UN Women Executive Director speaks at the last of the Beijing+20 regional reviews, in Cairo

Address by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the Beijing+20 review and Ministerial Event, Cairo, 2 February 2015.


 [As delivered]

Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, H.E Nabil Al Arabi; Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), H.E Rima Khalaf; Your Excellencies; Ladies and Gentlemen.

I warmly thank the League of Arab States and ESCWA for inviting me to be here with you today. I also thank you for having been such critical partners for UN Women in advancing gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment across the region. And I thank each and every country that took the time to review the implementation of the Beijing Platform of Action.

This regional review of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action comes at a very important moment, in a very important year, as we lead up to next month’s global Commission on the Status of Women (CSW59), and as Member States develop the new sustainable development framework.

CSW59 will focus on a synthesized report of all your reviews. We will consider a way forward.

The review shows that 20 years after the Beijing Conference, 15 years after the Millennium Development Goals and after more than 100years of gender struggle, no country in the world has achieved gender equality.

This is a global challenge and call to action – and also a very personal one.

In this region we have seen both progress and setbacks. In this room you represent the forces of change and progress. Your leadership is critical as we make a frank assessment of our successes and the challenges that remain.

This honest appraisal is what we need in order to understand how to change the status quo and how to accelerate transformative action. So that the change we make is irreversible.

I commend all 21 countries that submitted national reports on the status of the women’s rights agenda along the 12 critical areas of the Beijing Platform for Action.

This completeness of reporting further underlines the political commitment of this region – so firmly and impressively evidenced by the Cairo Declaration of February 2014.

I would like emphasize a few particular highlights of progress:

  • Decision-making and women’s leadership:
    • Women actively participated in political movements and revolutions in some countries. This enhanced their role in the development of constitutions and legislations.
    • Women’s representation in parliament increased even at the ministerial level. Algeria and Tunisia reached 30 per cent of women in parliament, and Egypt introduced a 25 per cent quota for women in local councils.
  • Legislative reforms at the national level deserve recognition:
    • In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) women can now pass on their nationality to their children.
    • Morocco and Tunisia have progressive new constitutions.
    • Egypt has a new decree on sexual harassment.
    • And Libya is making efforts to bring reparations to victims of sexual violence.
  • Economic empowerment: 
    • Nine Arab countries have taken steps to integrate gender equality and women’s rights in economic structures and policies.
    • This is reflected in improved gender-sensitive labour laws, women’s increased access to finance and income-generation programmes, in addition to integrating rural women in economic activities.
  • Health:
    • Significant progress was made particularly in maternal health and child care, with reduced maternal deaths.
    • Access has improved - with the establishment of specialized maternal health centres, hospitals and institutions
  • Education:
    • Seven Arab countries have passed legislation and implemented mechanisms to fight illiteracy and improve women’s and girls’ access to education. 
    • There have been improvements in women’s literacy. In many countries, women’s educational achievements match or exceed those of their male counterparts.
    • Ending violence against women:
      • Most Arab countries have adopted new legislation aimed at strengthening the protection of women and children from violence.
      • Establishment of laws to address violence against women and women trafficking; establishment of special units to support strategies on violence against women; establishment of shelters to support women exposed to gender-based violence, and awareness campaigns on gender-based violence and violence against women. 
    • Poverty:
      • Twelve Arab countries have taken legislative measures such as increasing women’s access to microfinance, and the establishment of social safety nets, direct cash assistance, and support for rural women’s empowerment.
      • This has resulted in a substantial increase in microfinance loans for women compared to previous years, as well as increased direct cash assistance to women, and to female-headed households.
    • Elimination of discrimination
      • Seventeen Arab States have joined international conventions, treaties and agreements that protect women’s rights including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform for Action.
      • In 2014, Palestine joined CEDAW and Tunisia lifted its reservations on CEDAW.

    There is much to celebrate in these advances.

    However, deficits in gender equality remain great, particularly for the most marginalized women and girls, who suffer multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.

    Women lack equal voice, participation and leadership in decision-making at all levels, including in peace and security discussions. This is critical to correct in this region as we nurture peace and rebuild nations and societies.

    Although there have been resounding advancements in women’s participation in parliaments in North Africa, female representation in elected bodies in the Arab region is the lowest in the world.

    Your Excellencies, lack of balance in the law-makers has resulted in unbalanced laws.

    Discrimination in the law persists in many countries, particularly in the area of family law. This includes tolerance of harmful practices to women and girls.

    A World Bank study of 143 economies globally found that 128 countries (90 per cent) still have at least one legal difference in how men and women are treated.

    The economic empowerment of women remains a significant challenge.

    Women’s increasing educational attainments and rising participation in the labour market in some areas have not been matched with better conditions, prospects for advancement and equal pay.

    With the exception of Kuwait, which has the highest percentage of local female labour participation in the Gulf, (53 per cent, according to the Global Gender Index 2014), the Arab region has the lowest rank of female economic participation globally.

    The regional review report notes the negative impact of a lack of gender-sensitive economic policies, and the cultural perceptions of a woman’s role.

    Overwhelming evidence from around the world shows that women’s empowerment is a powerful force for economic growth, social and political stability, and sustainable peace.  It expands women’s choice and increases protection against violence and poverty.

    This is especially important as new forms of violence by extremist groups are devastating the lives of women and girls and their communities in Iraq and Syria, and in several other regions worldwide. They are devastating nations. Women have a key role to prevent conflicts and heal nations.

    These violations are the extreme end of a global wave of fundamentalist conservatism that is taking back hard-won human rights for women and girls.

    Yet, we know that empowered women are the foundation of resilient and stable communities that can prevent and stand firm against radicalization.

    We must be as fierce in defending those rights and those communities as those who seek to obliterate them.

    We also need to unite, and to put timeframes on the ending of early and forced marriages and female genital mutilation. Let us ensure that we have the policy and plan of action for this. Let us uphold girls’ education.

    I would like to recognize the League of Arab States for its exemplary leadership and commitment to policies and actions that will accelerate implementation of gender equality and women’s empowerment goals in the region. 

    Together as a region you can use this leadership to unite on flagship actions that ignite progress for all, which must include education.

    The Cairo Declaration inspires us with a vision and concrete roadmap for moving forward. It reignites momentum for renewed engagement in the women’s rights agenda.

    We rely on you, as 22 countries, to protect the one gender goal in the sustainable development goals. We also need to ensure that gender-sensitive targets and indicators are included in all other goals.

    We rely on you to support Planet 50:50 by 2030. We rely on you to make the post-2015 agenda a game-changer. Together with the Beijing+20 regional report recommendations, it provides a clear roadmap for moving forward, including a call for gender-responsive budgeting. Without proper investment in the women’s agenda we will not make change.

    I urge everyone here today to commit to carrying forward the Cairo Declaration’s detailed vision of social justice and women’s human rights for generations to come.

    Make the period from 2015 to 2020 a period of unprecedented change for women and girls. Your progress here is a win for all women and girls in the world.

    We count on your leadership to tackle the barriers that remain for Arab women, and to show the global community that no challenge is insurmountable with the right political will, leadership and social mobilization.

    So much can happen in a decade and in a generation.

    You are – we are – the generation to make that change happen.