Helen Clark: Speech at the Opening Session of the Global Conference on Women and Social Inclusion: From Beijing to post-2015

May 6, 2015

It is a pleasure to speak at the opening of this international conference in Buenos Aires on women and social inclusion.

I would like to thank the Government of Argentina for generously agreeing to host the conference.

I am pleased to greet Her Excellency Alicia Kirchner, the Minister of Social Development of Argentina.

I also greet my colleague, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, who is doing so much to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment within the United Nations and in the world at large.

I welcome Her Excellency Joyce Banda, former President of Malawi, and Her Excellency Aisha Buhari, who will soon be First Lady of Nigeria. We are honored to have you both with us.

Finally, I greet all Ministers, women leaders, civil society representatives, eminent academics, and activists who are with us today.

This conference takes place in the twentieth anniversary year of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Our focus here is on Women and Social Inclusion: From Beijing to post-2015.

Argentina is a very fitting setting for our conference, given the long-standing vibrancy of Argentina’s women’s movement and the country’s commitment to elevating the voices of women. In 1991, four years before the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action, Argentina adopted a gender quota law aimed at increasing the number of women in the national legislature. The law was mandatory across all political parties. Now women hold not far short of forty per cent of seats in the Congress of the Argentine Nation. I understand that quota provisions are also widespread at the level of sub-national governments.

The Beijing Platform for Action remains as relevant today as it was when it was adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. In Beijing, women gathered from around the world and from all walks of life to commit to a bold agenda for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Now, 2015 presents new opportunities for setting a transformational agenda for women. Full gender equality and women’s empowerment must be at the very heart of the new Sustainable Development Goals. These are due to be adopted by world leaders at the United Nations Summit to adopt the post-2015 development agenda in New York in September.

The new Goals, which will succeed the Millennium Development Goals, are expected to include a standalone gender equality goal, and to integrate gender equality across the other SDGs. The challenge then will be to go from goal setting to taking the actions which will bring real benefits to the lives of women and girls.

Over the next two days, this conference will review the progress made with and for women on social inclusion, and poverty eradication. It will look at the challenges still standing in the way of development which is fully inclusive of women and girls.

Areas of Progress

At least fifty per cent of the world’s women are now in paid employment, an increase from forty per cent since the 1990s. Gender parity in primary school enrolment has been achieved in much of the world, and more women than men are enrolled in tertiary education. In most of the world’s regions, life expectancy for men and women has consistently risen, with women on average living longer than men.

Women’s participation in the national parliaments of the world has also increased. In 1995, when the Beijing Platform of Action was adopted, women comprised 11.3 per cent of parliamentarians worldwide. Today, women make up 22.1 per cent of parliamentarians – twice as many, but still short of the thirty per cent target set in the MDGs.

Since 1991 when Argentina passed its gender quota law on women’s parliamentary representation, eleven more countries in Latin America have done so. Today, among all regions of the world, the Latin America and Caribbean region has the highest proportion of women parliamentarians at 25.9 per cent of the total number.

Challenges to be overcome

Yet, despite progress at the global level in a number of areas on human development, more than 1.2 billion women and men around the world still live in extreme poverty. Despite the increased number of women in paid employment, 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.

Women also suffer from what can be called “time poverty”. In rich and poor countries alike, women carry a disproportionate burden of unpaid care work, which deprives them of the time needed for jobs and livelihoods, education and skills training, and participating in public life.

Several countries in Latin America are developing and adopting multi-dimensional poverty measurements which integrate the concept of time poverty in order to identify it, recognize it as a problem, and address it. The issue of women’s unpaid care work will be addressed in the global Human Development Report to be launched later this year by UNDP, titled “Rethinking Work for Human Development”.

Women’s poverty and exclusion are often compounded by non-income issues, including lack of access to education and training, health care, and water and sanitation. Inequalities in access to reproductive health care are stark. Pregnant women in rural areas are much less likely than women in urban areas to receive the care from a skilled birth attendant which is so important for ensuring the health of women and newborns. This disparity, in turn, contributes to the differences seen in maternal mortality rates between rural and urban areas. Full sexual and reproductive health and rights are an essential part of the agenda for women’s empowerment and social inclusion. Many women and girls also face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination across age, ethnicity, indigenous status, disability, and/or as migrants.

So how can growth and development be made more inclusive of women?

Determined action at all levels is needed to develop and implement laws and policies which integrate the empowerment of women with the drive for sustainable development. No country can reach its full potential without doing that. It is important that women can participate in the decisions which affect their lives, and that the barriers and discrimination which stand in the way of women are removed. UNDP is committed to these ends in its work for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

In practice, this means supporting partner countries to apply a gender lens to all their policies to ensure that they are inclusive of women. For example, by recognizing how much time unpaid care work consumes, policies to reduce it can be prioritized. Those could include bringing water and energy to villages, or in other settings ensuring affordable care and support for small children, older relatives, and family members with disabilities.

Other measures can include:

supporting law reform to give women equal access to land, credit, and assets; guarantee equal pay for equal work; and strengthen labor protections;

promoting jobs and livelihoods creation, skills training, and entrepreneurship programmes which target women; and

ensuring that social protection meets women’s needs across unemployment and health insurance – including during pregnancy and childbirth.

Sexual and gender based violence must also be addressed as a significant barrier to women’s empowerment. It denies the right of women and girls to be safe in their homes and communities, and it poses steep costs on societies – both directly and indirectly.

There are challenges to gender equality which have become more pressing since the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995. Climate change is one example. While it affects all of us, it hits first and hardest the poorest and most vulnerable, including women and indigenous people. Responses to climate change must recognize this, and ensure that both women and men at the community level can access and control the resources they need to adapt to and mitigate climate change. In the new global climate agreement due to be agreed in December, the central role of women in managing and protecting natural resources must be recognized, and investments aimed at adapting to and mitigating climate change must be of benefit to women too.

Today, an unprecedented number of people are living in communities and countries experiencing conflict and/or high levels of citizen insecurity. This is particularly harsh on women. Levels of sexual and gender-based violence and exploitation rise during conflicts, and often persist at high levels long afterwards. During the negotiation of peace settlements and during recovery processes, women’s voices are still not well represented – despite the landmark UN Security Council Resolution 1325 of 31 October 2000, which urged Member States to ensure increased representation of women at all levels of decision-making related to the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict. Advancing gender equality is crucial for the economic recovery, social cohesion, and political legitimacy which are required for lasting peace.


The complex and multi-dimensional challenges of empowering women and of driving inclusive and sustainable growth are reflected in the breadth of the agenda of this conference. The discussions before us are highly relevant to the post-2015 sustainable development agenda. This new global agenda has the potential to transform the lives of women and girls everywhere – surely that is the future we want.

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