Speech: Women, peace and security, an essential pillar in global affairs

Statement by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security


[As delivered]

Thank you, Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and gentlemen. It is an honour to address the Security Council and to present the Secretary-General’s report on Women, Peace and Security. As it had been said by Madame Chief of Staff, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, the Secretary-General is in the Central African Republic.

It is a pleasure to be accompanied today by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Pramila Patten, who was part of our solidarity mission with the Deputy-Secretary-General to Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Like every year, the Secretary-General’s report on Women, Peace and Security celebrates progress and good practice and sets out his mission, vision and recommendations. It also brings into the spotlight a number of alarming trends and setbacks.

I am pleased to be in this chamber today with a Colombian activist, who represents the many Colombian women who gave peace in their country a real chance, and that marks some of the progress that we have made. The UN has lauded their achievements and is following their lead, helping to implement a peace agreement with more than one hundred provisions on gender equality. For example, the UN mission in Colombia engages regularly with women’s organizations, and has a record percentage of women among its military observers—11 per cent, which is much higher than we have ever seen before—and its civilian staff at 48 per cent.

Unfortunately, Colombia is an exception to the global practice, but one exception that we can follow.

Although women’s absence from peace tables is no longer easily brushed off as normal, it is still commonplace. Every year, we track women’s overall participation in peace processes that are led by the UN. We track the inclusion of gender expertise and gender-sensitive provisions in peace agreements, and the requirement to consult with women’s civil society organizations. In all of these indicators, we performed slightly worse than a year ago. 

At the Myanmar Union Peace Conference in 2016—before this current crisis—there were seven women and 68 men among the delegates. Recent peace talks on the Central African Republic hosted by the Community of Sant’Egidio did not include a single woman. Six years into the Syrian civil war—and in spite of significant efforts by the UN and the Special Envoy—women’s participation in the peace talks is still inadequate, and often limited to an advisory role.

This political marginalization extends beyond peace talks.

Only 17 countries have an elected woman Head of State or Government. This includes only one post-conflict conflict country, Liberia, where Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s presidency has just ended after two terms, following democratic elections and the peaceful transfer of power. That is something to celebrate.

The proportion of women parliamentarians in conflict and post-conflict countries has stagnated at 16 per cent in the last two years.

The use of quotas and temporary special measures would help. In Somalia, for instance representation jumped to close to 25 per cent, compared to 14 per cent in the previous elections. In local elections in Mali at the end of last year, women represented 30 per cent of the elected candidates in Bamako, Gao, and Timbuktu—four times higher than the previous result.

Atrocities against women and girls in armed conflict have never been more thoroughly documented than they are now. International and national war crimes courts, commissions of inquiry, comprehensive mappings of human rights violations, and documentation efforts led by civil society, expert investigators, and reporters pay much closer attention to sexual and gender-based violence than ever before.

The international community has more than enough evidence of these crimes in Syria, South Sudan or Central African Republic. In some of these we have amassed the most extensive documentation of sexual and gender-based violence in history. What we do not have are consequences for the perpetrators and justice, dignity, and support for the survivors. This impunity cannot be allowed to continue.

The international community is reaching hundreds of thousands of survivors with assistance and programmes that did not exist one or two decades ago, but many more cannot be reached due to lack of resources, access and security.

Many organizations, including UN Women, participate in this collective effort. I appreciate the critical work that UNFPA undertakes for women’s reproductive health and gender-based violence survivors in some of these complex emergencies.

The consequences of war on women and girls go beyond sexual violence. In conflict and in natural disasters, gender inequality compounds the many obstacles to accessing food, water, sanitation, hygiene, healthcare, education, employment, housing and legal identity.

In Yemen, child marriage is estimated to have increased from 32 to 52 per cent—with a significant minority of girls being married before they are 15 years old. The percentage of female-headed households tripled during the current crisis—and these households have significantly lower income and more food insecurity. The percentage of Yemeni women who are illiterate was projected to reach two-thirds—quickly erasing the hard-won gains in education and literacy that had taken decades to achieve.

In Nigeria, the maternal mortality rate is almost ten times higher in the conflict-affected north-east than in the south-west. Often, this is the result of the destruction or closure of medical facilities due to insecurity.

International NGOs providing specialized services on reproductive health and clinical management of rape have recently left Central African Republic because they could not protect their aid workers.

A maternity hospital in Hama, Syria, was attacked at least ten times, and finally put out of service in April of this year.

