Speech: Working as one, to enhance the lives of women

Remarks by UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the High-Level Ministerial Breakfast Event on the Role of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in the Economic Empowerment of Women


[As delivered]

Thank you very much excellencies for your inspiring words. Thank you to Finland, Zambia, Costa Rica, UNFPA, my colleagues at UN Women, and the EU for hosting this very important side event today. We have all come through testing times recently, in the process of adopting the new four-year organizational strategic plans, where mutual issues were being tested and discussed between and amongst us, as UN agencies and Member States. It is not enough just to have these discussions; we still have to find much better consensus than we have now.

So, the moment is timely. It is also important to see the linkage between women’s economic empowerment and sexual and reproductive health and rights. It is at the time when women are entering the labour market (if they’re lucky), that they’re also becoming mothers, and at the height of their reproductive activities. It is the time, as a young professional, as a woman or as a worker, that you are trying to impress your boss, you are trying to get things done and you are a rising star. At the same time, there is that little baby, your family, and all the other challenges that come with that.

If you’re in a context where your rights are not respected, where you are not the one who decides how you are going to space your children, the rest of your life can be messed up. This is the power of the choice that we are talking about for women.

If you are in a country where policy is in place, there is support. But if services are not there, you still have a problem. If you are in a workplace where your boss and your conditions of work do not respect your rights, and do not support you, you still have a problem.

All of these threads need to come together. In this room, we represent the different threads that must be woven together. Because there is one girl, one woman who will experience all of this at the same time, and will need all of us not to work in a fragmented way, but to work as one, so that their lives can be enhanced.

We have seen the challenges for women who are dependent on partners that do not respect them. When a woman has the burden of unpaid care work and has no control over income, she is at high risk. When a girl lives in a community where there is extreme poverty, her parents may think that she is part and parcel of providing income for the family, marrying her off, and that girl is put at risk. When a girl or a woman works in the informal sector, where access to services can be very patchy, they are at risk. That is why it is important to invest in the public sector, which can cope with these challenges. So that whether a woman is in the informal sector, formal sector, rich or poor, all of them can have access to the services that they need.

Child marriage puts girls at very high risk. The risk is even higher for those girls and women who are displaced for one reason or another. Whether they are displaced in their own countries, whether they are refugees, or migrants, we are seeing a trend of increase in child marriage among these displaced populations. This is an area where the protection of rights tends to be significantly compromised.

Schools and community activities that involve young people are important platforms for us to implement solutions. Comprehensive sexuality education is critical. The extent to which we have not been able to have this universally embraced by Member States presents a challenge.

A 2015 study of 22 sexuality and HIV education programmes found that 80 per cent of programmes that address gender inequalities were associated with lower STI and unintended pregnancy rates. Also, it was found that in countries that had gender-responsive budgeting, there was targeted investment on SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights) and women’s health in general, we were able to support women and girls to be much fitter for activities that enrich their economic opportunity.

In Cameroon, UN Women has supported income-generating activities with 73 local women’s associations. Assessments show that as a result of increased income, more women are accessing reproductive and maternal health and services. In the process of these women addressing their economic needs, we are able to engage them on their rights, their reproductive rights, and the need for them to demand services.

In Malawi, a conditional cash transfer scheme to give girls in schools showed a 30 per cent reduction in teen pregnancy, and a 64 per cent reduction in HIV risk. These programmes ensured dialogue and awareness raising amongst these girls on their reproductive rights and encouraged them to provide peer learning.

With UN Women’s support through the H6 partnership in Ethiopia, Cameroon, Liberia and Zimbabwe, women and girls are more actively seeking health services after participating in trainings on gender. These collaborations and partnerships that we have as different agencies, for instance as UN Women and UNFPA, allow us to do strong and active work in the areas where we have comparative advantage.

UN Women and its broad mandate for gender equality does the awareness raising. We are able to direct the women to the life-saving work that is done by UNFPA. And through that partnership, we are able to bring together our collective strengths to serve the women.

Next year the Commission on the Status of Women will be focusing on rural women. I hope that we can start now working together on how we will position these rural women, bringing together all our citizens around their needs. I’m sure I do not have to tell this audience how challenged rural women are. It is going to be our coordination that will ensure we are able to address rural women as effectively as we can. As we address rural women, we also bring attention to women with disabilities, to indigenous women and many other women who are challenged by intersectionalities that make their case even worse.

So, thank you so much to all the conveners of this meeting for bringing us together in this session. Thank you.