The gender goal: The promises of SDG 5 – Executive director explains the cost of achieving planet 50:50

Remarks by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka to the Eminent Speakers’ Forum of the Asian Development Bank.


[As delivered]

President of ADB, Excellency Takehiko Nakao
Distinguished Representatives of the Asian Development Bank,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to this Eminent Speaker’s Forum and for the opportunity to build a shared understanding of the central importance of gender equality and women’s empowerment for both the Asian Development Bank and the  global development agenda that will soon be part of our work.

We meet at a threshold moment, on the eve of the adoption of Agenda 2030. At the end of this month, thousands of representatives from all over the world will gather in New York; they will launch the most ambitious global effort since the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights in 1948: the new Sustainable Development Goals.

Crucially, these goals include a standalone goal for gender equality – Goal 5 – as well as gender equality and women’s empowerment targets that will be reflected across all goals. If Goal 5 is implemented – and I’m sure it will be with all the support we have seen – it will mean that by 2030 we should have achieved sustainable as well as substantive gender equality.  It promises to usher in a better world for the next generation.

To implement this potentially game-changing agenda for women and girls we also need to know what it will cost, we need to make informed choices, and we need to recognize that there are challenges and obstacles. Never has there been a moment like this where there is a real possibility to substantially change power relations between men and women and to significantly reduce poverty. That means now is the time for bold changes.

Our vision therefore as UN Women is to have “Planet 50-50”, a planet where there is gender parity, and a world where women, men, girls and boys will have substantive equality. It means transformative change that is irreversible, sustainable and substantive.

Together, we have implemented 20 years of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. In those 20 years, almost all countries made significant changes, adopting both policies and legislation that entrench gender equality and ensure that violence against women is a criminal offense. In the last 20 years countries also made a lot of progress in girls’ education, they established gender machineries, and of course a lot of work was done to address women’s health.

However, in the same period, the good legislation that was passed was not fully implemented, the investment in programmes that support women and girls was not as substantive as it needed to be, and violence against women increased. So yes, there has been progress, but the challenges remain. And as we move forward in the post-2015 agenda we need to use the experiences that we already have to ensure that we can focus on the opportunities that are there; to make the goals that we have, which are much more comprehensive, as successful as we can.
Goal 5 is loaded with possibilities.

Firstly, it says we must end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls. This would require an intensive programme of law reforms so we can remove the discriminatory legislation that still exists. But this will also require us to implement the laws we have already passed.

It says we must eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual violence and other types of exploitation. Many countries in this regard are engaged in different efforts to address violence against women. Challenges there include the fact that prosecutors and law enforcement officials are yet to adopt a truly zero-tolerance approach.

Goal 5 also talks about elimination of all harmful practices, such as child marriage and female genital mutilation. In this area we are seeing many countries beginning to adopt a very strong approach to fighting these harmful practices.

Goal 5 also recognizes unpaid care work. It calls for it to be recognized, as well as to be reduced and redistributed. In many countries – in fact in all countries – women do the bulk of unpaid care work. It is this work that tends to hold back many women and girls from education and opportunities to work. The fact that countries have agreed to address this is truly a step forward.

It also says that we must ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making, especially in political, economic and public life. Again, in the last 20 years we have seen women taking significant political positions. We have also seen women taking significant economic positions. However, the levels at which women have been positioned overwhelmingly remain lower level and through this commitment we are called upon to address this challenge.

Goal 5 also calls for ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights. Now, if you had asked me a year ago if we would have this provision here I would have said no, because that was one of the most contentious discussions during the negotiations, together with that of unpaid care work. So, I think what we should take from this is the fact that there is significant political will. Yes, there are difficulties and disagreements, but the fact that so many countries involved in these negotiations were able to agree on these provisions in Goal 5 means that we have a window of opportunity to progress, notwithstanding the challenges we may still face.

Ladies and gentlemen, UN Women has decided it is important to take the matter of closing the gender equality gap to heads of states, because gender inequality is a political matter and it needs political action and commitments at the highest level.

We have asked the heads of state to gather in New York on 27 September, after the SDGs will have been adopted, to make further commitments that will close the gaps identified by countries when they reviewed their implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action. It is our hope that heads of state and government will come to this meeting prepared to make significant commitments in order to kick start the implementation of the sustainable development goals.

