Remarks by UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, on International Women’s Day in New York City


[As delivered]

Today we celebrate the power and potential of women and girls as innovators. We celebrate their creativity in a world characterized by the speed and scale of change. We want innovation and the scale of change to intentionally benefit women and girls. And we want women and girls themselves to be inspired to innovate and influence the whole ecosystem of innovation.

Women are not simply consumers of prescribed solutions—they also design solutions for the whole of society. And they are equipped to address the issues that affect their lives especially. These include lack of sanitation and hygiene facilities, poor lighting in public spaces where violent and sexual assault is likely, financial exclusion, and hard manual farm work in the era of automation and drones.

These are the issues that women want to see innovation addressing. We all do not accept that it will take more than 200 years for us to achieve gender equality, so that only the grandchildren of the grandchildren of the grandchildren will achieve gender equality. Not on our watch.

But without intentional action, this continued slow pace is a real risk.

We need the giant leap that 21st century innovations can bring, so that we can leapfrog change as we celebrate the 25 years anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action. We have to make sure that we are thinking about the big and the bold steps that will give us that leap.

We need to use big data, mobile money, climate-smart agriculture technologies and clean water technologies, as well as applications that protect the rights of women and facilitate access to justice.

Mobile technology has enabled a range of services and represents an unmissable opportunity for development. Access to these proven, disruptive technology solutions has to be made accessible to all those who need it. It means that our regulators have to be encouraged to regulate for the 21st century, not for the same industry as the 20th century.

Globally, 3.3 billion people are now mobile internet users, even though we still have a mobile digital divide. Eighty per cent of women in low- and middle-income countries now own a mobile phone. With this level of market penetration, it would be a historic mistake to fail to make deliberate use of these technologies to advance gender equality.

We know that the technologies are effective.

Our UN Women initiative called the ‘Buy from Women Enterprise Platform’ uses mobile technology to connect women farmers and cooperatives to information, finance and markets, optimizing the supply chain for women. We know that many more women will use this technology.

Women even with limited resources have been looking for sustainable solutions to current limited energy infrastructure, building low-cost solar lamps for small businesses, individual homes and health centers. For example, midwives can use this technology to be sure that they can deliver babies in the dark, at night, in homes where there are no lights.

In Fiji, supported by UN Women, the President of the Rakiraki Market Vendors Association provided the key insights that led the modernization and rebuilding of the market after Tropical Cyclone Winston that hit that community. The intervention included flood resistant drainage, as well as climate-smart aspects like a rainwater harvesting system, and features like changing areas for babies and a female market attendant.

So, inclusion is important in innovation in order to make sure that the solutions are most appropriate for their users. We also want to make sure that we improve innovation by including gender equality and a gender lens at the source of innovation.

To ensure that, we have partnered to form the Global Innovation Coalition for Change with the private sector, integrating gender awareness at all levels of the innovation process. If you like, we are injecting a gender lens into the DNA of innovation.

Since algorithms increasingly determine selection and response, we need to act to make sure that the growing evidence that women have been routinely left out of the data on which decisions are made is addressed.

“Big data” is only a reliable support for decision-making if it draws on a pool of unbiased information.

Artificial intelligence cannot be intelligent if it is gender blind. And therefore, we need to also bring a gender lens into that field.

We are working with key partners to improve gender statistics, re-balance those data pools, and tell the real-life stories of role models who are women all over the world.

I hope those of you in New York have seen the virtual reality display in the visitor’s hall –a partnership with Google to bring to life the experience of courageous women human rights defenders and activists, and make sure that they are visible to many in the world.

We are using technology to amplify these stories. And in partnership with Amazon, we are using Alexa’s voice-activated technology to tell stories of women who are role models and who are bringing about change around the world.

 [UN Women’s new Amazon Alexa Flash Briefing Skill, “Stories on Gender Equality,” plays.]

Those who have Alexa can hear a story from us every week about an amazing woman from a different part of the world.

In conclusion, I would like to highlight that yesterday we launched a partnership with Tencent of China, one of the biggest technology companies, to activate and encourage public opinion on gender equality in China. We would never reach those millions of people were it not for technology to address the issues that affect women.

Innovation is a key component of development and a far-reaching enabler of rights. So, it has to be treated as a right, not a privilege. Innovation is a life-saving basic need for those living in poverty. Women and girls have a vital role to play in the Fourth Industrial revolution, shaping the policies, services and infrastructure that impact their lives.

Today we call for intentional innovation, multiplied so that technology can raise the voices of many more women—like Lois Auta of Nigeria— and change their lives irreversibly.