Women and social inclusion: From Beijing to Post-2015"

Opening remarks by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at a global meeting to mark the 20th anniversary of the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, on 6 May, Buenos Aires, Argentina. 6 May 2015


[Check against delivery]

Excellencies, colleagues and friends,

It is an honour to be here with you today.

Twenty years have now passed since 189 countries at the Fourth World Conference on Women adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

This extraordinary vision for achieving gender equality has led to progress on a number of levels. We now have more and better laws promising gender equality. We have seen increases in girls’ enrolment in primary and secondary education. And many women enjoy greater access to reproductive rights.

But progress overall has been slow and uneven, and no country in the world has achieved gender equality.

Despite this, we are the first generation to have the possibility to end poverty and substantially advance gender equality, with a shared vision of social justice and human rights. 

We know that, to change the status quo, we must first tackle the root causes of women’s poverty.

Our just-released flagship report Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016: Transforming Economies, Realizing Rights, highlights the failure of current economic policies to address and rectify some of the major barriers to women thriving. It uses a human rights lens to look at both economic and social policies and their implications for the entire economy – for men and women alike. It shows us how we can make the economy – for so long designed by and for men – truly work for women.

We know that there are specific drivers that we must change to fundamentally tackle poverty, and to make progress irreversible.

We know that the majority of women work in the informal sector. They are underpaid and unprotected in poor quality jobs. More than three quarters of women’s jobs are informal in developing regions. These jobs are not covered by labour laws and lack social protection. For example, 83 per cent of domestic workers’ jobs are filled by women, and more than a third of them are not entitled to maternity protection.

Women do nearly two and a half times more unpaid care and domestic work than men.

Unpaid care has a massive, unseen and unappreciated financial value to economies. In the United States, the total value of unpaid childcare services in 2012 was estimated to be USD 3.2 trillion dollars. That’s about 20 per cent of GDP. In Mexico, the value of unpaid care work is higher than the economic contribution of key sectors, such as manufacturing.

This hidden value is particularly objectionable when we consider that unpaid care work is a fundamental and recurring cause of women’s poverty during their lifetime. It is also one of the structural causes of gender inequality, along with violence against women, limited control over assets and property, and unequal participation in private and public decision-making.

Unpaid care further penalizes women by limiting their opportunities to engage in paid work, education or political participation. This entrenches their dependence on partners and families.

When women do get jobs in the formal sector, they earn less than men. On average globally, women are paid 24 per cent less than men for the same work. This has strong variation – for example in Latin America and the Caribbean, the pay gap is lower than the global average, at 19 per cent. But it rises to 30 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa.

Over a lifetime, and all over the world, the combination of these factors adds up to a devastating loss of security and status. Data from France, Germany, Sweden and Turkey suggest that women earn between 31 and 75 per cent less than men over their lifetimes.  

These facts are indictments of the current status quo.

They are reflections – and reinforcements – of economies and societies that chronically undervalue girls and women, despite what the laws say.

That holds whether you are a woman on Wall Street or a sugar-cane-cutter in Brazil.

Deeply rooted cultural practices form barriers to the intended benefits of the many good laws passed to bring about gender equality. Unfortunately, international conventions and agreements can be flouted if local practice contradicts them. For example, children are legally protected against early marriage by the Rights of the Child. Yet worldwide, about one in four women were married before age 18, with the highest rates of child marriage in South Asia. 

Early marriage can compromise a girl’s development – by resulting in social isolation, interrupting her schooling, increasing her risk of domestic violence, limiting her opportunities for career and vocational advancement, and so condemning her to poverty.

There are also discriminatory laws that blatantly diminish women’s opportunities. For example, there are laws that restrict land ownership, property title and inheritance, or that limit the jobs that women can do. There are still 128 countries that have laws that discriminate in some way against women.

In too many countries, choosing health care comes with a deadly bill. Every year, about 100 million people are pushed below the poverty line as a result of catastrophic health costs.

Access to education is improving but problems with completion remain. There are increases in enrolment, but adolescent girls drop out, for reasons including family demands, lack of sanitation, early marriage and pregnancy.

