‘Until Women and Girls Are Liberated from Poverty and Injustice, Goals of Peace, Security, Sustainable Development Stand in Jeopardy,’ Says Secretary-General

3 March 2010
OBV/855-WOM/1780

‘Until Women and Girls Are Liberated from Poverty and Injustice, Goals of Peace, Security, Sustainable Development Stand in Jeopardy,’ Says Secretary-General

3 March 2010
Meetings Coverage
OBV/855 WOM/1780
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Observance of International                                

 Women’s Day                                               

‘Until Women and Girls Are Liberated from Poverty and Injustice, Goals of Peace,

Security, Sustainable Development Stand in Jeopardy,’ Says Secretary-General

Women’s Empowerment, Gender Equality Fundamental to United Nations Identity, He

Says at International Women’s Day Event, Featuring Journalist-Led Panel Discussion

Calling women’s empowerment and gender equality fundamental to the United Nations identity, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon pressed for renewed determination in creating a future of equal rights, opportunity and progress for all as he opened a day of activities at Headquarters to commemorate International Women’s Day, which will be observed worldwide on 8 March.

“Until women and girls are liberated from poverty and injustice, all our goals -- peace, security, sustainable development -- stand in jeopardy,” he said.

The special event -- held under the theme of “Equal rights, equal opportunities:  Progress for all” -- featured a short video and a high-level panel discussion entitled “Beijing at 15:  the Unfinished Agenda”, moderated by Maria Hinojosa, senior correspondent at Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and host on National Public Radio (NPR).  Panellists were Gertrude Mongella, Secretary-General of the Fourth World Conference on Women; Patricia Licuanan, Former Commission Chair and Chair of the Asia Pacific Non-Governmental Organization Forum; Tarcila Rivera Zea, Foro Intercontinental de Mujeres Indígenas; and Amy Tang, of the “Because I am a Girl” Initiative, Plan.

Fifteen years after the landmark Beijing Declaration was adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women, Mr. Ban said, a growing number of countries had developed policies and legislation to support gender equality and reproductive health.  Most girls now received an education, and women today were more likely to run businesses, be given loans, and participate in Government.

However, there was no room for complacency, he said. Injustice and discrimination against women persisted everywhere.  Up to 70 per cent of women experienced violence in their lifetimes and were most commonly attacked by an intimate partner.  Such practices, sometimes called a matter of culture, were abuses and they were criminal.

For his part, he said he had made women’s empowerment a priority and expressed hope, to a burst of applause, to soon have a dynamic gender entity within the Organization to provide more coherent programming and a stronger voice for women.  There were more women in senior United Nations posts than at any time in history, a number that had increased by 40 per cent during his tenure.

More broadly, he said the United Nations had introduced a revolutionary technology – the Multi-Functional Platform -- to 200 villages in Burkina Faso lacking electricity, which helped the situation of girls and women who ground grain by hand.  Looking towards the Millennium Development Goals Summit in September, he urged delegates to hold foremost in their minds that gender equality and women’s empowerment were integral to all our goals.

Following his remarks, Meng Xiaosi, Minister and Vice-Chairperson of the National Committee on Women and Children in China, said the Fourth World Conference on Women had enabled hundreds of millions of Chinese to look at the world through gender-sensitive lenses.  The status of Chinese women had undergone earth-shaking changes, as China’s rapid development had brought unprecedented opportunities for progress.

Chinese women now played positive roles in economic, political, scientific education and health affairs, she said, and held up “half the sky” of New China’s economic and social progress. Their advancement was clearly inseparable from national development.  “But for every woman, what we aspire to is not just one day like this every year, but living in respect and equality each and every moment of our lives,” she declared. 

During the energetic panel discussion, invited speakers fielded a range of questions and comments, notably from a senator from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who recalled that Congolese women had not had a voice in Beijing, and in the 15 years since that Conference, the situation of her countrywomen had gotten worse.

The chair of the National Commission of Women from Pakistan said, on the other hand, that much progress had been made in terms of women’s equality in her country, and asked if the phrase “half the world and half the power” could be used from the United Nations platform.

In her response, Ms. Mongella said it was true that the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was not better now and suggested that the reason for that was the ongoing political instability and the Government’s lack of effective effort.  She further agreed that, in general, there was a lot of work to do on the African continent.  But the situation of women in Rwanda, whose representatives she had had to smuggle into Beijing, showed that the situation could change.

Ms. Rivera Zea said there was talk in her region of 30 per cent quotas for women’s participation, but indigenous women did not think 30 per cent was enough.  Because they did not participate in political decision-making, indigenous women in her region were excluded in policies.  She wished that women had half the power, not just because they were women, but because they were capable of using power for justice.

