Helen Clark: Speech at the Women Deliver Conference on “Keeping the Promise: Towards A New Development Agenda Which Delivers For Girls and Women”

May 30, 2013

Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator
“Keeping the Promise: Towards A New Development Agenda Which Delivers For Girls and Women”
Women Deliver Conference,

Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, Malaysia
9.00 am, 30 May 2013.


My thanks go to “Women Deliver” for inviting me to speak to this plenary session on moving towards a new development agenda which delivers for girls and women.

The Millennium Development Goals launched in 2001 did set important targets for the advancement of girls and women. Seven years earlier, the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) had set out a bold twenty year action plan on sexual and reproductive health rights and women’s empowerment and gender equality.

There’s no doubt that life has changed for the better for many girls and women since these landmark agendas were launched.

But there’s also no doubt that it hasn’t changed for all.

I’m sure that all of us here share a burning sense of injustice that many girls and women do not enjoy fundamental human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent treaties, declarations, and UN conference outcomes.

Now, in the consultations taking place around the world on what a new global development agenda could look like, there is a strong momentum for achieving development with equity, eradicating gender inequality, and empowering women and girls. These consultations have already engaged hundreds of thousands of people – across national, regional and global meetings, and through social media.

Let me review first where we are on the global development goals we currently have, before outlining the priorities for action coming through both the post-2015 consultations and the comprehensive report led by Presidents Tarja Halonen and Joaquim Chissano on the sexual and reproductive health agenda beyond 2014.

I am a supporter of the MDGs, and I believe that the global focus they brought to development has achieved a lot. But it’s clear that the progress towards those goals and targets has been very uneven – not least for girls and women.

Yes, the world is nearing gender parity in primary school enrolment, and gaps are closing in secondary school enrolment too. In some regions of the world, girls’ enrolment in secondary schooling is greater than that of boys, while in others the reverse applies.

The lack of progress on MDG 5 on reducing maternal mortality and achieving universal access to reproductive health, however, is well known. The target was to reduce the maternal mortality ratio by three-quarters from 1990 to 2015. By 2010, deaths were estimated to have declined by 47 per cent – but the High Level Task Force headed by Presidents Halonen and Chissano estimates that still 800 women die every day from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.

Some countries have declared their high maternal death rates a national emergency – in reality it is a global emergency.

It is sobering indeed to see the highest death rates among the youngest mothers – among girls who did not get the chance to make other choices. Building a world where the girl child has her human rights upheld and the chance to complete her education and determine her own destiny is vital for reducing maternal mortality and for achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment.

It’s also estimated in the Halonen/Chissano Taskforce report that 222 million women in developing countries want to prevent a pregnancy, but are not using a modern method of contraception. The result, they say, is some eighty million unplanned pregnancies a year and twenty million unsafe abortions.

Access to contraceptives and skilled attendance at birth differ sharply between wealthier and poorer women. Younger women have the least access to these services.

By denying that most basic sexual and reproductive right, the right to control one’s fertility, societies disempower girls and women. I remember what a revolution it was for young women of my generation in New Zealand when modern contraception gave us the freedom to choose the lives we wanted to live. My aspiration is to see every girl and every woman have that right and that freedom.

We need - in governments, legislatures, and public administrations -  more people who will lead on these issues. Fundamentally, we need many more women in positions of power – and women who are prepared to use that power to advance the human development and rights of other women.

That’s why the target in MDG 3 on women’s participation in national legislatures is vital. It was set at thirty per cent, which I believe, from my own experience in New Zealand, gives the women members critical mass – if not equal numbers – in legislatures, and thus supports action on critical priorities for women. But this target too is not yet met – only around 21 per cent of the members of the world’s national legislatures are women.

I approach these issues from a rights perspective. Girls and women have a right to equality under the law, to equal status and equal opportunity, and to live free from fear of violence and want.

But for those who do not find the rights-based case compelling, perhaps the economic case will carry greater weight. As Hillary Clinton once said, investing in women is “not only the right thing to do…..it’s clearly the smart thing as well.”

Countries where women have rights and opportunity denied cannot maximize their development potential – that can’t happen if half the population is not equally empowered.

This year’s global Human Development Report looks at policy priorities for sustaining the rise of countries in the South. The very first priority is “Enhancing Equity”, because inequity impedes progress. It notes that at the core of the challenges is addressing gender inequality. Gender inequality and disempowerment of women and girls lie at the heart of slow progress on MDG targets and the Cairo Programme of Action. That’s why they must be focused on and tackled with renewed determination in a reinvigorated global development agenda.

