Helen Clark: Speech at the 'Women - the Key to a Sustainable World' event

Mar 8, 2016

My thanks go to the United Nations Association (UNA) of Norway, FOKUS – the Forum for Women and Development, and the Nobel Peace Centre for hosting today’s event on “Women – the Key to a Sustainable World”. 

It is an honor to be speaking on this topic on International Women’s Day here in Norway – this country is a long-standing champion of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Last year was a watershed year for global development, including on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

We celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, with the Beijing+20 review taking stock of progress and challenges encountered on gender equality since the adoption of the Declaration in 1995.

We also marked the fifteenth anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, on the occasion of which the Security Council adopted a new and a more ambitious resolution on Women, Peace, and Security - Resolution 2242.

Norway has been a strong backer of the Beijing Platform and the wider women, peace, and security agenda. This commitment is reflected in Norway’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security.  

In 2015, UN Member States also reached major new global agreements, which together set the broader context in which progress on gender equality and women’s empowerment will take place. These include the Sendai Agreement on Disaster Risk Reduction; a positive and realistic new framework on financing for development – the Addis Ababa Action Agenda; the new global climate change agreement reached in Paris; and – a central focus of my keynote address here today - Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

It is worth noting that, as the Chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the first woman to become Prime Minister of Norway, played a major role in putting sustainable development firmly on the global agenda. In many ways the thrust of the “Brundtland Report” of 1987 is echoed in the SDGs.

Agenda 2030: opportunities and challenges for gender equality

Agenda 2030 and the SDGs have the potential to make a real difference for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Among the seventeen SDGs are goals seeking to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality significantly, and promote peace, security, good governance, and the rule of law. Gender equality is asserted as a fundamental human right, and as a driver of progress across all development goals. Reflecting this, it is both the sole focus of one of the goals - Goal 5 - and is also integrated into the other goals.

The SDGs address important structural drivers of gender inequality. They include targets on eliminating gender-based violence, child marriage, and female genital mutilation; and calls for equal rights to economic resources, including access to land and property; equal leadership opportunities; and a more prominent role for women in peace and state building.

Many voices helped shape Agenda 2030. Norway played a key role in this process, including by:

  • hosting a global consultation on energy; and
  • actively participating in the Open Working Group of the General Assembly on the SDGs.

Norway also co-facilitated the intergovernmental negotiations on the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development.

Norway’s high level engagement continues with Prime Minister Solberg serving as Co-Chair of the UN Secretary-General’s SDGs Advocacy Group, the aim of which is to build political will and generate momentum for SDG achievement.

I understand that the SDG agenda enjoys wide support across the political spectrum in Norway, and that in a recent debate in the Storting, parliamentarians expressed solid support for the 2030 Agenda.

UNDP along with agencies across the UN Development Group contributed to shaping Agenda 2030 and the SDGs. By facilitating national, thematic, and global consultations, as well as the MY World survey which has now engaged almost ten million people, we helped to ensure that the goals were informed by an unprecedented global conversation about a UN process. Women participated equally in the My World Survey, representing fifty per cent of respondents.

Of course, having had a say on the new global agenda, people are expecting to see results. Agendas are mere words on paper, unless concrete action is taken to implement them. We all have work to do to drive progress, including with and for women.

In today’s development context, this must be done amid major global challenges – challenges which often have unique and specific impacts on women. For example:

  • We are living through the most profound displacement crisis since World War II. The Syria conflict has had major spillover impacts on the sub-region – and beyond, including all the way to Norway. I understand that there were more than 30,000 unplanned arrivals of migrants from a range of countries here last year, many of whom were seeking asylum.

    As women and girls comprise about half of any refugee, internally displaced, or stateless population, it is imperative that their voices and needs inform decision-making on their conditions and/or the environment in which they find themselves, and that they are equal beneficiaries of initiatives designed to support displaced people. We must also recognize that in some settings for displaced people, women are particularly vulnerable to violence and to trafficking.

    It should be noted that when women stay behind as male members of families migrate, they must then fend for their families alone, sometimes with limited access to services and livelihoods. This underscores the importance of empowering women economically, reinforcing their resilience when faced with such circumstances.
  • Economic and social shifts are creating new opportunities, but also new risks. Fast technological progress and deepening globalization offer opportunities for some, but also profound challenges for others. Compounding these challenges is a less than robust global economy in which a number of major developed countries continue to record low growth, and a number of the emerging economies which held up global growth in recent years have now themselves slowed.

    As UNDP’s 2015 Human Development Report on the role of work for human development made clear, women continue to be disproportionately represented in the informal work sector. Within the formal labor market, they are concentrated in lower waged jobs. The higher-paying jobs of the technology and science sectors will remain out of reach for many women until they have greater access to training and education in these spheres.
  • Many countries are being affected by unprecedented natural disasters. Recurrent severe weather events in the Sahel and in the Horn of Africa, for example, are devastating people’s lives. This year we see particularly severe drought impacts in Southern Africa and Central America too. With climate change, we can expect worsening weather for decades.

While climate change and natural disasters affect everyone, women and girls bear the heaviest burden because of structural issues, including unequal access to credit, land ownership, and decision making. As generally the providers of food, water, and fuel for families, changes in the climate and environment impact on women directly. Norway has been among those countries calling for the recognition of gender considerations in global climate agreements.

How to realize the gender equality ambitions of Agenda 2030?

These challenges have implications for women’s lives. Addressing them not only calls for targeted, gender-focused programmes, but also requires that all development efforts take the experiences, needs, and contributions of women into account.

With the integration of gender equality throughout the SDGs, the 2030 Agenda provides the international community with an ambitious roadmap to do just that. 

