Executive Director addresses dialogue on democracy in Nordic countries, held in Iceland

Opening remarks by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the International Conference Celebrating the Centenary of Women´s Suffrage in Iceland, 22 October 2015.

Date: Thursday, October 22, 2015

[As delivered]

Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson met with UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on 22 October. Photo: UN Women
Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson met with UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on 22 October. Photo: UN Women

Thank you very much, Director Irma Erlingsdóttir, for that kind welcome. And thank you, your Excellency Minister Eygló Harðardóttir for your speech and for your instructive words.

I would also like to acknowledge our former Heads of State, the inspiring women who have led us in Norway as well as in Iceland, as well as the future Heads of State in the room.

I am honoured to be here with you today, and to be part of this conference that celebrates an important point in history: 100 years since 1915, when women were able to vote in national elections. Thank you for including UN Women in this dialogue on “Democracy in the Nordic Countries”.

It is important to congratulate you for the progress you have made and for setting the bar high for other countries. It is also important that you continue to search with even higher ambition and higher goals, because until we have a country that has attained gender equality, our work is not fully done.

We have to remind ourselves that another name for democracy is equality.

Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson and UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Photo: UN Women
Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson met with UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on 22 October. Photo: UN Women

Because democracy means “nothing about us, without us”. Women in every part of the world are searching to be included in the decisions that affect them in their own countries.

In every country in the world, without exception, decisions are taken and constitutions and peace agreements are signed, in many cases, without the full participation of women. These are the same countries that signed the multitude of global and international agreements on human rights and the elimination of discrimination.

This year, when we reviewed 20 years of implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action we found that in many countries women and governments felt that indeed progress had been made and many new, good laws had been passed. But the implementation of those laws, including the representation of women, has not been adequate.

In the twentieth anniversary review of implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, which involved 168 countries, we also found that many countries have embraced gender equality and established what we usually refer to as ‘gender machinery’. We have seen women’s ministries, women’s commissions, and gender focal points in most countries. But in many countries these institutions have been poorly resourced, and are therefore unable to fulfil their mission.

The review found that some of the greatest progress made in the last 20 years was in girls’ education. Many countries, especially those that started at a low level, have made a lot of progress. However, there is more work to be done, because girls are still the majority of those who are not in school. This is not for lack of effort by governments in the area of education; it is therefore important that more support is given so that even more girls can go to school.

We also found that in the last 20 years many governments began to be more targeted in supporting women. Progress was made in women’s health, for instance, decreasing maternal deaths in part because of a targeted approach that was adopted by many governments. So yes, progress has been made, but a lot of work lies ahead.

For the longest time—I would say 100 years in the context of today’s conference—women have been pioneers. Women have shouldered the struggle for progress, not just for women, but for humanity. They have worked with very few resources, very little support and in many cases, around the clock.

I recently saw the statistic that in America only 28 per cent of the women regarded themselves as feminists. Out of that 28 per cent, you could imagine that even fewer would be able to work in a dedicated way to fight for gender justice, and you could extrapolate that to be the likely case in many countries.

This means that the people who have carried us up to this point, and have given us as much progress as we have seen, are really a few highly dedicated women who have made sure that all the issues are as visible as they have become.

But this is not a sustainable arrangement, otherwise we may spend another 100 years still struggling.

So at UN Women, we are taking the approach of broadening the base of those who take responsibility for gender equality.

Young people are critical; religious communities and leaders are critical; traditional leaders in different communities are critical; the other 78 per cent of the women who do not regard themselves feminists have got to come in and take on their share of responsibility.

Men and boys are critical—but those who lead and who have authority even more so. They have to use that authority, while they have it, in the best interest of both men and women.

That is why in our HeForShe campaign, which brings men and boys into the gender equality struggle, we target ordinary men in the community and young people, as well as those who are in leadership positions. Through their leadership these men can exercise the power of one and create change for many, so that these women who are working extraordinarily can find the door open, rather than having to kick it in order to enter.

