Helen Clark: Speech at the Astana Economic Forum on “Nurly Zhol – New Opportunities for women”

May 21, 2015

It is a pleasure to be here at this event on “Nurly Zhol – New Opportunities” for women. I thank Gulshara Abdykalikova, Secretary of State of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and the Women’s Business Association for organizing this session. I also acknowledge Tawakkol Karman, 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate.

The issue of women’s leadership is very close to my heart. As the first woman elected as Prime Minister of my country, New Zealand, and, before that, the first to hold the position of Leader of the Opposition, I have long been committed to making the path to leadership accessible to other women as well.

But my belief in the importance of women’s leadership is not just personal. Gender equality is a matter of human rights. It is a matter of sustainable development. And it is a matter of common sense. If all members of society are equally empowered to contribute, the sum of their efforts will be far greater than if certain groups, like women, do not enjoy equal opportunity.

Here in Kazakhstan, as in countries throughout the world, gender equality is about creating equal opportunities for women and men, and about making it possible for all to reach their full potential, and contribute meaningfully to society. Investing in women and girls is one of the best investments any country can make in its future.

This year, 2015, presents a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to put women’s empowerment at the center of sustainable development. The Millennium Development Goals will run their course at the end of this year. In September, UN Member States are expected to adopt a new set of Sustainable Development Goals. They are likely to include a standalone gender equality goal, and to integrate gender equality across other goals.

In December, a new global climate agreement will be adopted at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris. The challenge for both agendas is to go from goal setting to taking action which will bring real benefits to the lives of all – women and men, girls and boys.

Advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment requires approaching development through a gender lens. If we do not specifically ask ourselves how women are affected by laws, policies, and norms in their communities and countries – and how development plans may impact on women and men differently, we will hold back progress for women and for whole nations.

The challenges are clear. Today, women make up 22.1 per cent of the world’s parliamentarians. That’s twice as many as twenty years ago when the landmark Beijing Platform for Action was adopted, but it’s still short of the thirty per cent target set by the UN Economic and Social Council in 1990. I am pleased to note that with women comprising 26.2 per cent women of its parliamentarians, Kazakhstan exceeds the world average. I commend Kazakhstan on this achievement, and encourage the country to build on it and lift the levels toward the target of thirty per cent, and beyond.

Women face many economic challenges. At least fifty per cent of the world’s women are now in paid employment. That’s an increase from forty per cent in the 1990s. But women remain disproportionately represented in vulnerable employment. Globally, on average, women earn 24 per cent less than men. Overall, women are less likely than men to have access to decent work, assets, and formal credit.

It is encouraging to see that women in Kazakhstan run 41 per cent of all active, registered small- and medium-sized enterprises. But women in the labour force here earn on average only 67 per cent of what men earn.

I am pleased to see that the new UNDP Country Programme Document for 2016-2020, currently being finalized with the Government of Kazakhstan, will focus on more targeted support to women entrepreneurs, and to women who are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. Specifically, UNDP will support the growth of small- and medium-sized enterprises in non-extractive sectors, including in green energy and utility services, sustainable agriculture, and eco-tourism. These are areas which can generate jobs and promote environmental sustainability and gender equality.

UNDP works to share knowledge and experience from other countries in this and other regions. We are engaged with Kazakhstan in developing a vibrant platform for South-South exchanges and co-operation, involving experts and practitioners from our global network.

Earlier this month, I participated in the global conference on Women and Social Inclusion which UNDP co-hosted with the Government of Argentina and UN Women. Initiatives like those which the Government of Kazakhstan and UNDP have agreed to, which promote jobs and entrepreneurship programmes targeting women, and at the same time promote the “green” economy, generated great interest among participants at the conference.

It’s also vital to support greater women’s participation in all levels of decision-making – from national legislatures to local councils and public administrations. Ensuring that women have a seat at decision-making tables is not just a matter of fairness; it makes a positive difference in shining light on issues which previously went unaddressed and which matter to the lives of women.

In 2006 Rwanda passed a far-reaching law to combat gender-based violence. I am sure it was no coincidence that 49 per cent of its parliamentarians were women. That was the highest proportion in the world then. Today, women MPs comprise 63.8 per cent of the Rwandan legislature – and that’s still the highest proportion in the world.

Progress for women will be accelerated when women have a critical mass of seats at decision-making tables. If more issues of importance to women are to rise to the top of political, legislative, and budget priorities, more women must sit at the top tables. At UNDP, we support women’s leadership and participation in many ways, including by promoting the inclusion of women in constitution-making bodies, national and local legislatures, and electoral authorities, and by supporting women standing for public and other office.

Finally, let me emphasize that women must be drivers of development – not just passive beneficiaries of plans designed by others. Those gathered here today have a wealth of experience in women’s leadership and political participation. Women in Kazakhstan like women everywhere must be agents of change, contributing to and driving development. I look forward to a lively discussion today on how to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment.

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