The UN development system has been facilitating massive outreach on what that new agenda could look like. We have been determined to get input from the grassroots of communities, and not just from decision- makers and experts. It has been very encouraging to get strong feedback on the importance of achieving development with equity, and on ensuring that all who are currently marginalized can benefit from the progress their countries make.

UNICEF and UN Women have led the consultation on addressing inequalities – first soliciting on-line feedback, and then convening a high level global meeting in Copenhagen earlier this year.

The report on these consultations notes that a great many contributions focused on gender inequalities – in four main areas:

  • the lower control of women than men of social, economic, and political resources and opportunities
  • the cultural and social reproduction of girls’ and women’s subordinate status
  • failure to uphold sexual and reproductive health rights, and
  • gender-based violence.

A key message from the global meeting was that inequalities harm us all. Among their consequences, it concluded, are “reductions in the pace and sustainability of economic growth; diminishment of the productive potential of all who are harmed and excluded, and the loss of this potential to society; the worsening of existing fragility and vulnerability….; and the weakening of social cohesion and security for all.”

The global meeting in Copenhagen also concluded that “gender-based discrimination – including the denial of the rights of women and girls, and their disempowerment to take control of their lives and bodies – remains the single most widespread driver of inequalities in today’s world.” It saw gender-based violence as “a major element of this massive and continuing failure of human rights.”

These are strong words –with which I agree in their entirety. Those words now need to be followed up in a global development agenda which gives priority to gender equality and the empowerment of girls and women to make their own decisions about the lives they lead. There is also strong support for a specific focus in the new agenda on tackling the roots of gender-based violence, which lie in major structural inequalities between genders.

Complementing the important post-2015 consultations is the impressive report of the High Level Taskforce for the International Conference on Population and Development. It has made detailed recommendations for achieving sexual and reproductive health and rights for all. The Taskforce aims to galvanise political will for full implementation of the Cairo Programme of Action, and for ensuring that sexual and reproductive health rights, gender equality, and the empowerment of women and young people are secured as priorities in the post-2015 development agenda and sustainable development goals.

I have no doubt that implementation of the Taskforce’s recommendations would have a dramatic positive impact on the status of girls and women. It identifies specific actions which should be taken to:

  • respect, protect and fulfil sexual and reproductive rights
  • achieve universal access to quality, comprehensive and integrated sexual and reproductive health information, education and services;
  • ensure universal access to comprehensive sexuality education for all young people, in and out of school; and
  • eliminate violence against girls and women, and secure universal access to critical services for all victims/survivors of gender-based violence.

So where should advocacy for girls and women’s empowerment, gender equality, and sexual and reproductive health rights be directed now?

The process of determining a new global development agenda and sustainable development goals still has close to two years to run.

This afternoon in New York, the independent High Level Panel of eminent persons appointed by the United Nations Secretary-General on the global development framework beyond 2015 will present its report. It is to be hoped that sexual and reproductive health rights, gender equality, and girls and women’s empowerment feature prominently in it, as this report will be an important input to the ongoing global discussion.

Meanwhile, an Open Working Group on sustainable development goals, appointed by the UN General Assembly, is meeting regularly in New York. This process was called for by the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development last year. It is due to report back to the General Assembly by September next year.

All the feedback from the extensive post-2015 consultations is available to the Open Working Group. There is momentum for the two tracks to merge, so that one global development agenda covering the three strands of sustainable development – the economic, social, and environmental – can be agreed.

Following the report of the Open Working Group in September 2014, UN Member States are likely to focus on negotiating the details of that agenda and sustainable development goals, with a high level event envisaged at the UN in New York in the spring of 2015 to agree on an outcome.

Thus, advocacy for sexual and reproductive health rights, gender equality, and girls’ and women’s empowerment will need to be maintained at a high level for close to two more years. I hope that the energy emanating from this conference will help make that possible.

Feedback from the extensive post-2015 consultations suggests that there is strong support for achieving development with equity. People are saying that they want the unfinished business of the MDGs attended to – and there is much unfinished business, not least in the areas of greatest interest to this conference.

There has also been a strong call for a more transformational, universal, and holistic agenda which does not place challenges in silos, but, rather recognises the links between them. A vision for a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable future demands no less – and holds out the promise of a better tomorrow for girls and women.

I look forward to a stimulating panel discussion this morning. I know that all of you who have travelled from all corners of the world will ensure that your voices are heard for a global development agenda which demands action on sexual and reproductive health rights, gender equality, and girls’ and women’s empowerment.

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