Helen Clark: "Inclusion and equality: Why women’s leadership matters"

Apr 11, 2012

Rt Hon Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator
Inclusion and Equality: Why Women’s Leadership Matters
National Assembly of Wales, Pierhead Session
11 April 2012 5:30pm

My thanks go to the National Assembly of Wales, for inviting me to speak in this Pierhead Session series of Lectures.

It is a pleasure to be back in Wales, which I first visited in 1976, and returned to twice as New Zealand Prime Minister.  The 2007 visit is seared in my memory as the occasion when New Zealand lost the quarter-final of the Rugby World Cup to France.  I know I will find empathy in Wales for that!

I was happy to be in Cardiff a year ago for the Commonwealth Local Government Conference, and to talk there about the work UNDP does to build better governance at the sub-national level.

The theme of this year’s Pierhead Session, Sex Matters: Women and their Impacts on Politics and Society, is of great importance to me professionally and personally.  Promoting gender equality and women’s active political, economic, and social participation is central to my work now as Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). 

On a personal level, I count myself very fortunate to have been a member of the post-war baby boom generation in New Zealand, where, as a girl, educational opportunities were wide open to me, and, as a woman, I was able to pursue a career of my choice, and meet my professional aspirations. 
As Prime Minister of my country for nine years, Leader of the Opposition for six years before that, Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party for fifteen years, and as a Member of Parliament for 27.5 years, I am well acquainted with the challenges women face when entering the hitherto male-dominated field of politics.

My remarks tonight on “Inclusion and Equality: Why Women’s Leadership Matters” will focus primarily on women’s participation in leadership, decision-making, elected office, public administration, and peacebuilding, in all of which there is still a considerable way to go globally in advancing gender equality.  

My starting point is that it is a basic human right for women to enjoy full legal equality and equality of opportunity, and for a girl born today, in any country, to have the same life prospects as any boy. All our societies are the poorer if they fail to tap the full potential of half their population, and do not remove the obstacles which so often prevent women from rising to leadership positions in political systems and elsewhere.

I do believe that having a critical mass of women in leadership and decision-making positions is positive for human development in all countries – whether developed or developing, and whether countries are living in peace, recovering from conflict, or in the process of a democratic transition.  

At the outset, I wish to commend the people and the National Assembly of Wales for the prominent role women have assumed in leadership here. It is commendable that since Welsh devolution, the proportion of Assembly Members who are women has never dropped below forty per cent, and indeed once reached a high of 51 per cent. 

The National Assembly has encouraged these trends by adopting family-friendly policies in its scheduling of committee meetings and plenary sessions, thus translating gender equality principles into policies which help realize it. There is much to learn from Wales’ inclusive and dynamic democracy.

My remarks tonight seek to highlight the transformative role of women’s political leadership and participation, and some of the successes we in UNDP see around the world, while also acknowledging the remaining challenges.

Gender Equality – a human right

Achieving gender equality is a top priority for the United Nations.  It is enshrined as a fundamental Human Right in Article 1 of the UN Charter, which states that one of the purposes of the UN lies in: “…promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

A number of UN instruments, conventions, and decisions reinforce that commitment, including:

  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1979), which stresses the equality of men and women across human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil, or any other field.  On political and public life, it notes that States Parties should take measures to ensure that women, on equal terms with men, have the right to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government.
  • The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, adopted by governments at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, also affirms gender equality as a human right and commits governments to enhancing women’s rights.
  • The UN Millennium Declaration of 2000 promotes equal rights and opportunities for women and men. Millennium Development Goal Three set specific targets for gender equality.
  • In 2010, the UN created UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

Promoting gender equality, however, runs across the mandates of UN organisations as a whole.  At UNDP we pursue gender equality across our work on poverty reduction, democratic governance, environmental sustainability, crisis prevention and recovery, and combating the spread of HIV.

We see advancing gender equality as not only an end in itself, but also as catalytic in development.  The investments made in women and girls are great multipliers of development progress.  Failing to make those investments, and failing to boost the status of women and girls, thwarts the potential not only of individuals, but also of families, communities, and nations.

