“Women in leadership, women empowered, and women at the helm make a difference” — Lakshmi Puri

Organization for Islamic Cooperation

Date: Friday, March 18, 2016

Excellencies, distinguished panellists, dear friends,

The Organization for Islamic Cooperation, spanning membership across the Muslim world, across four continents, has a special role in bringing voices together, in promoting stability and in empowering women.

Just recently, OIC made an historic step in appointing four women to leadership positions as a reflection of the important role of women in decision-making positions, and the beginning of a trend that we hope to see across OIC countries.

Women in leadership, women empowered, and women at the helm make a difference.

We know, for example, that women’s participation increased the probability of a peace agreement lasting at least two years by 20 per cent, and the probability of a peace agreement lasting 15 years by 35 per cent.

Experience from UN Women and partners shows that women are key drivers of economic growth and that women’s active participation in economic life make peacebuilding and recovery efforts more sustainable.

There is growing evidence that large-scale investment in women’s economic empowerment generates immediate and long-term social dividends, including in post-conflict situations. Compared to men, women tend to spend much more of their income on family and community well-being. By economically empowering women, the living conditions of a woman and her family improve, their reliance on external aid decreases, and ultimately it contributes to the growth of local and national economies.

The OIC must continue to be a trailblazer and promote and implement policies that support women as a strategic move and as a means to create a counter movement to the false interpretation of Muslim beliefs and values being used by radical extremists igniting conflict, whether ISIL in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria or ISIL affiliates in the Philippines, to mention but a few.

Together with UN Security Council resolutions 1325 and 2242, and their implementation, which commit Member States to not only use the power of women as a profound, effective and committed peace constituency to prevent conflict, to make and build sustainable peace, as well as to protect them from the horrors of conflict including the insecurity of displacement and loss, targeting and enslavement by violent extremism and terrorism that we are witnessing especially in Iraq and Syria, the OIC countries must continue their strides to ensure that women live and thrive in just and peaceful societies free from conflict where the rule of law works for them.

But allow me now to speak of one region, the region which has gotten the most attention recently, a region where three of the world´s four humanitarian level three emergencies (Yemen, Iraq and Syria) are taking place. It is the Arab region, a region most often associated with the Muslim world, and the region that perhaps needs our support most.

In development terms, the Arab region holds the lowest position in the overall index score, having closed 59 per cent of its gender gap. The region is also ranked least in terms of closing the political gender gap (7 per cent) and economic gender gap (39 per cent). Overall, the Arab region lags behind the rest of the world in almost every available gender equality indicator.

Furthermore, women and girls in many countries in the region, whether in Libya, Syria, Iraq or Palestine, now face additional staggering challenges relating to the deterioration of the security situation. The Syrian and Iraqi crises have forced mass displacement of populations with more than half of the displaced population (51 per cent) being female. UN Women research demonstrates their increased vulnerabilities, including to sexual and gender-based violence.

Women and girls are often the first targets of attack by violent extremists — not just in Iraq and Syria, but worldwide — and thus the rights of women and girls must be at the centre of the strategy to address this staggering and growing challenge, as well as increasing our engagement with religious leaders and youth.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are here today to highlight the efforts made by individual women, as champions of equality and as fighters in their own right. Let me now tell you a story of how these women are heroes, and how it is our duty to support them in realizing their rights. 

In the Syrian refugee camp of Zaatari, there is a container marked “Women and Girls Oasis.” The container door leads to a space where women sit behind sewing machines working on colourful fabrics. Fatima and Hajar welcome visitors and are openly sharing their stories and showing their work. “My husband deserted from the military and is injured,” says Fatima. “He cannot work so I took it upon myself to help provide for him and my three kids. By mere chance, a woman told me about the so-called UN Women’s Oasis and the tailoring workshop so here I am. It’s the best thing that has happened to me since we fled Syria three months ago.”

This safe space in the midst of a refugee camp that stretches as far as the eye can see holds hope for women who are the very definition of resilience.

Siniora works in Palestine. She says: “I defied my community, which regards widows negatively. They believed that I was leaving the house because I was looking to remarry, but I showed them that I can get out of the house and have a job.” After her husband’s death, Siniora fought against depression and struggled to support her six children. She now works as a saleswoman in the canteen of the Azmut Secondary School for Girls in Nablus, which allows her to pay for her family’s expenses. “Now, my family encourages me and I am working to establish a small project next to my home.”

This simple project, by UN Women in partnership with the Palestinian authorities, the Socially Responsible Women-Run School Canteens project has supported 41 community-based organizations, with 23 having gained financial sustainability, provided part-time employment and a secure monthly income to 493 women (average income of USD 250 per month) and benefited over 254 schools, and more than 77,000 school children by providing healthy nutritional food, with a clear improvement of the health of school children. The project combines community mobilization with income generation and has the added bonus of providing education on nutrition and healthy eating for the communities.

In Jordan, UN Women has partnered with my colleague here on this panel, the Ministry of Social Development, to implement programming on women’s economic empowerment. This includes work to build community based organizations’ capacities in the areas of women’s economic empowerment, and the production of upstream policy research and advocacy on women’s engagement in the economic sector.

In conclusion, women have proven their tremendous potential to transform societies if given their dues. Their participation in peace and security as well as in development ensures that we have more effective and sustainable results and that the benefits are distributed across their communities.

Under the theme of leaving no one behind, we need to address gender equality and women’s empowerment issues in the context of all the intersectionalities of disadvantage that women find themselves in — women living in poverty, in rural areas and in urban slums, in tradition bound communities that misinterpret religion and customs to justify denying them their equal rights across the board, such as their rights to education, work, property, political participation and leadership in the community.

We all, including OIC, must look into how we can better support women and make use of their tremendous potential to transform their societies in positive ways with sustained benefits for all.

Women across OIC countries have excelled and continue to excel. We are here to recognize them and support their trajectory forward.

Thank you!