In particular, to make progress towards the targets of the new agenda, there is a need for:

  • Getting more women into decision-making positions. Today, women comprise only 22.7 per cent of the world’s parliamentarians – a level well below parity. In some regions, the average is much lower, and some countries still have no elected women members of Parliament. A gender imbalance is also widespread in other forums for decision-making in many countries, from the executive branch of government to the judiciary, the private sector, and beyond.

    Increasing the proportion of women in decision-making is not just a matter of equity – a critical mass of women decision-makers also makes a difference in bringing forward issues which previously went unaddressed.

    Norway has been a leader in advancing gender parity in both the public and private sectors, with women now holding close to forty per cent of seats in parliament, and, as of last year, 41 per cent of the seats on boards of public limited companies.
  • Investing in women and girls as active agents of change: investments in gender equality and women’s empowerment not only improve the lives of individual women, but also bring multiple dividends to families and societies. Norway’s emphasis on education for girls in its development assistance programme represents an important contribution in this regard.

    Closing gender gaps in labour markets, education, health, and other areas reduces poverty and hunger, improves the nutrition and education of children, and drives economic growth and agricultural production.  A recent report by McKinsey Global Institute concluded that as much as $28 trillion, or 26 per cent, could be added to global annual GDP in 2025 if women participated in the labor force at the same rate as men.
  • Removing structural barriers to women’s economic empowerment: women with equal rights as basic as being able to own and inherit land and property, access credit, and open bank accounts can play an even greater role in the development of their societies.

    The same is true of ensuring women’s access to decent work and equal pay. While at least fifty per cent of the world’s women are now in paid employment, an increase from forty per cent in the 1990s, women remain disproportionately represented in vulnerable employment. Globally, on average, women earn 24 per cent less than men. In Norway the situation is better, with women’s pay standing at 86.4 per cent of men’s in 2014.

    One of the most significant structural barriers to women’s economic empowerment is the disproportionate burden of unpaid work carried by women, which impacts on their ability to pursue paid work and/or education. This also has implications for economies as a whole.  Using conservative assumptions, the McKinsey study estimates that if women got paid for the household chores and family care they provide, it would add an additional $10 trillion per year to the global economy.
  • Building strong partnerships across all segments of society, including civil society and the private sector. Here the vital role of women’s civil society organizations cannot be overstated.

    Norwegian civil society is known as vibrant and has a strong voice. The ForUM for Development and Environment co-ordinated the inputs of many Norwegian civil society organizations in the lead-up to the 2030 Agenda, and now actively advocates for SDG implementation. An important part of its advocacy has been to call for gender issues to be prominently reflected in the Agenda.

    The Norwegian private sector has also demonstrated its commitment to the SDGs; indeed this year’s Business for Peace Award Ceremony, to be held in Oslo City Hall in May, has the promotion of business support for the SDGs as its cross-cutting theme.
  • Resources are needed. While money isn’t everything, big ambitions – like Agenda 2030 - require big investments. The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that to achieve the SDGs by 2030 in key sectors in developing countries will require the investment of between $3.3 trillion and $4.5 trillion every year.

    Development investments must include resources targeted for gender equality initiatives, including for the collection, analysis, and use of gender-disaggregated data which are essential to inform policy making and planning.

    Norway has been a generous contributor to international development co-operation in general, including to UNDP. It is one of very few OECD countries to have reached the target of 0.7 per cent of GNI being committed to ODA, and indeed has exceeded that target. The empowerment of women consistently remains a top priority in Norwegian development assistance policy.

UNDP: strongly committed to Agenda 2030 and gender equality

The promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women is central to the mandate of UNDP and intrinsic to its development approach. Reflecting this, our Strategic Plan takes a similar approach to Agenda 2030, by including gender equality as a specific outcome of and a key factor across all pillars of our work. For instance:

  • As part of our efforts to end poverty, we support countries to develop pro-poor strategies which focus on the empowerment of women and girls, and address the barriers women face in accessing and controlling assets, resources, and services.

    This includes support for women farmers – which has a direct impact on ending hunger and improving food security. For example in India, UNDP worked in partnership with the Ministry of Rural Development to address rural poverty and social exclusion, especially for women. This resulted, among other things, in more than 970,000 rural women getting improved access to credit.
  • Our work on governance includes promoting women’s participation, leadership, and access to justice, including in conflict mitigation, mediation, and peace building.

    In Sierra Leone, for example, UNDP supported the establishment of Saturday Courts to supplement weekday court sittings and ensure swifter adjudication of sexual and gender-based violence cases.
  • Gender features prominently in our work on the environment. We support partners to mainstream gender equality into national policies, strategies, and planning for climate change, and to make sure that climate finance equally benefits women and men. We also offer support to ensure that disaster risk reduction policies are developed with the participation and leadership of women, and take into account how disasters impact differently on women.

    In Honduras, for example, UNDP supported government efforts to integrate gender perspectives into national disaster risk management policy, including in early warning systems for potential flooding and landslides on the Choluteca River.

Looking ahead, UNDP is committed to promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment across all areas of our work. We see this as a key component of our contribution to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda.


The 2030 Agenda is an unprecedented opportunity to address the challenges faced by women and girls. 

Keeping gender equality and women’s empowerment at the center of development efforts is also one of the best ways to advance this ambitious agenda for people and our planet. The SDGs can’t be achieved if the tangible and intangible barriers faced by so many women around the world are not addressed.

As one of the most prominent champions of gender equality and women’s empowerment, Norway is at the forefront of these efforts.

UNDP is committed to working with Norway on ensuring that the 2030 Agenda makes a difference with and for women. Today, International Women’s Day, is a very appropriate day to celebrate our partnership to that end.