Speech: Partnerships are key to address laws that discriminate against women

Remarks by United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the event, “Bringing Down Legal Barriers to Women’s Economic Empowerment: An Economic and Business Imperative” in Geneva, Switzerland.


[As delivered]

Why is this event so important? Because it augurs very well for the vital coordination and partnership needed for us to address the 90 per cent of countries that still have laws in their statutes that discriminate against women.

Part of our mandate at UN Women is a normative role, in which we work with Member States and support them to develop, adopt and implement policies that address gender inequality and women’s empowerment.

We also coordinate all issues to do with gender equality within the UN system and beyond, and we initiate and collaborate on programmes that implement different initiatives addressing gender inequality.

An event like this today brings all of those issues together. We have learned that it is actually impossible to work in any of the three areas of our mandate without partnerships. We would not last even a day if we did not have partners.

If you consider, for instance, that in order to pass a law, not only do you have to lobby, you have to convince politicians, you have to have expertise, you have to accompany the law through Parliament in many cases, and you must make sure that there are adequate rules for the people who vote for it. But you also have to make sure that the law is implemented in practice. At every turn, you need partners who will make sure that it happens and that the law serves its purpose.

We have seen this in practice since 2015 when we began to send strong messages to Member States about the challenge of laws that discriminate against women and girls. We saw that many Member States had not realized how much discrimination was on the books. Partnership is also needed to repeat this message so that Member States realize the work to be done and action to take.

In the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel for Women’s Economic Empowerment, discrimination is one of the issues that we are addressing. Thanks to the work that has been done by the World Bank, we have identified the laws that impact on women’s economic empowerment, and we are grouping them as the laws where we need to fast-track action.

At the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) this year, which will focus on women and the changing world of work, we will have some 70 ministers from different countries at roundtables. We will be trying to identify the changes needed in the laws of those countries and trying as hard as we can to make sure that by the time the ministers go home, they own the challenge and will be part of the action to take this forward.

We have also reached out to the speakers in different Parliaments. In December, I sent a message to the speakers to also ask them to facilitate this issue and to take it forward.

Of course, the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) are one of the tools that we can use together, because they are entry points for us as the UN, for governments and for the private sector, all to be part of taking this issue forward.

It is important to facilitate business self-regulation so that by the time we have the legislation there is already buy-in. The WEPs provide us with that possibility and a way to understand and compare the different advantages within a sector, or in a company, and to understand the difference that they can make collectively.

We have also identified the importance of not just focusing on working with Ministers of Gender. In many cases the responsibility for the laws that need to be changed does not reside with those Ministers. Ministers of Finance, Ministers of Justice, and Ministers of Trade are also critical.

In the next few days, after the World Economic Forum in Davos, I will be in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. We will be preparing for CSW, engaging Ministers of Foreign Affairs specifically to make sure that they support their Ministers of Gender. Where there are international laws or international discourse that needs legislation, it is the Ministers of Foreign Affairs who are sitting in front, so we have to get their buy-in and get them to facilitate that action.

So partnership is key: partnerships within cabinets and between governments; partnerships among ourselves in the UN; partnerships with the private sector; and partnerships with civil society. Unless there are partnerships that are strong and purpose-driven, we will never address these many laws in the manner we want, so that, within a specific time, we are able to turn a corner.

The new Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, is on board on this issue. He is particularly kick-starting this with gender parity within the UN, which is another area in which you need special measures, some of which are legislative. We hope that the UN will be able to lead by example.

So, 2017 is a difficult year, but we are starting it with a bang, and I look forward to all of you moving together on this with us.

Thank you.