Helen Clark : International Women’s Leadership Conference

Mar 4, 2010

Keynote Address by Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator

“Women as Agents of Change”

Thank you for inviting me to address this fifth International Women’s Leadership Conference.

The importance of promoting and strengthening women as leaders is very close to my heart, both personally and professionally.

As one who was long supported by other women, and by many men, to break glass ceilings and go where few other women had gone before, I know how important it is for the ladder of opportunity to be extended to current and future generations of women.

Conferences such as this one can play a critical role in inspiring new generation of women leaders.

On 8 March, the world will mark International Women’s Day, which this year has the theme of “Equal rights, equal opportunities: progress for all". I will be launching an important UNDP Human Development Report that day on gender equality in the Asia-Pacific region.

In that region, as in all others, there is still a long way to go to achieve full gender equality. 

This session holds the title “Women’s leadership shaping the 21st century”. From where I sit as the Administrator of the UN Development Programme, what is very much on my mind is the importance of empowering women and supporting women’s leadership for meeting the critical challenges of the 21st century.

It is a basic human right for women to enjoy full legal equality and equality of opportunity. As well, all our societies will be the poorer if we fail to tap the full potential of half our populations.

As we are all aware, this conference takes place in an era which has been witness to multiple global crises.

In very recent years, the world has experienced major food and energy crises, and the effects of the global recession are still being felt. Catastrophic natural disasters have put societies under great pressure. We are all aware of the pain and destruction caused by the recent earthquake in Haiti, and now in Chile, and the frequency and intensity of climate-related disasters is a deep concern.

While many of these global crises also impact – and often severely – on the developed world, it is the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people who are generally most adversely affected. Among them are many of the world’s women.

As we strive to meet development goals in these troubled times, it is more important than ever to ensure that our work is premised on equal rights and equal opportunity for women.

Achieving gender equality not only promotes a basic human right; it is also central to achieving the Millennium Development Goals and other internationally agreed goals. If women are excluded from full participation in a nation’s progress, that progress will only ever be sub-optimal.

In September 2000, I was one of the many Heads of Government who travelled to New York to sign the Millennium Declaration. It set out a powerful agenda in the eight Millennium Development Goals, and enshrined the international community’s commitment to meet critical development benchmarks by 2015.

The importance of reducing poverty, hunger, infant mortality, and the spread of fatal diseases, or the importance of universal education, good maternal health, and improved water and sanitation, cannot be overstated. These are basic development benchmarks.

At a global level, significant progress has been made towards meeting the MDGs.

Notably, the target of reducing by half the proportion of people living in extreme poverty between 1990 and 2015 could be achieved, in no small part due to the lifting of hundreds of millions of people in China out of poverty.

But serious challenges remain. As many as one billion people worldwide are likely to be living in extreme poverty in 2015.

MDG 5, which seeks to improve maternal health, is the goal towards which there has been the least progress. That in itself speaks volumes about the low priority accorded to women’s needs in many societies.

More than half a million women die every year from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.  That means the death of one woman every minute. Ninety nine per cent of those deaths occur in the developing world and about half in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The third Millennium Development Goal – to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment – has a bearing on achieving the other goals.

Take, for example, the education of girls, which yields some of the highest returns of all development investments. The benefits are intergenerational, as a mother’s education is a significant variable affecting children’s education attainment and opportunities.

The flow on effects will also include reduction of child and maternal mortality, better child nutrition, a boost to economies, and greater ability to protect women and girls from HIV/AIDS, abuse, and exploitation. 

The interconnections between the MDGs mean that putting women’s empowerment on national agendas and prioritizing meeting women´s needs can transform development progress.  The global challenges of the early 21st century make it urgent to do so.

This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, agreed on at the UN´s Fourth World Conference on Women. With its adoption, the international community formally recognized that the active participation of women in decision making was a prerequisite for equality, development, and peace.

I know from personal experience that increasing the voice and participation of women in politics is critical for putting women’s issues on national agendas. Put bluntly, if there is not a critical mass of women in governments and legislatures, women’s needs are not given the attention they deserve. This is a case where to be out of sight is truly to be out of mind.

There are many examples in our world of women who have been able to make major contributions to the life of their countries at the national level. They are, and have been, monarchs and governors general, presidents and prime ministers, ministers and parliamentary speakers, and governors and mayors. There have long been women in senior positions in the civil service, the professions, business, and civil society organizations.  

Without doubt however, one of the hardest places for women to enter and stay in has been elected office at the national level.

As of now, women comprise only eighteen per cent of the world’s legislators - far from the thirty per cent target set in Beijing.  In Oceania, Northern Africa, and Western Asia, women still hold less than ten per cent of the seats in national parliaments.

At the current rate of progress, it would take another forty years to reach gender parity in the world’s national legislatures. 

Yet, challenging as they are, the global crises the world currently faces also open opportunities for strengthening the voice and access of women in all spheres – across the political, economic, social, and cultural. The injection of women’s energy and vision is surely what our world needs at this time. We must seek to empower and involve women as the agents of social transformation which we are.

Last month I travelled to the South-Pacific, a region with some of the most pronounced gender inequality.

I met with women in Papua New Guinea who have dedicated themselves to fighting their country’s persistent gender-based violence.  Some research suggests that 75 per cent of women and children there experience family violence of some kind.

