciliation process.

Women struggled to be heard at the international conference on Afghanistan in December in Bonn, and they try to be heard in the discussions of Afghanistan's High Peace Council. They will strive to make their mark at the NATO summit meeting on security next month in Chicago as well as at the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan in July.

The government of Afghanistan and the international community must listen to Afghan women — and not allow their gains to be given up in any peace process. Women have suffered immeasurably during the last 35 years of war — and it is unacceptable that they should now pay the highest price for any peace deal.

Women cannot accept peace at any price, nor should the international community.

All over the world, women's full and equal participation in the political and economic arena is fundamental to democracy and justice, which people are demanding. Equal rights and opportunity underpin healthy economies and societies.

So we need to keep working on many fronts. This is what we are doing at UN Women together with partners in government, civil society and the private sector, and with people like you.

We are now gearing up for Rio+20—the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. We know that no development can be sustainable without the full and equal participation of women. On the eve of the Rio Summit, we will be convening together with Brazil a summit of women leaders to make our demands heard.

We are also looking forward to next year's Commission on the Status of Women, which is focused on ending violence against women.

All over the world, women have shown time and again, that no matter the difficulties, no matter the obstacles, women rise to the occasion. I see this wherever I go and it only motivates me to do more, to build stronger partnerships and alliances, and that is why I am so pleased to be with all of you here today.

I thank you for your support and look forward to our discussions.