Helen Clark: Statement on International Women's Day

08 Mar 2010

Right now, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women is gathering in New York to review progress towards gender equality since the groundbreaking Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.  That landmark conference recognized the barriers women face in achieving full equality, and an internationally agreed plan to address the problem, titled the Beijing Platform for Action, was adopted. 

In the fifteen years since 1995, despite genuine progress on many fronts, overall advancement toward gender equality and women's empowerment has been uneven and slow. 

Women’s political participation is rising too slowly, women remain more vulnerable on the job front, and maternal mortality rates remain unacceptably high in many regions.

While more and more women are holding political office, women legislators comprise only eighteen per cent of legislators globally, far from the target of thirty per cent set in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. At the present rate it would take another forty years to reach gender parity.

While more women than ever before are participating in the work force, almost two-thirds of women in the developing world work in vulnerable jobs as either self-employed persons or as unpaid family workers in the informal economy. In developing countries, women consistently lag behind men in formal labour force participation and entrepreneurship, earn less than men for similar work, and have less access to credit as well as lower inheritance and ownership rights than men do.

Women’s health, particularly reproductive health, remains a serious issue.  More than half a million women die every year – or one woman every minute – from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. 

In, 2008, Security Council Resolution 1820, became the first resolution to recognise conflict-related sexual violence as a matter of international peace and security.  This important step must be followed by action to ensure that perpetrators of sexual and gender based violence are prosecuted and brought to justice.  The recent appointment of Margot Wallstrom as the first UN Under-Secretary General on Sexual Violence and Conflict will ensure that these issues continue to be a high priority for the UN.

The Millennium Development Goals are struggling where the needs and status of women are given low priority.  If women’s status is lifted, the goals are more likely to be achieved, with benefits for women, men, and children.

Reducing maternal mortality, for example, would also have positive effects on the goals of improving children’s health and access to education, and of reducing poverty and hunger. Providing girls with education will, in time, be positive for reducing child mortality and improving child nutrition and health for future generations.  Tackling the scourge of sexual and gender-based violence not only addresses a basic human right, but also helps reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS. 

Many countries have advanced gender parity through the successful promotion of girls' education, but significant disparities persist in Sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and Western Asia.  Sadly, at the current rate of progress, the Millennium Development Goal of eliminating gender disparity in all levels of education no later than 2015 remains far from being achieved.

The MDG summit at the UN this September is a major opportunity to show how meeting the needs of women can transform development progress

To achieve true equality for women, we must continue working towards women’s political, economic, and social empowerment.  The proposed new gender entity to be established by the UN will provide a powerful voice for women and girls in these areas, and we look forward to it making a real difference for the world’s women in the years to come.

In the Secretary-General’s words, we must in 2010 “empower women like never before”.

On this International Women's Day, our commitment that ‘progress for women is progress for all’ is stronger than ever. With solid partnerships, dedicated resources, and unwavering political leadership, we can build inclusive and equitable societies where it is widely understood that a win for women is a win for all.