As well, fair representation and participation of women in governance is one of the preconditions for achieving genuine democracy. There can be no real democracy if half the population is excluded from participation and power. Athenian democracy, where only some men had voice, will not do in the 21st century. 

So where are we today?

The first woman who was not a monarch to become a national leader was the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in 1960. A total of three women were national leaders in the 1960s, six in the 1970s, and seven in the 1980s.   The total numbers of women who have reached these positions have risen only slowly since, with New Zealand supplying two. Today, there are only eight women heads of state – representing slightly more than five per cent of the total.  This seems extraordinary in the second decade of the 21st century.

The global average of women holding parliamentary seats remains under twenty per cent, which is well below the thirty per cent target set in the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action and in the MDGs. At the current rate of progress, that target will not be reached globally before 2025, and long beyond that in many countries.  That is too long for women and the world to wait.

There are currently only 41 women heads of parliament. Only sixteen per cent of ministers are women, and most often they are allocated portfolios like those for social welfare, women, and children.  In a country I have recently visited, the one woman minister had exactly those responsibilities.

The proportions of women in national legislatures in the world’s regions range from roughly 22 per cent in the Americas and Europe (with the 42 per cent in Nordic countries pushing the average figures up) to 20.2 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa, 17.9 per cent in Asia, 14.9 per cent in the Pacific, and 10.7 per cent in the Arab States.  Five countries – all in the Gulf and the Pacific – have no women parliamentarians at all.

Women as Decision-Makers

When women are “out of sight, out of mind”, meeting their needs does not get prioritized. Conversely, when there is a critical mass of women decision-makers, the issues which previously went unaddressed can become priorities.

Rwanda, is the nation with the highest proportion of women parliamentarians in the world – currently at 56 per cent.  It is no surprise therefore that its parliament drafted a far-reaching law to combat gender-based violence.  It was passed in 2006 with cross-party support brokered by the Forum of Rwandan Women Parliamentarians, which also involved men in the work to craft the new law.

In 2002, at a time when Costa Rica’s numbers of women in Parliament exceeded thirty per cent, a Law on the Protection of Adolescent Mothers was passed to provide those young women with free health services and education.

In Tanzania in 2004, four years after the constitution was amended to state that women had to hold no less than twenty per cent of the seats in Parliament, an amendment to the Land Act granted equal rights and access to land, loans, and credit for women.

In Spain, with women MPs also over the thirty per cent mark, a 2007 law mandated affirmative action measures for employment and working conditions.

In 2007, when Nepal’s share of women in the interim legislative assembly was at nearly twenty per cent, the Finance Ministry adopted gender-responsive budgeting for all government expenditure. For the 2008 elections, quotas helped ensure that a third of the members elected to the Constituent Assembly were women.      

It is not only at the national level that women’s leadership is driving change of benefit to women.  This is also happening at the local level.   In India, for example, women-led councils approved sixty per cent more drinking water projects than did those led by men.  This matters hugely for women and girls, who bear the brunt of water collection, often on foot over long distances, in many countries to this day.

It is to be hoped that as many more women take their rightful place in the ranks of decision-makers, more such issues will come to the top of political, legislative and budgetary priorities.

Indeed a number of areas of great risk for women need far more attention; for example:

  • the rate of decline in maternal mortality globally is well below what is needed to achieve the MDG Five target of a 75 per cent reduction between 1990 and 2015. Far more priority needs to be given to ensuring that women are well nourished, and have access to sexual, reproductive, and maternity services.  MDG Five also targets universal access to sexual and reproductive health; yet high levels of unmet need for services exist in many countries.
  • More than 25 years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, women’s inequality and lack of power in relationships both puts them at greater risk of exposure to HIV and increases their burdens of care. In Southern Africa, girls are two to four-and-a-half times more likely than boys to become infected. 
  • In every country of the world, women are subjected to gender-based violence, and in many the levels are chronic.  These issues need to be addressed in the law, and through police, prosecutor, and judicial training to ensure that the law is upheld.

Personally I take great pride in having led a government in New Zealand which did look at policy through a gender lens, and implemented many policies of significant benefit to women.  Examples include enshrining in law the right to paid parental leave, and to a statutory minimum entitlement for all to a fourth week of annual holidays.  Twenty hours free early childhood care and education and interest-free loans for tertiary students were also of particular benefit to women.  

