There is a unique role for countries who want to address women’s issues in the international area – Executive Director

Opening remarks by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at an event on women’s economic empowerment hosted by the Swedish National Committee of UN Women, on 17 June, in Stockholm, Sweden.


Hannah Stanton,  

Honourable Members of Parliament,

Distinguished Members of the Swedish National Committee of UN Women,

Representatives and activists from civil society.

It is my great pleasure to be here with you today.

I extend my thanks to the National Committee for UN Women in Sweden, and particularly to Petra Engberg, for inviting me to speak on the topic of women’s economic empowerment, and for all the work that went into making this possible.

We are here at a critical juncture for gender equality. We have just celebrated the 20-year anniversary of when we met in Beijing and adopted a very comprehensive programme for women, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

Based on the reports submitted by 168 countries that evaluated what has happened in the intervening 20 years, we know that the legislative framework in most countries has changed. Parliamentarians have been very active – they have changed many laws in many countries. Countries have also introduced gender machinery, which means we began to see women ministries, gender commissions, and equal opportunity institutions in different countries.  We also had countries better profiling the plight of the girl child. In many countries the access to education for girl children increased significantly, especially in primary school education.

These are some of the important highlights of the last 20 years.  But we have also had many challenges.

Violence against women continues to be a problem. The representation of women in leadership continues to be a problem.  Participation of women in the economy is not at the level we would have wanted it to be. Indeed the violations of the rights of women are even more complex today than they were 20 years ago. And with the advent of extreme terrorism, women are on the firing line.

We have achieved a lot, and we have a lot more to do going forward.

This is the year we use the knowledge we already have about how far we can go, and how far we still need to go, to make sure that the next 15 years are much stronger. This year we will finalize new Sustainable Development Goals, the Financing for Development framework and the new Climate Change agreement, all of which require significant participation of women.

This convergence provides a rare opportunity to place gender equality at the centre of the international development agenda. It is an opportunity to make sure that, in the next 15 years, we change the positioning of gender in the global agenda, and that we change the narrative about the role and the place of women in all our countries. Only then can we reach our aspiration that when the Sustainable Development Goals come to an end in 2030 we will have changed the world dramatically for women.

We are calling it “Planet 50:50”. We are pushing for something that is numerical. By 2030, the representation of women in decision-making bodies especially should have reached parity with men.

Being here in Sweden at this time is very important to us because we want to support the fact that the Government of Sweden has identified itself as a feminist government.  If the Swedish Government gets its own house in order in relation to this policy, the women of the whole world will benefit.  We have to make sure this Government succeeds in this.

Women’s economic empowerment especially will play a key role in this global effort. If we are to achieve a position where women have control over their own lives, the economic sustainability and independence of women is very important. But right now, only 50 per cent of the world’s women are earning salaries, compared with 77 per cent  of men. Those who are in the labour force make 24 per cent less than the men who are doing the same job with the same qualifications. And 75 per cent of women who are working outside the home in developing regions, work in the informal sector. This means that their jobs are not protected by labour laws, they do not have access to social services, and they do not enjoy a minimum wage.

We need to work very hard so that we can take women from the informal sector to the formal sector; to protected jobs, better income and decent work. However, according to the World Economic Forum, at our current pace of bringing about changes in the economy, it will take 81 years to achieve gender parity in the workplace. No. Not on our watch.

When we are calling on governments to step it up, it is because we want to make sure it does not take 81 years to reach gender parity. We can and we must do this much sooner. Now is the time to change these statistics.

We have a situation also where 62 per cent of women who work for their families are not paid. So, not only are women in the informal sector at the bottom of the earning trajectory, women who are working for their own families are overly dependent on them because they do not have an income of their own.

Through strategic partnerships with civil society, businesses and governments, we can build an environment that is truly conducive for women and men to work together in greater equality. As it is, our global economy is not working perfectly for women.

We do not want to detract from the fact that we have seen a large number of women rising to the top, but that number pales in comparison with what is possible. And that is why we need you to work with us to bridge these gaps.

Our just-launched flagship report “Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016: Transforming economies, realizing rights” applied a human rights lens to highlight the failure of current economic policies to address and rectify some of the major barriers to women thriving. It noted that we live in a world that is both wealthier and more unequal today than at any time since the Second World War.  At the same time, we are the first generation with a significant opportunity to actually address the reduction of poverty, sustainably.  So we have both opportunities and challenges. How we use the opportunities we have is what is going to make a difference.

We are recovering from a global economic crisis – but that recovery has been jobless.  Our challenge is how this turn this into a recovery that also creates jobs for both men and women.

More women than ever before are graduating from tertiary education, but there is a challenge in absorbing these women into employment, especially in decision-making roles. Rates of unemployment are at historic highs in many countries, including those in the Middle East and North Africa, in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as in southern Europe.  Most of women’s work today remains informal, as we have said, but even more importantly, a large number of women do unpaid care work.

When women work at home they are regarded as caregivers.  When men work outside the home they become the breadwinners.  And the difference between the two? One makes money, one doesn’t.

Studies show that if the employment participation gap and the wage gap between women and men were closed, women could increase their income globally by up to 76 per cent – now that’s a lot to give up – a global value of 17 trillion dollars,  according to a 2015 study by Actionaid.

Strengthening women’s capacities in business skills, product innovation, marketing and management boosts GDP and generates higher earnings for the economy. If the work of a woman is valued less simply because she is a woman, her individual dignity is disrespected and her relative human value is diminished.