I met with PNG’s only female Member of Parliament, Dame Carol Kidu, who is leading efforts to correct the serious gender imbalance in the national parliament through a quota system. If enacted, the number of women parliamentarians in Papua New Guinea would increase from one to 22, bringing PNG close to the current global average for women’s participation in national legislatures.

Similar efforts have been taken up across the developing world, including in Rwanda, where over fifty per cent of parliamentarians are women, and in Egypt which is also proceeding with specific parliamentary seats for women.

The decentralization of government can also be helpful in increasing women’s political participation and influence, with positive spin offs for development. 

In India, for example, a survey conducted in villages in West Bengal and Rajasthan showed that the number of clean drinking water initiatives was more than sixty per cent higher in councils led by women than in those led by men. The very valuable health benefits for whole communities of prioritizing clean water supply are obvious.

During my Pacific trip, I also visited Vanuatu. There I met impressive women leaders and advocates who told me about the work they are doing to change their country’s family laws, which date back to colonial times. They also told me they need support to do that. When the new UN gender entity is up and running, I hope it will give the highest possible priority to supporting countries to rewrite their laws and make the systemic changes which will transform the status of women.

We also need to work to enable women’s voices to be heard at the global level on global issues.

Through a partnership with the Global Gender Climate Alliance, my organization, UNDP, has supported women to contribute to the international climate change negotiations, developing the technical capacities of more than 500 women government delegates and practitioners.

Many of these women have taken what they have learned from this initiative to make an impact on these issues and more at the national level. 

This brings me to a very important point. Strong women’s networks and the sharing of knowledge and experiences between women are critical for women’s empowerment.

UNDP and its partners have organized an on-line workspace: the International Knowledge Network of Women in Politics (iKnow). It aims to provide a global forum of knowledge and resources which support efforts to increase women’s contribution in the political arena.

Economic empowerment, including improving access to finance, is also critical for women’s advancement

In developing countries, microfinance plays an important role in that. A well known example is the Nobel Prize-winning Grameen Bank, where 97 per cent of the borrowers are women.

Studies suggest that women have a better record for repaying loans on time then do men. No doubt for that reason, in Bangladesh women have better credit ratings than men.

For women access to credit is about much more than just access to money. It is about women being able to move out of poverty and strengthen their position more generally within their homes, their villages, and their countries.

A lot of attention in the United Nations system is being given to the role of women in the aftermath of conflict or disaster, and in peace-building.

In the conflicts of today, civilians - especially women and children - are the most affected. The majority of refugees are women and children; the majority of displaced persons are women and children; and sexual assault and exploitation are too often used as weapons of war.

Yet women have frequently been marginalized in the recovery from conflict and disaster. Keeping the peace, for example, has tended to be seen as something men do. Women have been given few seats at the negotiating tables and often too little role in the design and implementation of reconciliation processes.

For peace and recovery to be sustainable, women must be empowered and included as active participants. If the views, needs, and interests of half the population are not represented, then less appropriate and enduring solutions will be devised.

We do now have good examples of where women have played critical roles in conflict-ridden nations as agents of change.

In Guatemala, Burundi, and Bosnia, for example, women’s peace organizations and coalitions played a significant part in helping to bring about peace.

In Rwanda, after the horrific genocide of the 1990s, when more than 900,000 people were massacred, women emerged as central arbiters of peace and reconciliation.

In Liberia, women made major contributions towards the peaceful resolution of years of conflict, pushing for the disarmament of the fighting factions before the signing of a peace accord.

In the aftermath of that conflict, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf emerged as the first female African Head of State, with the strong support of women weary from years of war.

In 2000, the UN Security Council passed the landmark resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. It recognized that a majority of civilians affected by armed conflict are women and children, and endorsed women’s full and equal participation in post-conflict decision-making processes. Other important resolutions have followed, strengthening this commitment and also addressing the systemic use of sexual violence as a tool of war. In recent weeks the first ever UN Under-Secretary General with a specific responsibility to work against sexual violence in conflict has been appointed.

At UNDP, we have made gender equality and women’s empowerment in crisis prevention and recovery a top organizational priority

In Kenya, we helped establish women’s peace fora to address armed violence. In Colombia, we have worked with many hundreds of women to include women’s issues and perspectives in truth and reconciliation efforts. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, together with other UN agencies, we are addressing the epidemic of rape, associated with the long-running and devastating conflict there, which still persists in the east of the country.

Our experience from these programmes and others has strengthened our conviction that for peace to endure, women must be empowered to be active participants in peace settlements and peacebuilding efforts.

The same applies to the process of recovery following natural disasters where women have often been most at risk.

Most of those who died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for example, were women, the elderly, and children.

In Haiti, following the devastating earthquake there in January, one of the key challenges is to ensure that women are not sidelined in the recovery and reconstruction. Through its cash-for-work programmes, UNDP has made a special effort to ensure that women are employed. That helps women meet not only their own immediate needs, but also those of their children and families.

In my remarks today I have highlighted the transformational impact which women´s participation in decision-making, access to credit, and involvement in post crisis reconciliation, recovery, and peace-building can have. I firmly believe in empowering women to be agents of change so that they are not cast in roles where they cannot influence their own futures.

Every woman attending this conference is an agent of change. We have it within our collective power to make a difference for current and future generations within and beyond the borders of our own countries. I urge you to make that difference, and to support other women to make that difference too.

UNDP Around the world