“Together we must tear down barriers so that women can claim their rights and realize their potential” – Executive Director

Remarks by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the "Women’s economic empowerment, entrepreneurship and participation in political decision-making” seminar, organized by the UN Women Nordic Office in co-operation with the Copenhagen Business School, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Ecclesiastical Affairs, and KVINFO, held in Copenhagen, Denmark, 26 January 2014


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Good afternoon!

It is wonderful to be here with you in Copenhagen, in this UN City!

I thank the Danish Ministry of Gender Equality, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for their partnership with UN Women.

I thank the Copenhagen Business School, and our moderator, the distinguished professor Lynn Wilson Barry.

It is wonderful to see all of you.

I’m looking forward to hearing your views and ideas for the future.

Prior to coming here, I was in Davos at the World Economic Forum.

As I met with CEOs and business leaders, I brought a message of human rights, of equality, and of justice for the women and girls of the world.

And those CEOs replied to me that they agree that we need more women playing their full role in society and the economy.

And they weren’t just saying that to me because I am from UN Women.

In the lead-up to Davos we had major reports and new initiatives on gender equality from Goldman Sachs, Forbes, Credit Suisse, the IMF, and the World Economic Forum itself.

So why is big business so interested in gender equality?

To those of you here from the business school tonight, allow yourself to imagine you were the world’s CEO, looking to position yourself for the 21st century.

Someone comes to you with a plan to do two things: to change your workplace hiring policy to promote equal opportunity, and to restructure your board so that it too reflects gender equality.

If all the modelling suggested that these two changes would improve your governance and your reputation, and increase your output and your profit, year upon year upon year…

What would you do?

It would be a no-brainer. Am I right?

Today, the facts are:

Countries with higher levels of gender equality have higher economic growth.

Companies with more women on their Boards have higher returns to shareholders.

Parliaments with more women consider a broader range of issues. They have more legislation on health, education, anti-discrimination, and child support.

After a century of progress and change, it is clear that in societies with more gender equality, democracy is stronger, economies are more developed and peace is a priority.

I like to quote an African saying:

“Alone we can go fast, but together we can go far.”

I want us to go far together.

Ultimately, when women and men lead together, this leadership better reflects and responds to the diverse needs of society.

We know that having more women leaders also has a role model effect that changes public perception of girls’ potential and aspirations.

And that decision-making improves with diversity, when different insights and views are incorporated.

Nearly 20 years after the famous Beijing Women’s Conference, we have made progress. But tremendous gender gaps remain that must be forcefully addressed.

Today only one in five parliamentarians globally is a woman.

At peace talks, fewer than 10 per cent of peace negotiators have been women during the past decade. And on corporate boards, only 4 per cent of members are female.

In some parts of the world, women’s ability to vote is not a given, even where this right is granted by the constitution.

Women are prevented from voting because they lack access to election information or identification, because they have all-consuming family responsibilities, and because cultural norms against women in public life remain pervasive.

That’s why UN Women runs programmes to include women in the political process:

In Egypt we work with UNDP to provide ID cards to 2 million of the most marginalized women so they can vote and access social services.

In Pakistan we supported a voter education campaign that reached 26 million women. Despite threats to their lives in some cases, Pakistani women cast 40 per cent of the vote at last year’s elections.

In Mali and Colombia, UN Women convened huge meetings of women to demand their place at the negotiating table.

And recently we convened Syrian women from across geographical, religious and political lines to demand a place at Geneva II, and to lay out their vision for a peaceful, democratic and inclusive Syria.

Just as peace treaties that don’t include all parties are not sustainable… a democracy where all are not represented is not worthy of the name.

To be credible, to be trustworthy, women and men, girls and boys, must be able to look at the parliament and see faces that look like their own.

But for women candidates, discrimination, violence, party structures – and yes, poverty and a lack of finance – can make it all but impossible to succeed and get elected.

Today 37 countries have reached the 30 per cent target for women’s representation set by the UN 30 years ago.

And of these, 30 have adopted special temporary measures: legislated candidate quotas, reserved seats for women, or quotas adopted by political parties.

These results have been achieved in places as diverse as Rwanda, Sweden, Senegal, Nicaragua, Timor-Leste, Algeria, my home country South Africa, and just recently, thanks to the work of UN Women and other partners, in Cameroon.

But not without opposition.

Opponents of these measures argue that we should be focused on quality rather than the quantity of women representatives.

Anyone can see that there is no shortage of quality women for positions in business or politics: what’s holding them back is inequality, not ability. 

I’m a practical person, and I think that if proactive initiatives such as quotas get results, they should be supported.

The same goes for women’s economic empowerment.

On this, the evidence isn’t just in – it’s piling up.

A Swedish study recently showed that GDP could increase between 15 and 45 per cent in the European Union as a result of gender equality…

That is, women and men working to the same extent in paid jobs, having an equal share of part-time work and self-employment.

The IMF finds that if the number of female workers rose to the same levels of men in the United Arab Emirates, GDP would rise by 12 per cent, in Japan by 9 per cent, and in the United States by 5 per cent.

Giving women farmers the same tools as men would increase crop yields and reduce hunger by up to 150 million people.

And a recent study found that Fortune 500 companies that most effectively promoted women had profits 34 per cent higher than industry medians.

The gains from greater equality in the labour market are substantial.

And so are the gains from women in parliament and politics.

These are facts.

Facts that show progress…but this progress is not enough.

The International Labor Organization finds that some 860 million women are excluded from economic activity, a number expected to rise to 1 billion in the next decade and grow unless there are significant changes. 

And the World Bank points out that more than 100 countries still have laws that prevent women from playing their full economic role, that ban women from doing certain jobs, accessing finance, owning businesses or conducting legal affairs.

This can change, and it must.

It is a matter of basic human rights.

We need equitable and inclusive laws and policies that promote equal opportunity and equal pay.

This includes proactive measures to account for unpaid care work and equal access to education and training, resources such as land and finance, and decent jobs;

Temporary special measures, such as quotas, to place women in positions of decision-making; in parliament and on corporate boards;

And governments must protect the human rights of girls and women to live free of violence and discrimination.

To make this a women’s century, government, the private sector and civil society must work together.

Together we must tear down barriers so that women can claim their rights and realize their potential.

UN Women is devoting every ounce of our time and energy to this end.

Last century we came together as a world and we brought down apartheid.

This century we will come together to end gender inequality.

At the end of last year, I went home to South Africa for the funeral of our great leader, Nelson Mandela.

I understand that you held a huge memorial for him here in Copenhagen, and that the Mandela film premiered here just a few nights ago.

A lot has been said about why Madiba inspired people from so many countries.

The most convincing for me is his unshakeable, absolute commitment to freedom and dignity for every human being.

Let us carry that courage and commitment forward with us as we work together for the equal rights of men and women.

I thank you!