At Rio+20, diverse women leaders bring ground realities to the forefront


The Women Leaders' Forum, a discussion between civil society, government and public sector representatives with UN heads of agencies, has broadened the dialogue on gender equality and sustainability at Rio +20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainability.

Organized by UN Women in collaboration with the Government of Brazil and other partners, the day-long event highlighted the central role of women in sustainable development, and the ways that robust policies can improve women's lives by reducing poverty, advancing their economic opportunities, and protecting them from adverse health and environmental challenges. It also highlighted the inequalities that continue to slow global progress towards a green economy and a protected environment.

Delivering the opening and closing remarks, UN Women's Executive Director Michelle Bachelet stressed the critical role of the women's movement. “Twenty years ago, the Rio Declaration emphasized that women's full participation is essential to achieving sustainable development; twenty years later, women continue to face inequality in rights, opportunities and participation, she said. “We are here to make our voices heard.

At the Forum, the Women's Major Group, a civil society coalition, also presented the findings of a global survey that gathered the diverse voices of women from around the world. The survey and its dissemination were supported by UN Women in the lead up to Rio+20.

Key concerns were raised by the survey and Forum participants—many engaging via social media from across the world - on the slow progress for gender equality, as outlined in the Beijing Platform for Action, the Rio Declaration of 1992, and other international agreements and treaties. Setbacks in women's political participation in some countries were also noted, along with the need to better safeguard women's sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Many speakers highlighted the way that unsustainable production patterns, such as oil exploitation, continue to threaten eco-systems and community livelihoods, whether by degrading the environment; destroying farms, water sources and fishing grounds; by polluting the air, and fueling conflicts and insecurity; or by creating political tensions and humanitarian crises. Each crisis, due to traditional roles and gender stereotypes, affects women differently and disproportionately to men. Each exacerbates poverty, ill health and mortality.

Yet the Forum also celebrated the resilience and leadership of women, as mobilizers on social, economic and environmental justice, and as entrepreneurs. Among these were the technological innovations led by rural and indigenous women, such as the recycling of waste, as seen in the winning programme of the UN-women supported SEED Gender Equality Award in Nepal; the use of recycled cooking oil as energy; and the transformation of Shea butter into sustainable cosmetic and nutritional products.

The increasing involvement of women in technology and engineering fields were commended as promising signs of women's growing engagement in green jobs, the design of the green economy and better natural resource management. Governments and the private sector were also applauded for their efforts to promote equal opportunities for women and men through policy and practice.

In her closing remarks, Ms. Bachelet concluded that a shift towards people-centred sustainable development must be anchored in human rights, gender equality and women's empowerment, and must lay the foundations of the post-2015 development agenda.