Only a few months ago, we celebrated the release of 82 of the Chibok schoolgirls—now most of them young women after more than three years in captivity. They are being supported with extensive trauma counseling, medical care, educational support, child care, and allowances for personal upkeep and family visits. This Council had the opportunity to hear directly from one of the escapees two weeks ago, and everyone in the room was visibly moved by her testimony. We have to do something to find the girls that are still missing. At a time when mass abductions, trafficking, and forced recruitment and radicalization are common tactics of violent extremist groups, we have much to learn about the rehabilitation and reintegration of returnees and their children.

This Council has debated peacekeeping reform multiple times in the last half a year alone. Peacekeeping operations are one of our most important tools and the face of this organization in many corners of the planet. We have been calling for more women in peacekeeping for 17 years now, and the numbers are still very low.

We have been trying to stamp out sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers for almost as long, and we have fallen short at every turn. Thankfully the Secretary-General is taking this issue very seriously as we can see by the current developments. It damages our effectiveness and our reputation if we are unable to cross that line.

I welcome all the measures put in place to change this, which are detailed in the report. I encourage the UN and Member States to consider using all the tools at their disposal, from conditions to financial incentives.

It is encouraging to see the reduction in allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the Central African Republic, recent improvements in victims support and assistance, and a culture of accountability taking hold.

It is dispiriting, however, to see gender advisory posts being lost or downgraded due to cuts in the peacekeeping budget. It should not be gender that is cut first whenever we have to manage a budget. This is a time when we need more gender expertise and capacity in our missions and country teams, rather than less.

For example, both the UN and the Security Council agree on the importance of gender and conflict analysis. We are committed to collaborating with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and other UN partners on ensuring that this analysis is reflected in mission planning, their mandates, their budgets and their drawdown. It is equally crucial for our prevention work, as gender equality is one of our most reliable indicators of peace.

The Peacebuilding Fund again exceeded the minimum 15 per cent target in 2016 and allocated 19.2 per cent of funds to gender equality and women’s empowerment as a principal objective. This is something to celebrate. I call on all donors to reward the Peacebuilding Fund’s track record in financing and driving innovation in gender-responsive peacebuilding, and continue supporting this vital instrument of the UN’s work. This instrument works well.

The 15 per cent standard should be adopted by donors in their bilateral and multilateral cooperation, and by multi-partner trust funds in conflict affected and fragile settings, such as that proposed for Liberia upon withdrawal of the mission.

With more resources, the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund, the only UN fund dedicated solely to women, peace and security, would be able to support women’s organizations in many more places, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Iraq, and from Somalia to Palestine. Women in these countries should not be left alone when we have instruments to support them.

Women’s human rights defenders are under attack, and we still do not do enough to protect them. They need the support of this Council and all of us. The least we can do is to protect their space to speak out and raise their voice.

I want to applaud this Council for regularly inviting women from civil society organizations to brief them when discussing a specific country, and I call on all members to support this new practice, a commitment the Council made in resolution 2242.

I also applaud other innovations in the Council’s work, such as the adoption of the first-ever resolutions devoted solely to addressing sexual exploitation and abuse, and human trafficking and sexual violence and their intersection with violent extremism, and the work of the Informal Experts Group on Women, Peace and Security.

But this Council could and should do more to put its full political weight behind implementation of this agenda.

In closing, we can build on the progress we have made.

The annual report has many examples of the international community’s will to find alliances and form coalitions in pursuit of the protection and empowerment of women. Regional rosters of women mediators have been established. The African Women Leaders Network is one example of the ever-stronger cooperation between the UN and the African Union on this issue, which has also been supported by Germany. Sixty-eight countries and territories have adopted National Action Plans, and 63 countries are now part of the new network of national focal points on women, peace and security.

We know that with more resources we can do more, as we have seen with the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO). We have expanded our work on preventing violent extremism to over 25 projects across several countries and regions. More than 60 countries, international and regional organizations, and NGOs have united through the Call to Action on Protection from Gender-based Violence in Emergencies.

122 countries voted to adopt a historic treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, and women-led groups rightly received the Nobel Peace Prize for their tireless campaigning and organizing for it. Another big celebration.

There are some encouraging signals for gender justice in the international courts. Only a few days ago, the ECOWAS court set a significant precedent by making its first-ever judgement on violation of the Maputo Protocol, which has an important provision addressing gender equality in Africa.

The women, peace and security agenda continues to expand its footprint on global policymaking. It is now an essential pillar in global affairs. But its advocates and champions are animated by the conviction that this is only the beginning. And I share this conviction.

The chorus of voices that are appalled by the persistent political marginalization of women in decision-making is speaking louder. The number of people who are determined to find new solutions to the human suffering caused by conflict is growing.

This agenda unites us because people from all over the world, every day, look up to the United Nations for peace, equality and inclusion.

Thank you, Mr. President, for this opportunity.