Crisis and post-crisis contexts

With more than one fifth of the world’s population estimated to be living in states which are considered fragile, women’s participation and leadership in building peace and the foundations for development is especially critical.  No state in this fragile category is on course to achieve all of the Millennium Development Goals.

While crisis increases the economic and social burdens on both women and men, the specific social obligations and responsibilities placed on women impose a greater burden on them.  Added to that is the horror of sexual- and gender-based violence and exploitation which afflicts women in so many nations during and after conflicts.

The impact of armed conflict on women has received increased global attention since 2000, when the UN Security Council adopted its landmark Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.  It called for special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, and for consideration to be given to the special needs of women and girls during repatriation, resettlement, and post-conflict reconstruction.  The resolution also affirmed that for peace and security to be sustained, women must be empowered, their voices must be heard, and they must be included as active participants in conflict prevention, management, and resolution.

Subsequent resolutions have further recognized the key role women can play in peacebuilding and recovery. The UN Secretary General noted in his 2010 Report on Women’s Participation in Peacebuilding that, “Ensuring women’s participation in peacebuilding is not only a matter of women’s and girls’ rights. Women are crucial partners in shoring up three pillars of lasting peace: economic recovery, social cohesion and political legitimacy.”

There are many good examples of the role women have played and are playing in building and consolidating peace. For example, in Guatemala, Burundi, and Bosnia, women’s peace organizations and coalitions played a significant part in helping to bring about peace.  Following the horrific genocide of the 1990s in Rwanda, women emerged as central arbiters of peace and reconciliation.  In Liberia, women pushed for the disarmament of the fighting factions before the signing of a peace accord, thereby making an important contribution towards the peaceful resolution of years of conflict.

UNDP has placed a strong emphasis on conflict prevention, using both formal and informal peace and mediation processes and establishing and strengthening national and local systems and mechanisms. Within this, UNDP has supported women’s groups and voices to contribute to inclusive and peaceful conflict resolution.

In Timor Leste, for example, UNDP helped increase women’s participation in informal peace processes and mediation.

In Fiji, UNDP supported women to play a role in the first broadly based dialogue between state officials, members of the military council, and non-governmental organizations to be held since the current military-led government took power.

Yet, research, including that done by UNDP, confirms that women are still underrepresented at peace tables, donor conferences, and in decision-making, planning and budgeting in post-crisis settings. Financing for gender equality in post conflict recovery and reconstruction is rarely a priority. This needs to change.

There can be no real and lasting peace without ensuring that women’s voices and perspectives are well represented.  Women bring the “every day” issues of concern to communities to peace discussions, calling for more representative governance following conflict; improved access to livelihoods and economic opportunities; and increased access to justice, through strengthened rule of law, especially for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

An inspiring example of women’s leadership in the aftermath of conflict is that of Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first and only elected female African head of state.  In her inaugural address in 2006, the President recognized the key role Liberian women had played in achieving peace and pledged ‘to give Liberian women prominence in all affairs of our country’.  She proceeded to nominate women as two of the five members of the Supreme Court, and to appoint many women to her cabinet, including her first Minister of Finance and Ministers of Agriculture, Commerce, Foreign Affairs, Gender and Development, Justice, and Youth and Sports. 

During President Johnson Sirleaf’s first term, a specialized rape court was set up to expedite the processing of rape cases.  This was vital: the high rates of sexual violence experienced by women during the Liberian civil war meant that there were a great many cases to investigate and prosecute. There were also changes to the general law on gender-based violence, including domestic violence and rape.  Penalties were increased for these offences to demonstrate their gravity.

Public administration

Advancing women in the ranks of public administration is also important as a gender equality goal, and because gender balance in public administration ensures that a wider range of perspectives is brought to bear on policy-making and service delivery.

While public administrations are sometimes among the most important employers of women, in many countries, they perpetuate rather than challenge gender bias. The largest numbers of women continue to be found at the lower levels of public service structures, where they have the least influence.

To date there have been no mechanisms for tracking the numbers and progress of women globally in leadership positions in public administrations. To fill that gap and inform policy-making, UNDP has undertaken the first global stocktaking of women in public administrations, particularly in leadership positions.  It examines a range of strategies to increase the number of women in public administration, such as targets and quotas, and capacity-building and advocacy, to discern which strategies are yielding the best results.

