Helen Clark: Speech on Power of Parity: Why and How to Increase the Number of Women in Political Leadership

Mar 14, 2016

Many thanks for the invitation to speak on a subject close to my heart: increasing the number of women political leaders. But first, thank you to the Women in Parliaments Global Forum and the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations for hosting this event. 

I also congratulate the Women in Parliaments Global Forum for their Leadership Campaign on our theme today. It is refreshing and powerful to see men also speaking out on why women’s political leadership matters.

In 2000, I attended the UN’s Millennium Summit as Prime Minister of New Zealand. Mary Robinson, then UN Human Rights Commissioner, convened a side event of women Heads of State, Heads of Government, and UN organizations. I regret to say that we could all have fitted into two telephone boxes. Today, we would fill quite a lot more telephone boxes, but needless to say at top leadership level in most fields, women are far from achieving parity. In parliaments worldwide, for example, women make up under 23 per cent of the membership. 

So why does this matter? 

First and foremost, having women in political leadership is matter of both equity and logic. It is a basic human right for women to enjoy full legal equality and equality of opportunity, and for any girl born today, in any country, to have the same life prospects as any boy. As well, the international community stands little chance of achieving the new Sustainable Development Goals if half of the world’s people and their potential and talents are not able to make their full contribution. Women must have equal opportunity across all spheres of life. 

Second, having women in leadership positions sends a powerful message – about what it is appropriate for women to do and about what they can achieve. It changes societies’ perceptions of gender roles, inspires other women to aspire to lead, and encourages girls to believe that no door is closed to them.

Third, having a critical mass of women in decision-making also has an enormous impact on what issues are addressed. Time and again, we have seen how women bring to the political agenda issues of critical concern to women and their progress – from childcare to parental leave, equal pay, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and gender-based violence.

In Algeria, for example, women make up 31.6 per cent of the legislature: might this critical mass of representation be linked to last month’s decision to make it an explicit obligation of the state to promote parity between men and women in the labor market, and to the decision to have a new law criminalizing all forms of domestic violence against women and girls? Another example, in 2006, Rwanda passed a far-reaching law to combat gender-based violence: at the time, women comprised 49 per cent of the country’s parliamentarians - a number which since then has climbed to 62 per cent – the highest proportion of women parliamentarians in the world.

To complement women’s leadership in political decision making:
•    We need women at high levels of public administration, where, in effect, many political choices are made. 
•    We need women in the police, prosecutors’ offices, and the judiciary as leaders in enforcing laws which uphold women’s rights and security.
•    We need to ensure women’s participation across peace making, peace building and post-conflict processes, as is set out in UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 2242.
•    We need women fully engaged in addressing climate change adaptation and mitigation and disaster risk reduction planning and recovery.

UNDP supports its partners to address the barriers to women’s advancement in all sectors:

•    We promote women’s political participation by supporting women as candidates and voters, and by supporting women’s representation across governance institutions, including constitutional committees, parliament, the judiciary, the police, and public administration. 

•    We support the use of quotas for electoral office, including through political parties which are so critical for supporting women’s rise in political systems. Political parties can be the greatest champions or the greatest opponents of lifting women’s representation. 

The challenges are great, but with the 2030 Agenda for Development – which addresses and incorporates gender equality more than ever before in global development agendas – we have an unprecedented opportunity to address the issues faced by women and remove the barriers which prevent them from fulfilling their potential. By doing so, we stand our best chance ever of eradicating poverty, realizing human rights for all, and leaving no one behind.