Our post-2015 agenda is about changing some of these entrenched trajectories.

Gender equality in the workplace benefits all of society.  We know that when women are in decision-making positions, different perspectives are heard and more inclusive and diverse solutions are created. More women in senior economic positions is good business. Studies have shown that Fortune 500 companies with the most women managers have shareholder returns 34 per cent higher than those with the fewest women managers.

One of the recommendations that resulted from the study done by McKinsey with these companies was to invest in a pipeline of women who can be identified at mid-level and brought into senior level.

Globally, women do nearly two and a half times as much unpaid domestic work as men. This constrains women’s access to paid employment and leisure time, and prevents them from engaging in educational, health-related, and leadership activities.

Typically, in a country without water infrastructure, it is going to be a little girl of 11 years old who goes out to fetch water. It is going to be a woman who goes out to fetch wood in order to supplement the household’s fuel.

What this means is that the missing infrastructure that is supposed to be a part of a national plan is being made up by an 11-year old who is heaving a bucket of water to quench the thirst of muscular adults. This is an issue, not just of depriving the capacity of women to play an economic role, but of child protection.

This “care penalty” that unfairly punishes women for stepping in to provide the services that are missing is again a call for all of us to address the changes in the care economy; to make sure that when we think about infrastructure, we think about how it can play a role to relieve women.

Child care, again something that in Sweden you have done very well, is a critical missing link in many countries. Its provision would relieve a lot of women from the services that they are providing for free at home. In that way, they could pursue education and work, and they would be able to look after themselves.

Unpaid care work hurts women economically: data from France, Germany, Turkey and Sweden  suggest that women earn between 31 per cent and 75 per cent less than men over their lifetimes. This income gap can also negatively impact children.

Economic policies and social institutions with women’s rights at their centre can empower women and contribute to fairer and more gender-equal societies.

For instance, we know that family-friendly policies can increase women’s employment. Employment rates for women with two children in the EU countries that provide the most comprehensive support are 84 per cent, compared to 63 per cent in the EU countries with the least support.

So again, there are changes that are possible for us to make. Governments can increase women’s 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.


We are emphasizing this issue of unpaid care work because it is one of the biggest areas where we can leverage benefits for women. It also affects all countries of the world.  That makes our agenda universal.

There are practical measures that all companies also can take in the private sector in order to address the involvement and the high mobility of women. They can identify talented women for promotion and offer them active mentoring. They can make appraisals objective and unbiased, and adopt diversity targets. They can introduce greater flexibility in remote working. They can ensure smooth transitions before, during, and after maternity leave. This entails provisions such as health and child care, parental leave, pension schemes and proactive employment and career development policies. All of these have been tried in Sweden, so we have something to learn here, both from your successes and where you still have shortcomings.

In this area, there are a lot of decisions that are made by men, and that is why I launched the HeForShe campaign. We want men to take responsibility for using their power and authority to make the right changes, and to make the right choices.

In our HeForShe campaign, we identify Heads of State, heads of corporations, and leaders of universities to use their power and authority to introduce concrete measures through which they will demonstrate the changes that can be made by men in authority to improve the quality of life and the wellbeing of women.

The Prime Minster of Sweden has signed up as a HeForShe.  Sweden is making express commitments as a country in the IMPACT 10x10x10 Programme of 10 universities, 10 CEOs, and 10 governments. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

Women’s entrepreneurship in relation to economic empowerment also is very important. We work with companies to address this.  One of the companies with which we work is Coca Cola, aiming to support five million women entrepreneurs in three countries: Egypt, Brazil and South Africa. We are now well past 100,000 in that initiative. We can actually see how women can be moved from the informal sector. They can stabilize even a small business in a productive capacity that ensures that they are not in poverty one day and out of poverty another day.

Civil society organizations continue to be important – including trade unions and workers’ movements in general. They play a key role in keeping women’s rights high on the agenda and reminding voters about the demand and the need for change. We also know that there is a critical role for both men and for young people in these organizations. That is why we are also extending our focus to working with young people, just as we are extending our focus to working with men.

I want to commend the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s dedication to a “feminist foreign policy”, and in particular its pledge to fight discrimination in the labour market while also promoting women's legal rights to inheritance, land acquisition and possession, and equal access to various social services.

I want to encourage the new government to continue its promotion of women’s rights, including the right to economic empowerment, through both domestic and international actions.

There is a unique role for countries who want to address women’s issues in the international area. They can help us, for instance, to enact gender responsive budgeting in their own countries and globally. They can help us ensure that Overseas Development Assistance is engendered and monitored for the impact it makes on women.

The realization of women’s and girls’ human rights are fundamental for achieving all human rights, for securing lasting peace and ensuring sustainable development. When we think about women, we must also think about peacekeeping and the role that women can play. When we have peacekeepers, including women, going to foreign countries, the peacekeeping mission becomes more accessible to the community. The peacekeeping mission becomes more proactive in protecting women and children. It also has a high impact on all of the society in which it is keeping peace.

So, the involvement of women by governments who adopt a feminist agenda can be expressed at different levels: in the economy, in security and in politics, as well as in health and education.

Sweden is already playing a critical role both nationally and internationally to lead change, and we are here to say: please continue to play an active role. Continue to be in solidarity, but also continue to address the gaps that still exist domestically. This effort is both about changing the domestic environment, while also continuing to be a shining light at the global level.

Thank you.