Helen Clark: Speech at World Assembly of Women on 
“Gender Equality and Women’s Leadership”

Aug 28, 2015

Tokyo, Japan

It is a pleasure to be in Tokyo again to participate in the World Assembly for Women.  I thank Prime Minister Abe and Foreign Minister Kishida for the invitation. I was honoured to participate in the inaugural World Assembly for Women last year.

It has been twenty years since the adoption of the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action at the Fourth World Conference for Women in China in 1995. It has also been twenty years since Japan established the Japan Women in Development Fund as a follow up to the commitment Japan made in Beijing. I commend Japan for its leadership on promoting gender equality and the advancement of women.

Women’s leadership is a topic which is dear to my heart. I was fortunate to have been born into a family which believed that girls could – and should – accomplish as much as boys. I was also lucky to be a member of the post-war baby boom generation in New Zealand, where, as a girl, equal educational opportunities were open to me.  

This gave me the freedom to make my own decisions. My fervent desire is for every woman and girl to be able to make their life choices for themselves.

Of course the road for me was not always easy.  Having been the first woman elected as Prime Minister of my country, and before that the first to hold the position of Leader of the Opposition, I am very well acquainted with the challenges which women face when entering hitherto male-dominated domains.

So, making the path to leadership easier for other women from all backgrounds across all sectors is a top priority for me. It’s a matter both of equal rights and common sense. We face too many challenges in this world to think they can be solved without engaging the talents and participation of all people.

The recently issued “Millennium Development Goal Report 2015” shows that women have gained ground in parliamentary representation in nearly ninety per cent of the 174 countries with data on this over the past twenty years. The average proportion of women in parliaments has nearly doubled during the same period. Nonetheless, only one in five members of national legislatures are women. There is a long way to go to reach gender parity in parliaments.

In 1893, my country New Zealand, became the first in the world in which all women gained the right to vote in parliamentary elections.  Earlier this century, women held simultaneously each of the country’s top constitutional positions: Governor-General, Prime Minister, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Chief Justice, Attorney-General, and Cabinet Secretary. A woman also headed the country’s largest private corporation.

Around the world, laws which support women’s rights are a necessary step for achieving gender equality, but they do not automatically translate into changes in practice.  That is why UNDP works with countries and other UN agencies to support implementation of international, regional, and national commitments on women’s participation in decision-making and gender equality more broadly.

One way to accelerate the numbers of women in decision-making is to use temporary special measures, including gender quotas. UNDP has supported a number of countries to develop options in this area, and has an important guidebook on this. It looks at support for women at the candidate selection stage, in the campaign phase, and once elected.

Throughout the world, women face many barriers to empowerment – both attitudinal and structural, which is why it is important to build overall environments in which all women can thrive.  During my tenure as Prime Minister of New Zealand, I am proud that my government continued to expand choices for women, enacting an entitlement in law to paid parental leave, and increasing by 25 per cent the annual holiday entitlement set in law for all employees. We also provided a minimum of twenty hours a week of fully paid early childhood care and education to take pressure off household budgets and give women a more genuine choice as to whether to return to work or not. These are critical issues, and I applaud the Government of Japan under Prime Minister Abe’s leadership for moving decisively in these areas.

In rich and poor countries alike, women carry a disproportionate burden of unpaid care work – caring for young, elderly, sick, and/or disabled family members; obtaining and preparing food; and, particularly among poorer, rural households, collecting and carrying water and wood for fuel – often over long distances.

My experiences in New Zealand and as leader of UNDP have given me a keen awareness of the many barriers to economic equality which women face – from lower average incomes and often a lack of equal access to assets and formal credit, to the attitudes and practices which can hinder women acceding to certain positions- like leading companies and countries.  
Some of the barriers are those erected by custom and culture; others are erected by law.  If you can’t inherit the family property, if you can’t borrow money, if you can’t hold title to land or rent property because you’re a woman – this will hold you back.  It will also hold back the development of your country.

I have broken many glass ceilings – so I know it can be done.  But I also know that I didn’t do it by myself. We all need support networks of women and men. The HeforShe campaign launched by the UN Secretary-General is important in this respect – it calls on men and boys to commit to gender equality too.

Empowering women in their homes and communities and achieving true gender equality also requires tackling gender-based violence. This is a problem around the world, and it reaches horrific levels where there is war and conflict.   It impacts very adversely on the health and well-being of women and girls. It is a blight on society, and must be addressed everywhere.  

UNDP supports the drafting, adoption, and implementation of laws to tackle gender-based violence, and works closely with parliamentarians, police officers, judges, court administrators, and civil society to do so.  Just one example, I received very positive feedback on this aspect of our work in Iraq from women’s organizations when I visited there.

As the fifteenth anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security is marked this year, UNDP, along with other UN agencies, is taking a fresh look at how we can better support women to participate fully in building peace and security, and in helping their countries recover from crises. We promote women’s participation in all aspects of peace processes, and have supported the networking of over 2,000 women community leaders across the Asia Pacific region who are actively engaged in mediation processes in their own localities.

My experiences as an elected leader in my home country over many years, and now as Administrator of UNDP have given me the evidence that equal rights and opportunities enable women to reach their full potential, make their own choices, and make substantial and lasting contributions to their communities and nations.  Their contributions are essential for building inclusive, sustainable and resilient societies as the new global sustainable development agenda calls on us to do.

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