Democratic transitions and women

Over the past fifteen months, uprisings and change in a number of the Arab States have dominated international news bulletins. Women have been actively involved in these events, as protest leaders and participants, and in spreading the word through conventional and new social media. 

It is to be hoped that as new systems of governance are built, women too will benefit as equals.  A joint publication of the UN, including UNDP, and the Arab League in 2010 reported that women constituted only ten per cent of the total of parliamentarians in the region – the lowest rate in the world. The unemployment rate for Arab women last year was double that for Arab men. The economic participation of Arab women remains the lowest of women anywhere in the world, at 26.3 per cent, and it is concentrated in the informal sector.  In some countries, illiteracy levels remain high for women along with maternal mortality rates.

Democratic transitions where women are fully involved can provide new opportunities to address such gender inequities.  Yet, to date, women are not making the breakthroughs in the region which might have been hoped for.

In Tunisia, work was done to promote women’s participation in the elections and have electoral processes which enabled fair competition. The adoption of an electoral law which mandated the alternation of men and women on political party lists was seen as an early victory. Nevertheless, the proportion of women in the new Constituent Assembly is similar to pre-revolution levels at 24 per cent. While that is higher than the global average, it maintains Tunisia below the thirty per cent target for women’s representation in the national legislature.

At the time of the Tunisian election, women held under ten per cent of decision-making positions in the political parties, and only one party was led by a woman. Only three of the 44 cabinet posts are currently held by women. 

The elections in Egypt resulted in only nine women being elected. With the addition of two women appointed to the 508-seat Assembly, they constitute just two per cent of the membership.

Now women’s and other civil society organizations in states in transition in the region are advocating for the anchoring of women’s rights in the constitutions and laws to be written.  To be effective, advocates and experts need to have meaningful input into the decision-making and drafting processes.  UN agencies with expertise on gender equality, including UNDP and UN Women, are available to give support to these processes.  It is our hope that both women and men will see lasting benefits from the democratic transitions.

Some next steps in promoting gender equality in decision-making

The quickest way to lift women’s representation in parliaments is through the use of quotas.  Their implementation can be highly controversial.  Legislation for quotas in the parliaments of India and Papua New Guinea has been stuck in political processes for a number of years, and the debate over the bills has been rancorous.

Another way forward is to adopt proportional representation systems, which do put pressure on political parties to choose women candidates for winnable positions.

The hardest electoral systems for women to penetrate are those based on single member constituencies. There, the stereotypical image of an MP is that of a man, and often of a man with a wife who helps in the constituency and runs the home.  While these stereotypes are breaking down in many places, the process has not been fast.

Where electoral systems are based on national or regional party lists, however, or on multi-member constituencies with, say, the single transferable-vote procedure, the circumstances are more conducive to the entry of women – not least because parties are less appealing to women voters if they exclude them from party lists and multi-member constituencies.  The gender inequity of that is just too blatant.

Of the 59 countries which held elections in 2011 for lower or single houses of parliament, seventeen had legislated for electoral quotas for women, nine had used quotas within political parties, and 33 did not employ any special measures. Women won 27.4 per cent of the places in those parliaments which had legislated for quotas, and only 15.7 per cent of the places in countries without any form of quota.

In emerging democracies, gender quotas can play a critical role in electing more representative parliaments.  A 2011 review of 23 countries with a history of conflict reveals that where the rejuvenation of their political systems included introducing gender quotas for election, women held one-third of the parliamentary seats. Of the eleven other countries emerging from conflict which had not implemented quotas, women held only sixteen per cent of the seats.

Rwanda provides a compelling example of a society where the empowerment of women as decision-makers has played a key role in its transformation. As mentioned earlier, quotas helped place Rwanda in the first place in the world for the proportion of its parliamentarians who are women.

A thirty per cent quota for women MPs was established in the country’s 2003 constitution. Rwandan women now hold 56 per cent of seats in their parliament’s lower chamber. In addition, 32 per cent of ministerial positions are held by women.