Responding to a query on the “ Beijing process”, Ms. Licuanan said first that the process in Beijing had been very participatory.  Negotiations were highly charged because the issues were so emotional.  As Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women 15 years ago, she had been struck by how many women had asked for the opportunity to speak.

“We need to let girls know that they too have a voice […] that they have an amazing power to change the world,” Ms. Tang stressed, asked by Ms. Hinojosa what must change in the future.

Opening Statements

Launching today’s event, United Nations Secretary-General BAN KI-MOON said gender equality and women’s empowerment were fundamental to the very identity of the United Nations.  The Fourth World Conference on Women and the Beijing Declaration sent a clear message that equality and opportunity were inalienable rights.  “Until women and girls are liberated from poverty and injustice, all our goals -- peace, security, sustainable development -- stand in jeopardy,” he said.

In the 15 years since Beijing, a growing number of countries had policies and legislation to support gender equality and reproductive health, he said.  Most girls now received an education.  Women were more likely to run businesses, be given loans, and participate in Government.  Maria Paixão was the Vice-President of Timor-Leste’s Parliament, where one third of lawmakers were now female.  In Rwanda, the proportion was even higher and was resulting in legislation that empowered women. 

“Wherever voices were raised against tyranny and injustice, you can be sure that women are among them,” he said.

While there was much reason to be proud, he said, there was no room for complacency.  Injustice and discrimination against women persisted everywhere.  Up to 70 per cent of women experienced violence in their lifetimes and were most commonly attacked by an intimate partner.  Such practices, sometimes called a matter of culture, were abuses and they were criminal.

The United Nations was acting ever more firmly against sexual violence in conflict, he explained.  His “UNiTE to End Violence against Women” campaign was striving to end such abuse.  This October would mark 10 years since the Security Council adopted resolution 1325 on women and peace and security.  Other resolutions had established that sexual violence and conflict could constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or acts of genocide.  Maternal mortality remained unacceptably high.  “Wherever we look -- and especially through the lens of poverty -- we see that women still bear the greatest burdens,” he said.

The United Nations must lead by example and he expressed hope to soon have a dynamic entity for gender equality and women’s empowerment within the Organization to provide more coherent programming and a stronger voice for women.  He urged the General Assembly to create this new entity without delay.

As examples of how he had made women’s empowerment a priority, he said there were more women in senior United Nations posts than at any time in history, a number that had increased by 40 per cent during his tenure.  Women were under-represented in peacekeeping operations and experience, but had shown that women peacekeepers could perform the same roles to the same standards as their male counterparts.  In Burkina Faso, the United Nations had introduced a revolutionary technology to 200 villages that lacked electricity, and thereby helped the situation of girls and women who ground grain by hand.  It created time for school and even created revenue for the women who owned it.

With such initiatives, he said the lives of hundreds of millions could be improved. Looking towards the Millennium Development Goals Summit in September, he urged delegates to hold foremost in their minds that gender equality and women’s empowerment were integral to all our goals.  For this International Women’s Day, “let us pledge our renewed determination for a future of equal rights, equal opportunities and progress for all”, he said.

Bringing greetings and best wishes from her countrywomen to the women of the world, MENG XIAOSI, Minister and Vice-Chairperson of the National Committee on Women and Children, China, said that women of all races, colours, classes, ethnicities or religions -- whether disabled or not -- shared a common name: “women”.

“No other moment enables us women to better understand our connections and our shared destiny,” she said, remarking that International Women’s Day 2010 was worthy of particular commemoration since it marked, not only its own centenary, but the thirtieth anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the tenth anniversary of the Convention’s Optional Protocol.  It also marked the fifteenth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and the tenth anniversary of the Millennium Development Goals.

But despite those milestones, she said, women’s liberation might be the longest-ever revolution, as British feminist Juliet Mitchell had pointed out.  New realities meant States must fully deliver their commitments, which required more vigorous and more effective actions to raise gender equality and women’s advancement to new heights.

Turning to her own country, she said that in China, Women’s Day this year was particularly important.  On the country’s sixtieth anniversary, the women’s movement stood at a new starting point in which the status of Chinese women underwent earth-shaking changes.  The reform and rapid development of China had brought unprecedented opportunities for women’s progress.  Chinese women now played positive roles in economic, political, and scientific education and health affairs and held up “half the sky” of New China’s economic and social progress.  Women’s advancement was clearly inseparable form national development.

