Michelle Bachelet spotlights remarkable Australian women in her address to students at the Australian National University


UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet addressed Gender Equality and Women's Rights at Australian National University Canberra on 24 August 2012. Photo credit: Rodrigo Vargas

Statement by Michelle Bachelet UN Women Executive Director on Gender Equality and Women's Rights at Australian National University Canberra, Australia, 24 August 2012.

[ Check against delivery ]

Thank you very much,

Good morning,

I am honored to be here in Canberra, and to be hosted by two forward-looking institutions—AusAID and the Gender Institute of the Australian National University. You both promote equal rights and equal opportunities. I am grateful for your hospitality and the hospitality of the Government and people of Australia.

During my visit to this impressive country, I've met with officials, members of parliament and civil society, and I congratulate Australia for being a leader for women and equality. I thank Australia for its strong support of UN Women and look forward to strengthened collaboration.

Today I am happy to be here with all of you at the Australian National University. And I am proud to bring to you the greetings and goodwill of my colleagues worldwide at UN Women. We are the newest United Nations agency. UN Women was created in 2010 to advance gender equality and women's empowerment. We were established with support from women's groups and UN Members States, and with high hopes for greater progress for women the world over.

Today UN Women has a presence in 75 countries and we're working with partners, including Australia, on several key priorities. We are working together to advance women's political leadership and equal economic participation. We can no longer afford to leave women out. Unleashing women's potential in the economy and politics will foster healthier societies and more inclusive economic growth and recovery.

We are working together to end violence against women and girls. This violence is not inevitable. We all have to Say NO, to end impunity and stand up for zero tolerance. We are working together to fully engage women in peace talks and peace-building. There can be no peace or security when women are denied a seat at the peace table and suffer sexual violence. Women's voices need to be heard to build peace that is lasting and sustainable.

And we are working to promote planning and budgeting for gender equality. We do so because policies and programmes should equally benefit males and females and solid budgets need to back them.

My friends, we are working together to deliver on a promise written by the founders of the United Nations in the UN Charter, the promise of the equal rights of men and women.

I am honoured to be the first leader of UN Women. And I applaud every individual, government and organization working for women's empowerment and equality. It is my firm belief that equality is fundamental to human freedom, justice, peace and democracy. Part of this belief is rooted in my own experience.

I have lived through dictatorship and the abuse of power in my home country of Chile. These were difficult times for many Chilean families like us, who lost a loved one, or were persecuted or exiled.In 1975 I came here to Australia and was welcomed with open arms. I thank you. I then went on with my mother to Germany.

When I returned home from exile, I finished my medical degree and worked for years as a pediatrician. And I can tell you that the principle of Do No Harm applies just as much to the responsibility of political leadership as it does to the discipline of medicine.

The principles of inclusiveness, justice and equality underpin a healthy society. During the past century, we saw an expansion of women's legal rights and entitlements. One hundred years ago, only two countries allowed women to vote, and Australia was one of them. Today, that right is virtually universal.

Many women came before us and paved the way. Today I pay tribute to one of them. Her name is Henrietta Dugdale, and in 1852 she took up residence here in Australia. Henrietta made all her own clothes, grew her own vegetables, and was adept in carpentry. She was also an excellent chess player. Henrietta believed in birth control, fought for women's equal social and legal status, and for women's right to participate fully in politics.

Thanks to Henrietta and her friends, the first women in the world granted the right to run for Parliament were South Australian women in 1895. In every region, the struggle for equality continues.

From Australia to Afghanistan, from Malaysia to Mexico, from Tunisia to Tanzania, in every country, women, men and young people continue to stand up for freedom, equality and democracy. We can all take pride in the barriers that were broken at the Summer Games in London. For the first time in the history of the Olympics, women competed from every participating nation and in every sports category. All 204 competing nations had women on their teams. This set a new world record.

I would also like to note that the majority of the medals won by Australia, 20 out of 35, were won by women.The world of sport is an important and inspiring part of our wider world. I am proud to announce that UN Women is joining forces with the International Olympic Committee to promote gender equality and women's empowerment. Women all over the world deserve a level playing field.

And let me say this. Equality is not something that UN Women, or any institution can achieve alone. Equality depends on each and all of us. From the government that changes its laws, to the company that advances equal pay and equal opportunity, to the mother and father who teach their daughter and son that all human beings should be treated equally, to the students who speak out and demand change. We are all part of the solution.

Today I will talk about the three priorities that I have set for this year: Expanding women's political participation and leadership, advancing women's economic empowerment, and ending violence against women and girls. All of us deserve the same fair chance to contribute to our societies and live up to our potential. When everyone can contribute on an equal footing, our communities and nations are healthier and stronger.

