“Women are change-makers”—Executive Director

Remarks by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the opening ceremony of IIFMENA conference in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

Date: Thursday, October 20, 2016

[As Delivered]

Your Highness, Dr. Sultan bin Mohammad Al-Qasimi, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Sheikha Jawaher bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi, Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

I want to start by thanking the previous speakers for their inspiring messages—from the youngest daughter, Malala Zousafzai, who never fails to inspire, to your co-Nobel laureate, Mr. Kailash Satyarthi, and of course to Rula Ghani, the first lady of Afghanistan who is also a role model and an inspirer.

Thank you so much, Excellencies and Highnesses for the role that you play representing the strong leadership of this country.

I am honoured to be here with you today at the inauguration of the second Investing in the Future Conference in the Middle East and North Africa. UN Women is proud to be partnering with the office of Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher, and we are grateful for her leadership and that of her husband, His Highness Dr. Sultan bin Mohammad Al-Qasimi, in driving this important meeting.

For those who might not know, yesterday we opened the first and only UN Women office in this region. We are thankful for the opportunity to grow our roots here and for the partnership that we hope will evolve out of this Liaison Office.

This conference takes place as we find ourselves at a significant crossroads, confronted by violence, war, and humanitarian challenges. Yes, we have made many strides to advance women´s empowerment, and yet we are still unable to shatter the barriers to progress in all areas of public life for women all over the world.

As we speak, there is no country that has attained gender equality. So the work that we do here, and the progress that has been made in this country, is an important building block to ensure that in just a few years we will be able to point to countries that have attained gender equality.

The women in business in this country, who are growing in numbers, the women in politics who are growing in numbers, and the women who are providing support in civil society, are all part of the global mosaic of building a global society.

There is one especially important word for what we are building here: “resilience”. It is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness”—something that many women who are caught up in difficulties need to have.

Such resilience is particularly necessary during and after conflicts, or other crises such as natural disasters or other effects of climate change. This region is currently host to three out of four of the world´s worst humanitarian emergencies: in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. While these conflicts are tearing whole communities apart, we cannot overlook the fact that women and girls face specific challenges and have particular needs in times of conflict and recovery. 

We also have seen how the leadership in this country has played a significant role in making the burden lighter, in supporting women’s resilience and potential, and in standing up for many girls, women, boys and men who are affected by conflicts.

Many women caught up in these conflicts are experiencing severe psychological distress and trauma as a result of sexual and gender-based violence. Without education, as Malala has highlighted, their future may even be bleaker. Some of them have suffered at the hands of extremist groups.

Women and girls living in refugee camps and host communities also face heightened vulnerabilities and risks of sexual and gender-based violence, including the increase in child marriages and trafficking.  

Women who are domestic workers in countries where there is not adequate protection are also suffering. We also know that women face significant obstacles in securing employment and are less likely to benefit from income-generating opportunities similar to those that are enjoyed by their male counterparts.  

So, that is why we are here today. We believe that these problems are not insurmountable. We believe that together we can solve these problems.

Today we are also seeing a number of women who are heading households without support and without the protection of extended family. They too are part of the discussion that we are going to have today.

In order to build the resilience of women and girls, we need to focus on both their immediate recovery needs and longer-term solutions that support sustainable peace and security. But most importantly we must recognize that women and girls are not a burden or a charity case; they are resilient, they are solution-makers, and they can stand up for themselves. All they ask for is a chance.

We must strengthen their capacities so that they are fully empowered to participate, benefit from and contribute to the sustainable development of the region and the world.

This conference will provide us with the opportunity to discuss not only the specific challenges women face as a result of conflict, but also their role as agents of change in peacebuilding and recovery efforts. Because women are change-makers. Women can play a significant role in preventing and ending conflict, and women are drivers of the economy.

Last year, the Global Study on Women, Peace and Security found that women’s participation increases the probability of a peace agreement lasting longer, being deeper, and making more significant changes. And yet, in most situations in which peace is being brokered, women remain on the margins. Today we have to discuss how we could make sure that women are in the centre of peacemaking and in the discussions on peace agreements.

Women continue to have to negotiate their way to the peace table, many times without being successful. So today is about how we make sure that these negotiations and these efforts of women are successful.

UN Women is proud to be supporting women´s engagement in peacebuilding processes in Yemen and Syria and in the transitional processes in Libya.

And in Jordan, we are also proud of being part and parcel of supporting the Zaatari refugee camp, through the women’s and girls’ Oasis which makes them resilient and economically empowered. These centres provide a safe space for some 16,000 users per year. The Oasis provides psychosocial support, protection services, educational services and cash for work opportunities. An evaluation of this programme found a 20 per cent decrease in domestic violence among the beneficiaries of the programme.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We must also recognize the role women play in their communities to address the rise of violent extremism, which is affecting families, communities and nations alike.

Last year, I was honoured to be present when the Security Council adopted resolution 2242.

This resolution urges Member States and the UN system to ensure the participation and leadership of women in developing strategies to counter terrorism and violent extremism, and to build their capacities to do so effectively.

This conference will provide a platform for us to discuss the significant roles women already play in addressing extremism. We must remember to use this resolution.

We know the space for women is currently limited, but we welcome the opportunity to explore what we could change together. I am pleased to see the commitment shown by all of you as you are here to address this issue, and to discuss how we can jointly break down the many barriers that women and girls face.

We are mobilizing and reaching out to the youth, to the media, to religious leaders and to men and boys who must be part of this dialogue.

We recognize that too often the notions of patriarchy and privilege are not visible to men— except a few who are in this company! But many outlets in society need to be engaged effectively to make the change.

That is why I am proud that this region will also soon be launching HeForShe, which is a movement of men who stand for gender equality. This is an essential step towards transforming gender inequalities and power.

We are the first generation with a real possibility to change gender relations. We are the first generation with the first possibility to end poverty sustainably. And we are the last generation with a real chance to stop the climate change impact that can devastate our communities, our planet, and our world forever.

There is a lot of pressure, but also a lot of privilege to be part of this generation. Peace is necessary for us as this generation. We must seize the moment that we have and take advantage of our privilege to be of service to humanity together.

We should stand up for the opportunities in our society.

Thank you.

Related link

IIFMENA Conference outcome document: Sharjah Declaration for the Rights and Empowerment of Women and Girls