Women parliamentarians in Rwanda led efforts in the transitional parliament set up after the 1994 genocide to amend discriminatory statutes, such as the old laws on nationality and citizenship which were not gender equitable.
Next door in Burundi, the introduction of quotas, along with support by UNDP and the broader UN to encourage women to register and vote, and the provision of skills training for those interested in running for office, played a role in lifting women’s representation.  A thirty per cent quota for national elections was exceeded, as women took 34 per cent of the parliamentary seats in 2010. Burundi also has the highest proportion of women senators in Africa, at 46 per cent.  UNDP, with UN and civil society partners, is continuing support for the women who have been elected.

Beyond quotas, it also helps for women to have fair access to public and private sources of electoral finance in their campaigns. As well, electoral commissions need to be vigilant in their oversight of electoral finance laws to reduce bribery and corruption before and during campaigns.

Campaign violence can be another obstacle to women’s full political participation. Security for women candidates and voters is needed to encourage full engagement. 

Political parties are generally the gatekeepers to political representation. Women within parties worldwide tend to be highly represented at the grassroots levels and in supporting roles, but underrepresented in higher-level positions.   Women comprise forty to fifty per cent of the membership of political parties, globally, but only around ten per cent of the leadership positions.  Yet if women do not lead political parties, they will be unlikely ever to lead governments.  

Acknowledging that political parties play the crucial roles in determining who is selected for winnable positions at elections, UNDP has been working to advise them on how they can make a difference for the better for women’s representation.

Together with the National Democratic Institute of the U.S.A, we recently launched a guidebook on “Empowering Women for Stronger Political Parties.”  It is the first of its kind in compiling a range of measures which have been taken by political parties to boost women’s participation throughout the electoral cycle, including skills training for and mentoring of women candidates, ensuring women’s visibility in campaigns, and making sure that electoral monitoring, security provisions, and voter information are gender-sensitive.

Even when women are more fairly represented in decision making, progress on gender equality on all fronts is not guaranteed.  The engagement of men is also essential in creating a culture of inclusion and equality.  There needs to be general acknowledgment that women in decision-making are an asset to whole societies.

As well, women’s organizations are vital advocates for and independent agents of change everywhere in the world. It is especially important to affirm their role in the aftermath of crisis, peacebuilding, and democratic transitions.

Investment in women’s well-being, potential, empowerment, participation, and leadership across the board is needed. Educated, healthy, and empowered women drive development faster. Women with equal rights, as basic as being able to own and inherit land and property, access credit, and open bank accounts, can play an even greater role in the development of their societies.  

The general point is relevant to developed countries too.  The gap between New Zealand’s GDP per capita and that of Scandinavian countries owes a great deal to the lower level of labour force participation of women in New Zealand.  That was one of the reasons why my government pursued work-life balance policies, like implementing the extra week of annual holidays and a right to paid parental leave.  The universal right to twenty hours free early childhood education was established both because of its importance for children and because it made the option of paid work for both parents a realistic one.


A huge focus for me as a leader is to contribute to building a more equitable and sustainable world.  Gender equality at every level must feature in that world.

Truly equitable and sustainable development requires the weaving together of its economic, social and environmental strands through “triple win” approaches and policies.  Gender equality and women’s empowerment must always be fully integrated in these approaches. 

At the global and national levels, our world faces complex and interlinked challenges.  They demand policymaking which positions economic growth, poverty reduction, social development, equity, and environmental sustainability as interconnected objectives which are best pursued together. Policies and initiatives which empower women must be part of that fabric.

A key part of making sure that they are is having women much better represented in leadership and decision-making than they are today.  Countries which are serious about equitable and sustainable development will make sure that they make that happen.

The benefits of women’s participation and leadership are well established.  As the post-2015 development goals are defined, and as new and more sustainable democracies are being built, higher levels of women’s representation should be aimed for.

Here in Wales, you are reaping the benefits of involving men and women as equals in your growth and development.  In many other places, the story of women’s full empowerment is still to be written. Women’s full participation and leadership are prerequisites for sustainable development. If we are to build sustainable routes out of poverty, women must be full beneficiaries of and contributors to their country’s progress.  The time for talking about what to do next is over. It is time for action and it is time for change for women.

UNDP Around the world