Yet the World Bank finds that more than 100 countries continue to impose legal differences between men and women in areas such as women's ability to sign a contract or travel abroad, manage property and interact with public authorities or the private sector.

In many countries, women still have unequal rights to land and to inheritance. Of the 700 million illiterate adults in our world, nearly two in three are women. All over the world, women continue to earn less than men for the same work, and to do most of the unpaid work—cooking, cleaning and childcare.

Every 90 seconds, a woman dies in pregnancy or due to complications from childbirth even though we have the knowledge and skills for safe delivery. And one in three women will experience domestic or sexual violence in her lifetime here in Australia and around the world, with surveys showing that that such violence affects up to 2 in three women in some of the Pacific island nations.

Here in Australia, the National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children estimates that such violence costs the nation about $13.6 billion each year. This is a high price to pay. But the truth is that we cannot put a real price on the suffering of women and children and the impact this violence has on future generations. All over the world, the first step has been taken. The silence that for so many years allowed these crimes to continue is being broken.

Today more than 125 countries have specific laws that penalize domestic violence, a remarkable gain from just a decade ago. Studies show that countries with strong laws have lower rates of violence against women.

Moreover, the United Nations Security Council now recognizes sexual violence as a deliberate tactic of war. And advances in international law have, for the first time, made it possible to prosecute crimes of sexual violence committed during and after conflict.

Today women and men and young people around the world and here in Australia are coming together to promote ‘zero tolerance' for violence against women and girls.

In Fiji, village committees are reporting violators to the police. They are telling everyone that No Forms of Violence or Abuse will be tolerated. And I hear reports that men's behavior is changing and, this comes as no surprise that women are celebrating.

Last year 15 communities in Fiji joined the zero tolerance campaign, and 15 more will join this year. Here in the Pacific and in all regions, UN Women is proud to support efforts to end impunity, to provide justice and vital services to survivors, and to prevent and end violence against women and girls.

The agenda to secure gender equality and women's rights is a challenge for every country, rich and poor, north and south. And it is something I have fought for my whole life. As a young mother and a pediatrician, I experienced the struggles of balancing family and career and saw how the absence of childcare prevented women from paid employment.

The opportunity to help remove these barriers was one of the reasons I went into politics. It is why I supported policies that extended health and childcare services to families and prioritized public spending for social protection such as pensions for the elderly.

As the President of Chile, I worked hard to create equal opportunities for both men and women so they could contribute their talents and experiences to the challenges facing our country. That is why I proposed a Cabinet that had an equal number of men and women. Governments must lead by example. I am a strong advocate for special temporary measures, such as quotas, to increase women's presence in parliament and on corporate boards.

I applaud Australia's commitment to a minimum 40 percent representation of women and men on Australian Government boards.

During these times of economic crises, social upheaval and political transformation, we can no longer afford to leave women out. Last September, UN Women brought together women leaders at the United Nations to call for increased women's political participation and decision-making.

In December 2011, the nations of the world agreed to take concrete and proactive measures to advance women's participation and leadership in politics. When more women are leaders, decisions better reflect and respond to the diverse needs of society. As I have learned: When one woman is a leader, it changes her. When more women are leaders, it changes politics and policies.

From Sri Lanka to Costa Rica, from Rwanda to Spain, where quotas have been used to boost the number of women legislators, progressive laws have been passed—to secure land rights, to tackle violence against women, and to improve health care, reproductive rights and employment. Where women have organized, sometimes across party lines to ensure women's interests are represented, change has followed.

The bottom line is that women's voices need to be heard. We need more women in decision-making positions. This is especially important for decisions that have a major impact on women's lives, such as sexual and reproductive health, and reproductive rights, which are fundamental to gender equality and women's empowerment.

Once we have equal representation of women and men in parliaments we will hopefully not need to explain anymore that the spirit and body of women cannot be divided and that if they can vote for or be elected to the highest office, women should also be able to decide if, when, and how many children they want to have. Women themselves know best what they need and deserve.

Today women make up less than 10 percent of world leaders and less than one in five members of parliament. The 30 percent critical mass mark for women's representation in parliament has been reached or exceeded in only 33 countries.

And we know that here in the Pacific, with the exception of Australia and New Zealand, the representation of women in Parliament has the dubious distinction of being the lowest in the world, at only 3.5 per cent compared to 20 per cent globally.

Moreover, the majority of the parliaments in the world without any women at all or only one woman are here in the Pacific region. But the good news is that things are changing.