Teenage pregnancies ruin the girl’s education, not the boy’s. They can also damage both her physical and financial health.

The “motherhood penalty” is now well known. And it only affects women.  

When women have children, the pay gap widens. In South Asia, the gender pay gap for mothers is 35 per cent, but just 14 per cent for those without children.

These are fundamental attitudes and conceptions of relative human value that we are seeing played out.

We see them in the decisions about who stays home, in discrimination, in sexual violence. Sexual harassment and domestic violence are already outlawed in at least 125 countries. Notwithstanding, three quarters of women in management and higher professional positions in the European Union have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Outside the workplace, as we know, girls and women face what the World Health Organization has called a “global epidemic of violence”.

Laws are critically important, but they are not enough on their own to turn this around.

Political representation globally is insufficient and women do not have a voice where it is most needed – where the laws are made and implemented. Women remain significantly underrepresented in political leadership – they are just 22 per cent of the total. On the current trajectory it will take another 50 years to reach parity.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, I have outlined where we are not seeing change. But these aspects of poverty can be changed.

Governments can increase political participation through special measures, address discriminatory laws, and ensure implementation of current beneficial measures through well-chosen policies, for example that reduce and redistribute unpaid care work. This means boosting investments in infrastructure and basic social services, including education, energy, health, water and sanitation. If these are well-targeted, they will make far-reaching contributions to poverty reduction and overall well-being.

The recurrence of poverty is a consequence of underlying structures of inequality – everything from inadequate physical infrastructure to the chronic imbalance of unpaid care.

We must confront these structural issues. 

Gender-responsive budgeting is essential to ensure that the allocation of available resources is responsive to these structural issues, assessing women’s needs and reinforcing their rights.

Governments will need to meet development assistance commitments and ensure that national budgets allocate the necessary funds to achieve gender equality in all sectors.  

Civil society must continue to play its role as thought leaders, and as ‘watch dogs’, keeping women’s rights high on the agenda and reminding citizens of their role as voters to demand change.

Women’s organizations have been an engine for change, but we also need trade unions and workers’ movements to get on board.

And of course, men also play an essential role in making the crucial adjustments. For example, by taking responsibility for reducing and redistributing the unpaid care burden in their own homes and communities, by refusing to marry a child, or by refusing unequal pay.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, at this conference we want to talk about game-changers. We have instructive examples to follow.

Argentina’s investment in social protection, universal health care and education has been substantial. Almost 86 per cent of children and adolescents in Argentina receive some kind of social transfer for their well-being; 67 per cent of the salaried workforce are making pension contributions; and over 90 per cent of all adults over 65 have a pension.

Argentina’s commitment to implementing the social protection floor, providing tax credits for caring and formalizing domestic work has also been significant.

We need more of this.

Across the world, we have many examples of best practices to follow and scale-up to achieve transformative change.

Cambodia, Costa Rica, Mauritius and Sri Lanka have reduced spending on security and the military and redirected resources to fund social protection.

Bolivia (Plurinational State of) and Botswana have used revenues generated from natural resource extraction to finance their social protection systems.

Papua New Guinea is considering using revenues from gas production to set up a sovereign wealth fund to fund social policies.

Indonesia has removed fuel subsidies to allow resources to flow into social benefits.

Properly implemented, these are all game-changing policies. I urge you to consider them.

Excellencies, this year we will finalize our post-2015 development agenda and set new Sustainable Development Goals. Achieving these will require transformative change that must be matched with an equally ambitious level of investment – and clever spending. The IMF and World Bank have recently estimated the Financing-for-Development funding to be between USD 3.3 and 4.5 trillion.

To be truly transformative, the post-2015 development agenda must be universal and anchored in human rights.

We must learn from the evidence and data we now possess on successful policies that respect and promote those rights, and have the foresight and courage to invest in them now.

Let us together show that gender equality and the realization of women’s and girls’ human rights are fundamental for achieving all human rights, for securing lasting peace and ensuring sustainable development. Only then can we reach our goal of Planet 50:50 by 2030.

Let us continue to step up our efforts to lift women out of poverty and equip them with an equal chance to thrive.

Thank you.