Helen Clark: Speech at the Opening Session of the World Assembly for Women 2016

Dec 14, 2016

Women earn, on average, 24 per cent less than do men, and are only half as likely as men to have full-time waged jobs with an employer. Credit:UNDP

It is a pleasure to participate in the World Assembly for Women in Tokyo once again. This is my third time at WAW, and I am delighted to be back. 

I commend the Government of Japan for its commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment – we need voices like Japan’s more than ever.

We are at a pivotal point on these issues – and also a precarious one. Gender equality – both as a human right and as a driver of development – is more entrenched in the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals than it was in any prior development framework. Yet progress toward gender equality is uneven and slow – and in some areas is sliding backwards. This requires urgent attention.

In the past twenty years, the proportion of women in parliaments has nearly doubled – yet this translates to women comprising only around 23 (22.9) per cent of parliamentarians worldwide. In 39 countries, fewer than ten per cent of the parliamentarians are women. 

If we continue with business as usual, it has been estimated that closing the gender gap in parliaments will take another 82 years. That is intolerable.

Women are also poorly represented at the decision-making level in public administration globally. Across G20 countries, for example, women represent 48 per cent of the overall public administration work force, but are in under twenty per cent of the decision-making positions. Yet these top jobs play a critical role in ensuring access to services for women and men.

In economies, the challenges in achieving gender equality are also great.

Women earn, on average, 24 per cent less than do men, and are only half as likely as men to have full-time waged jobs with an employer.

Women are over-represented in vulnerable work, and are therefore often without social protection. They are also under-represented in senior management in the corporate sector, holding only 22 per cent of senior business leadership positions. 

Worldwide, women hold just twelve per cent of the seats on corporate boards – and only four per cent of the chairs on those boards. 

Even more alarming, over the past four years, the economic gender gap is estimated to have worsened, reverting to where it stood in 2008. According to the 2016 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, at the current rate of progress,  eradicating gender disparities in pay and employment opportunities will take 170 years – until 2186. 

It is against this backdrop that we must step up our efforts to put gender equality at the center of development efforts. We must invest our time and resources in proven interventions to empower women and drive gender equality.

We must promote women’s participation – including through quotas which remain the most effective way to increase women’s participation in leadership and get issues of importance to women on the table. We have seen quotas increase women’s participation in parliaments and political parties, and on corporate boards, and we have evidence of the positive impact this then has on women’s lives. 

Discriminatory laws which are holding women back must be repealed. It is shocking to read that, of the 173 economies covered in the World Bank’s 2016 report on Women, Business and the Law, 155 have at least one law which creates a barrier for women seeking opportunities which does not exist for men. In many countries women face discrimination in family matters – such as on the right to divorce and inherit property – and do not have the right to own land, assets or access credit.  

The disproportionate burden of unpaid care work done by women also needs attention.  Women do as much as three times more unpaid work than do men - from caring for children, the elderly, the ill, and the disabled, to preparing food and gathering water and fuel. This unpaid work deprives women of time for earning money, upskilling, and engaging in public life.

Addressing the unpaid care burden in many countries requires making day care and elder care facilities available to working families, and providing paid maternal and paternal leave benefits to encourage the sharing of responsibilities. Japan has made significant moves in this direction. 

We need to recognize the efforts of business leaders who have made a commitment to diversity and equality, and who recognize that their businesses and society do better when everybody’s contributions are rewarded. 

We also need to eradicate violence against women and girls – this is experienced by around one in every three women worldwide.  This basic violation of women’s rights is an outcome of gender inequality, and it perpetuates it.

To stop violence against women, we will need a broad-based change in attitudes, beginning with education and reaching the media and the wide range of leaders across society.  

Finally, we must ensure that all young people have access to comprehensive sexuality education and that women and girls have access to sexual and reproductive health and rights and health care. Without these, they will have neither control over their own lives, nor equal status.

The prioritisation of both gender equality and the empowerment of women in the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals is an achievement, but must not be cause for complacency. It must be regarded as a challenge and, even more important, as a call to action. I hope all attending this World Assembly of Women will take up this challenge.

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