Clark: Democracy and Gender Equality Roundtable

May 4, 2011

Opening remarks by Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme
Democracy and Gender Equality Roundtable

I am pleased to join Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, Vidar Helgesen, Secretary General of International IDEA, and Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, in co-sponsoring today’s roundtable on democracy and gender equality

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a rich body of international human rights law and treaties promote equal rights for people everywhere to freedom, inclusion, and representation. The challenge is to realize these rights for all in practice.

To me, it is self-evident that democratic governance cannot be fully achieved without the full participation and inclusion of women. Those without voice are so easily ignored by those who have it. Without the full participation of women in decision-making processes and debates about policy priorities and options, issues of great importance to women will either be neglected, or the way in which they are addressed will be sub-optimal and uninformed by women’s perspectives.

Around the world, UNDP helps countries to build the inclusive economies, societies, and governance which will lift human development. Human development is about enabling people to expand their freedoms and choices to live lives which they value. Democratic governance helps deliver that, and also contributes to the social cohesion and peace which is required for sustained development.

The democratic governance portfolio is a very important part of UNDP’s work. Our programmes in this area reach 132 countries, and account for more than one third of our resources. We support countries’ efforts to strengthen their democratic institutions through free and fair elections, and to establish environments in which political parties, vibrant civil society, and free and ethical media can flourish.

UNDP is the UN system’s lead provider of technical assistance to elections. From 2008 to 2010 alone, we provided electoral assistance to 64 countries and territories. We are currently working with more than 120 countries on reform of public administration and/or strengthening governance.

To be judged successful, all this work must contribute to empowering women and pursuing gender equality. We need to see more women elected, voting, involved in participatory processes generally, and well represented in public administrations.

There is evidence to suggest that where women have a strong presence on local councils, they are likely to use their weight to support investments in areas like water and sanitation which are so critical to human health and development. In my own experience, priority for policies like paid parental leave, child care, family friendly workplaces, and much more only materializes when women are active participants in policy debate and prominent in decision-making processes.

It is very important then for women’s political participation at all levels and representation in public administrations to be strengthened so that they can have a strong voice in the setting of development policy and priorities.

Yet achieving that can be a long struggle. National political office, for example, remains one of the most difficult places for women to reach in significant numbers in many societies. Women still comprise only nineteen per cent of the world’s parliamentarians – far from the thirty per cent target set in Beijing in 1995.

As well, women continue to be under-represented overall in public administrations, particularly at the middle and senior levels.

There are a number of proven ways to increase women’s voice and participation in decision-making. They include implementing quotas or reserved seats systems; ensuring that women know how election processes work and about campaign methods and financing; and requiring attention to be given to gender balance in public administrative structures.

Some 50 countries have now legislated for quotas in electoral and political party laws, and hundreds of political parties have adopted quotas as a voluntary measure. Quotas are the single, most effective, and quickest measure for increasing the numbers of women in elected office. I understand that we will hear more about them from Drude Dahlerup in the first panel today.

To make progress on gender equality in political systems, it is critical to engage political parties. They provide structures for political participation, formulate policies, and select candidates for political office. They can be key enablers for women’s participation, but so often they have been the key bottlenecks.

With partners like the National Democratic Institute (NDI), UNDP helps to establish global best practice in political parties promoting stronger women’s involvement. I understand that you will also hear more about this from our NDI colleagues later today.

Efforts to achieve gender equality in elected office need to be matched in public administrations too. UNDP has recently launched an initiative to promote greater gender equality in public administrations.

A lot of attention across the United Nations system is being given to the inclusion of women in reconciliation and peace-building processes in post-conflict countries. For peace and recovery to be sustainable, women must be part of designing the new systems of governance, policies, and services. Democratic governance, fully inclusive of women can help ensure that past discrimination is dealt to as new institutions are built, laws are rewritten, and development priorities are decided.

Promoting gender equality and democratic governance benefit from strong partnerships. The International Network of Women in Politics – iKNOW Politics, a collaborative effort of NDI, IDEA, IPU, UN Women, and UNDP, is one such example. This global on-line forum provides relevant knowledge in support of efforts to increase women’s political participation. It is currently facilitating the sharing of stories and testimony of women within the Arab States region and with other regions and countries.


Today’s roundtable invites us to address the issues of gender equality and democracy together. Gender equality must be a feature of democratic governance for the latter to be worthy of its name.

By promoting both simultaneously we not only promote the equal human rights of women and men, but we also accelerate development progress. 

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