Three female candidates were recently elected to join the 9th Parliament of Papua New Guinea. The last woman, Julie Soso, is the first woman ever to be elected to parliament from the country's Highlands region, an area known for its ‘big man' politics. She is only the seventh woman ever to be elected to the parliament of Papua New Guinea.

Women were supported by a campaign called “Know Your Woman Candidate that was launched in the country for this year's national elections.

The campaign is the first of its kind in Papua New Guinea, and was spearheaded by the National Council of Women with support from UN Women. This generated a lot of interest in the country and we saw increased political support to women candidates like never before.

The Bill to bring the 22 reserve seats for women into the parliament in Papua New Guinea is still pending. And we look forward to continued momentum.

Progress is also underway in Somoa, where the Prime Minister last year proposed a 10 percent quota to be introduced for the next elections. And steps are being taken in Vanuatu to include 30 per cent representation of women at the municipal and provincial councils and national Parliament by 2015.

Overall, the issue of reserving seats is being widely debated here in the Pacific. And UN Women is providing support to countries, candidates, political parties, voters, electoral commissions and legislative efforts to ensure that more women vote and get elected.

Having more women leaders will accelerate progress for peace, equality and democracy.

Another priority is advancing women's economic status. Today more than half of working women worldwide are in vulnerable jobs, gender wage gaps are still large, and balancing work and family life remains a daily struggle.

By strengthening women's economic role, economic recovery can be faster, fairer and more sustainable. Studies show that women are more likely than men to put their income back into their communities, driving hunger, illiteracy and mortality rates down and expanding economic growth.

There is a strong economic case for achieving gender equality.

It is estimated that closing the gap between women's and men's workforce participation could boost Australia's gross domestic product by up to 13 percent.

The World Economic Forum reports that greater gender equality correlates positively with per capita gross national product. Countries with greater equality between women and men have economies that are more competitive and grow faster.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization finds that giving women farmers the same access as men to seeds and fertilizer and other inputs could raise national yields by up to 4 percent, and reduce the number of hungry people by 100 to 150 million.

And a UN study finds that removing the barriers to women's full economic participation here in this region could boost the Asia Pacific economy by up to $89 billion US dollars a year.

For these reasons and more, UN Women is supporting countries to remove barriers that limit women's economic participation—from providing training and skills to making laws, policies and conditions fair for women.

We are working with the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the World Food Programme to support rural women. They produce nearly half of the food in developing countries and their empowerment is necessary in and of itself and also for global food security.

We are reaching out to the private sector. In fact, I will go from Canberra to Sydney to attend a special meeting on the Women's Empowerment Principles. So far more than 400 companies worldwide have embraced these principles to advance equal opportunities and equal pay and women's leadership. I am sure that more forward looking companies here in Australia will soon join us.

I commend Australia for its achievements to promote equal opportunities so that women and men can make genuine choices about their participation in the economy, society and at home.

From the paid parental leave scheme, to Dad and partner pay so that paid work and housework is shared, to family payments targeted to those most in need, to quality childcare that is affordable and accessible, to a pay equity decision this year, to pension reform, to the Australian National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security that was launched this year—Australia is taking concrete steps for equality between women and men.

Just last month I had the pleasure to attend the launch of a new documentary film, Side by Side, on Women, Peace and Security. The film was produced by the Australian Government's Civil-Military Centre, in partnership with UN Women.

The focus is on protecting women's rights in conflict zones and promoting their participation in peace processes. The film and its educational materials help educate the military, police and civilians on the complex issues they face when deployed on peace missions in the Asia Pacific region and around the world.

Today the majority of victims of armed conflict—some 90 percent—are women and children. Yet the percentage of women at peace tables or in the police and military component of peace missions remains in the single digits. Historically, more than half of peace agreements fail within five years. This record could be improved by bringing more women into peace talks and peace-building.

UN Women is proud of our partnership with Australia and other countries worldwide to make sure that women's voices are heard and justice is secured for women and men during and after conflict.

Today there is greater understanding than ever before that women's empowerment and gender equality are not only goals in their own right; they are also critical means to an end—peace and progress that is just and sustainable.

This is so important here in the Pacific, where the vision of sustainability is threatened by climate change, drought and rising sea levels. That is why UN Women is supporting efforts here for women, climate change and disaster risk reduction.

Whether we are talking about climate change, or peace and security, or economic growth, or justice and democracy, there is one fact that is undeniable. We will stand a better chance of finding solutions if we fully tap into the wisdom, knowledge and leadership of the entire population.

Now is the time for women's equal rights, opportunity and leadership. Now is the time for real equality between women and men.

I thank you for your strong support to UN Women. I thank the government and the people of Australia.