Of course, we are looking forward to welcoming President Aquino, who will also have a special place ready for him on 27 September.

This meeting is the first of its kind in United Nations history. For heads of state to sit together for six hours discussing women and girls and identifying solutions and the actions that each country is going to take, that on its own is progress.

We are here today in this audience made up of both men and women. Again, that also shows the road that we have travelled. Not so long ago whenever we met to discuss women’s issues, there would be women alone in the room.

The President of the ADB is himself a gender advocate, and many of the colleagues we have here, both men and women, are strong advocates of gender equality.

At UN Women we have identified men and boys as critical allies in advancing gender equality, and we have launched a programme called HeforShe. In that programme we work with CEOs of companies, with heads of state, and with leaders of universities to help them take an active stand to advance gender equality.

It is our aim to start implementing Goal 5 right away, so that by the year 2020 we should begin to identify the direction that we’re taking, and we should be able to take stock and see progress.

It is for that reason that I highly appreciate the partnership we are entering into with ADB. It will enable us to provide a reliable baseline for this region, which is something other regions can learn from, and which will enable us to check progress as we go forward.

It is also important that we start with tracking progress right at the beginning. Many of you will remember that when we implemented the Millennium Development Goals we spent about three to four years arguing about ‘where did they come from?’, ‘who decided that we were going to have the MDGs?’ It was not until about the fifth year that we began to implement our goals, and we lost lots and lots of time. The 15 years of the SDGs must be 15 years. I am urging all of us to start with implementation on day one.

In March next year, during the Commission on the Status of Women, UN Women will begin to gather women, civil society organizations, and governments, so that we start ensuring that we together adopt a barometer of progress. In that way, ADB and Asia will be ahead of the pack because our collaboration will add to the many other significant activities that bring us together.

Globally, we also need to ensure that investment in gender equality is enhanced, and we can only do that if we provide reliable data that points the world in the direction where these investments are most needed.

Most countries have not evaluated the cost of violence against women.  This continues to affect one in three women around the world.  The cost in pain, violation of rights and trauma, paralyses women and destroys families. Globally, the total economic costs of intimate partner violence has been estimated to be at least 5 per cent of global GDP. In the United States alone, the annual costs of intimate partner violence have been calculated at 5.8 billion dollars.

Gender gaps in the workplace are similarly costly. The International Labour Organization recently estimated that the total cost of gender inequality in employment across Asia alone is 45 billion dollars a year. This is based on the fact that 45 per cent of working-age women in Asia are outside the labour force, compared to just 19 per cent of men.

We know that if female employment were to match male employment – we could increase GDP everywhere, for example, increasing GDP per capita in the Middle East and North Africa by 27 per cent, and by 19 per cent in South Asia.

Women’s and girls’ unpaid care work is a structural cause of gender inequality, with impact on a lifetime. Data shows that in some middle-income countries, between 30 and 70 per cent of income can be lost in a woman’s lifetime because of activities that are associated with her caregiving as a mother. This makes the provision of childcare services just as critical as providing other forms of services and infrastructure.

In India, the total value of time spent on unpaid care and domestic work was estimated to be equivalent to 39 per cent of GDP.

Releasing women from unpaid care work, as Goal 5 argues, will go a long way to enable these women to look for jobs.

Leading to 2030, we want to see that infrastructure that supports women’s empowerment is given attention. In countries where there is no water or sanitation infrastructure, it is women who bear the brunt. Where there is no water infrastructure, girls and women make up for that shortage. An 11 year old girl on her frail, frail legs, has to fetch water in a 5 litre bucket to quench the thirst of a muscular man. Women have to carry wood on their heads for the warmth of their families, and in the process some of these women never get an opportunity for employment.

So these investments that we are calling for, which Goal 5 is calling for, which the SDGs are calling for, can be a game-changer. There is a significant role for everybody to play in the implementation of the SDGs, because besides Goal 5 there is a goal on education; there is a goal on climate; there is a goal on industrial development; there are other goals that also partner with Goal 5, and that together will enhance its implementation.

I look forward to the collaboration that we will have with ADB and with other regional banks, with governments, and with civil society – which has been a torchbearer for as long as we can remember – in the struggle for gender equality.

But more than anything else we would like to ensure that 2030 is the year when we will have achieved substantive, irreversible gender equality that is truly transformative.

Thank you.