Opening statement by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the 63rd session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women

Date: Monday, March 11, 2019

[As delivered]

As part of the UN family, allow me first to express the sadness and pain that we feel as we come to terms with the tragic loss of lives in the plane crash in Ethiopia. Our deep sympathy goes to all the victims’ families and loved ones. We remember also the colleagues who have lost their teammates.

Excellencies, we meet today at a time when the world has the largest population ever of women and girls. We welcome therefore the youth delegates who are at the Commission on the Status of Women. We also welcome civil society.

It is a time when there has been much progress to acknowledge. Over the past two decades, many countries throughout the developing world, have invested in infrastructure and access to public services and have expanded the scope and coverage of social protection for their people.

More girls are in school today than ever before and more countries have achieved gender parity in school enrollment. Access to essential health services has improved, with global rates of childbirth with a skilled health professional up from 61 per cent in 2000 to 79 per cent in 2016. Over the past decade, 274 reforms to laws and regulations supporting gender equality have been adopted in 131 countries. Eighty per cent of women in low- and middle-income countries now use or access a mobile phone; and 48 per cent of women in those countries now use mobile internet.

But these gains are fragile, and we are seeing them reverse: 131 million girls worldwide are out of school, and latest data show a 6 per cent increase in the number of girls not in primary school. On average, globally, women still have only three-quarters of the legal rights of men, and more than one billion have no recourse against violence or are restricted in their education or employment—what is now being called ‘economic violence’. Every day, approximately 830 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth; 99 per cent of them are women in developing countries. Their deaths link inextricably to poverty and lack of services and infrastructure. And the gender digital divide persists even as opportunities for women to own digital assets increases.

 Overall, progress is uneven, slow, insufficient and subject to backsliding. This picture indicates a worrying trend for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Today, I urge all of us to focus on change that lasts, and that can withstand the shocks of political climates that may be unconducive to human rights and women’s rights. This means that we need big, bold steps not incremental steps. Well-coordinated and integrated infrastructure and social protection that reach large proportions of the population, especially the poorest, the young and old and most in need, can give us that leap ahead.

The families and communities most likely to be left behind are those who lack access to adequate infrastructure, who have restricted mobility, and those who cannot afford private services, such as child care, water, education or telecommunications infrastructure. These are the millions who rely on charity, and public service and social protection to meet their basic needs. These are the priorities of CSW 63, which is going to focus on closing these gaps.

It is not surprising that universal social protection is integral to the vision of the 2030 Agenda and a component of several of the Sustainable Development Goals. But currently 71 per cent of the world’s population has only partial or no access to its transformative benefits. Investment in gender-responsive social protection, public services and sustainable infrastructure is critical to free up women’s time, support their mobility, enhance their access to economic opportunities and strengthen their resilience to shocks.

The public service provision of something as basic as a birth certificate or identity card can have huge consequences for women’s ability to access benefits and services, and important public and private service goods, from banking, land ownership and voter registration, to reclaiming property after conflict or climate disasters or after the death of a spouse.

Excellencies, most of the one billion people worldwide who continue to live in poverty are heavily concentrated in rural areas and in the informal economy. And, in low-income countries, 79 per cent of all employment in cities is informal, with little or no access to social protection.

Women and girls are significantly affected by a lack of infrastructure, services and social protection. They are responsible for 80 per cent of water collection in households without onsite access to water, as well as multiple other unpaid household duties. Water collection can compromise their safety and takes up time that could otherwise spent on paid work, education- - or leisure. The longer the journey to find scarce resources, the greater the chance of exposure to sexual violence as well as physical exhaustion. Therefore, just the simple provision of piped clean water to households can be a quiet revolution. 

With a good water supply, sanitation can be improved, and we can reduce girls’ school dropout. Safe sanitation is still lacking in 23 per cent of the world’s schools. Installing it can help turn around education retention for the growing number of adolescents, too many of whom already drop out.

This problem has a clear solution. It will require decisive leadership to enable a positive future for women and girls, especially when we also provide them access to enjoy their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Women and girls have a vital role to play in shaping the policies, delivery of services and infrastructure that impact their lives. Their voices must be meaningfully included, as must the voices of people living with disabilities.

Next week with UNOPS we will launch a first-of-its kind guidance series on integrating gender into infrastructure development.

Large-scale infrastructure investment must be transparent and take the environment and people’s rights into account. No human rights defender—or anyone—should have to die protecting land from development that compromises other important needs of communities. Whether they are parliamentarians, indigenous representatives, climate justice activists, or young activists who are trying to protect their communities, their cases should not go unheard and unresolved.

Public services can address safety in public spaces. We must be deliberate about protecting women and girls in public spaces, for example, considering where we locate bus terminals and how we provide the lighting in public spaces where women are at risk of being assaulted, and even raped. This is the aim of our innovative Safe Cities programme.

Excellencies, innovation in all its forms is a key component of development. It can have far-reaching impact to address the needs of poor communities. It can be a life-saving intervention, and it is not a luxury when it addresses the needs of poor communities.

In planning ahead, we must be sure that technologies are intentionally directed to improve the lives of those who are furthest behind. Young people must be a part of the consultation process.

Mobile technology has enabled a range of services and must be regarded as essential infrastructure for development, especially where it can save young people and old people from the need to travel long distances and pay exorbitant amounts to access services. It offers a historic opportunity for universal access and accelerated delivery.

Today, algorithms increasingly determine selection, response and decision-making. We need to act on the growing evidence that women have been routinely left out of the data on which decisions are made. Artificial intelligence’s logic and big data will fail women if their conclusions are reached on the basis of gender-blind information. Policies founded on gender-biased data will recycle gender inequality. But good policy can be an equalizer and radically change the world for the poor, the young and the old.

Investments in public services can be a positive engine of job creation for women. Well-designed investments in early childhood education and care services can have major economic and social pay-offs. They can create decent jobs in the paid care sector and enhance children’s capabilities. 

Moldova recently reported at the Commission for Social Development that its efforts in social inclusion and combating inequality decreased the number of persons living below the poverty line by 22 per cent from 2010 to 2015. And UN Women’s analysis found that if universal childcare was introduced in South Africa, nearly 2.5 million jobs could be created.

There is a strong case for regarding infrastructure and social protection as a key public service intervention for achieving multiple results in the 2030 Agenda.

Next year – 2020 – is UN Women’s 10th anniversary and the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. It is also the 20th anniversary of Security Council resolution 1325 and the last decade of the 2030 Agenda.

Time is up! These anniversaries will be marked to accelerate and scale up progress in the delivery of the interventions much needed by society. We invite you to take part in these big moments.

We need a strong response to the unprecedented population of young people so that it truly becomes a demographic dividend. We also need to deliver services in an era of longer life expectancy and ageing populations. Plans must be tailor-made for both the needs of the young and of the aging. Women and girls will be better served by using reliable data and innovative responses to public sector policies.

CSW63 is a moment to reflect on how we deliver, integrate and coordinate policies on much- needed and lifechanging policies and infrastructure. I urge this Commission to seize this opportunity to make historic progress. It falls upon a generation to be great and make change, as Nelson Mandela said, and you are that generation.