In Iceland, Finland and Sweden we have seen commitments from the Heads of State who are part of the HeForShe campaign. In the case of Iceland, part of the commitment is to close the gender pay gap by 2022, and I hope we are going to see this, because if there is a breakthrough in one country, that starts the spiral that will benefit other countries.

We are hoping that in January next year, at the World Economic Forum, not just the Heads of State of the countries who have signed up for this campaign, but also those in the private sector, will present a programme of how they plan to use their power of one to change things in the institutions they lead.

The Nordic countries and UN Women have a formidable partnership. These are the countries that supported us at birth and they continue to give us a change to grow, and to grow together.

Together we have been able to fight for the Sustainable Development Goals in which gender is front and centre. We have also been able to fight for gender to be mainstreamed across all the goals, as well as securing one dedicated gender equality goal.

But I have to emphasize we must not confine ourselves as women to the one gender goal, because that gender goal is not implementable unless we make progress on the other goals and ensure that they are engendered.

In the same way, we do not want this agenda to be seen as one either of developing countries or developed countries. It is a universal agenda for the world.

It is an agenda about climate, everybody has a role. It is an agenda about peace and ending conflict, everybody has a role to play there. It is an agenda about gender equality, everybody has a role. It is an agenda about a new economic path for the world so that we reduce inequality. Everybody has a role, between countries and within countries.

So this agenda is universal. If any one of us does not play an active role, all of the goals suffer.

Today, we are also at a very critical time because of the current number of conflicts and displaced people. The most worrying thing is that the conflicts that we have today do not promise to end soon. Diplomacy is the only way to solve these problems, but we are not sure how much it will be able to help us.

The exclusion of women in peacemaking is part of the problem. We have done a study reviewing 15 years of implementing Security Council resolution 1325, and we found that, even though women and civil society are more consulted when peace agreements are being signed, fewer than 10 per cent of the agreements have included women at the table.

The study also found that where women were involved actively in a peace agreement, peace was more likely to be secured and more sustainable, and in fact that the possibility of peace lasting longer than 15 years increased by as much as 35 per cent when women were included.

In many countries, conflict reignites after two years of peace, but where women have participated there is a chance for peace to last longer.

This is because when women participate in peace agreements, they are concerned not just with solving the problems of the parties that are in conflict, but in sorting out the methods of society. They are in a hurry for a ceasefire; they care about humanitarian services, and they want to make sure there is restitution that benefits communities.

After looking at this report, we also were pleased that Member States adopted a new resolution to enhance resolution 1325. The new Security Council resolution 2242 takes forward the struggle for women, peace and security.

The interesting thing when this resolution was debated was that, not only was it co-sponsored by 71 countries, and not only did a Head of State—the Prime Minister of Spain—preside over this debate for the first time, but it had the largest number of speakers in the history of the Security Council.

What does that tell us? Does it mean that we have arrived? That gender equality and peace are seen in the manner in which we would like to see them? I think we must view this as being in some way a positive move, but the actual positive move is going to be in the implementation of the tenets of that resolution.

So, as we deliberate today and tomorrow about how far we have come, we must also make sure we look at all the possibilities we have: the Sustainable Development Goals, what we are pushing forward in women, peace and security, the experience and the insights from implementing the Millennium development Goals, the insights from the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action.

All of these together provide us with a fertile ground for progress, but we need a new strategy; an inclusive strategy where we are not only talking to ourselves.

We have to move beyond preaching to the converted. We have to talk to those who don’t like our agenda, who don’t even like us that much and who disagree with us.

That is the challenge, to make sure that the next 15 years of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals becomes the last mile, where we bend the gender inequality trajectory downwards and downwards forever. And we emerge after 2030 with a completely new world where substantive gender equality will have been reached.

It is possible in this generation to make significant steps, because we rest on the shoulders of giants who have brought us here. Many of them are in this room.