She said that the Fourth World Conference on Women had enabled hundreds of millions of Chinese people and women to look at the world through gender-sensitive lenses.  The resulting Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action identified  critical areas of concern and reaffirmed the concept of women’s empowerment and gender mainstreaming.  In implementing the Platform, it had become clear that the ways to protect and promote human rights and equality varied and should be independently chosen in line with national situations.  It had also showed that gender mainstreaming and gender-specific data and indicators were important tools, but did not substitute for substantial activities for the promotion of gender equality.  Other lessons were that gender and development could not be addressed in isolation and that the voices and needs of women from underdeveloped and developing countries must be fully respected.

Turning to remaining challenges and difficulties in achieving full gender equality, she said women accounted for the majority of the world’s 1 billion mired in poverty.  Each year, 536,000 women and girls also died in pregnancy or maternity, their participation in parliaments averaged only 18.7 per cent globally and they faced vulnerable employment situations and widespread and rampant gender discrimination.  Male thinking undeniably dominated still on the global stage; women’s voices were extremely week on trade, financial and budgetary issues. 

Noting that even the most critical media paid more attention to women’s status and concerns on International Women’s Day, she acknowledged that men might even jealously ask why there was not a men’s day.  “But for every woman, what we aspire to is not just one day like this every year, but living in respect and equality each and every moment of our lives.” 

While the growth and increasing impacts of the Beijing Declaration and Platform, women’s Convention and Millennium Development Goals had brought joy and delight, more vigorous actions were expected to transform those lofty objectives into new forces to change women’s lives and the world, she said.  When every day was as good as Women’s Day, and men and women equally shared and created everything in the world, then International Women’s Day would need not exist.  Until then, the Day belonged, not only to women, but to all people of the world.

AUDUN LYSBAKKEN, Minister for Gender Equality and Children’s Affairs, Norway, paid tribute to all the suffragettes and women’s movement leaders who had served as beacons of hope for millions of people.  Unfortunately, 15 years after the Beijing Declaration, true gender equality was not a reality in any country -- the world was very unequal and various United Nations reports outlined the dimensions of that phenomenon.  However, no enduring solution to society’s most threatening problems would be found without women’s full participation and empowerment, meaning that empowerment was a prerequisite for development.

He said that in the 15 years since Beijing, there had been some progress:  girls today had more access to education, and there were more women participating in the workforce.  “But if we neglect the need to empower women, we pay for that neglect by weakening our countries’ performance,” he stressed, adding that the solution lay in creating greater equality.

Violence against women was a disgrace that persisted regardless of race, income or geography, he said, noting the vast number of women exposed to some form of violence in their lifetime.  Rape, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and trafficking were among the horrific actions that countries today were forced to combat.  As such, he called for both joining forces internationally and acting on the national level.  Perpetrators must be prosecuted and, not least, treated.  Norway had taken various steps.  The country used law enforcement measures and ensured that police prioritized abuse cases.  Every municipality was legally obliged to help domestic violence and human trafficking victims.

He commended the Secretary-General on his “UNiTE to End Violence Against Women”, as violence against women was never acceptable, excusable or tolerable.  “We must call for nothing less than an upgrade of our civilization,” he declared.

Panel on Beijing at 15: The Unfinished Agenda

Opening the panel, moderator MARIA HINOJOSA, senior correspondent, Public Broadcasting System (PBS), and National Public Radio (NPR) host, said that what was being discussed today was “living history” and in those kinds of events, “we are all sisters and brothers”.  She then introduced the panel, which included:  Gertrude Mongella, Secretary-General, Fourth World Conference on Women; Patricia Licuanan, Former Commission Chair and Chair of the Asia Pacific Non-Governmental Organization Forum; Tarcila Rivera Zea, Foro Intercontinental de Mujeres Indígenas; and Amy Tang, “Because I am a Girl” Initiative, Plan.

Ms. MONGELLA said that in any evaluation of Beijing, if one looked at the achievements alone, without looking at them in context, it might seem as if nothing had happened.  Even women might think that.  But before Beijing, she herself would never have been the President of the Pan-African Parliament.  Fifteen years ago, no woman had been president of an African nation, but today Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf stood at the head of Liberia.

“Everyone in the world now knows that women belong to this world and have to have equality,” she said.  What remained was putting together the actions and the will to achieve the agreed targets.  “We are on the right track, the only problem is the speed.  We have to accelerate the speed.”

She said that, at the United Nations, not only should the gender entity move forward, but a conference on the order of Beijing should also be held.  Outlining several examples -– particularly in Africa -– that showed the world was on the right track, she urged the meeting’s participants not to lose hope.  This work was part of the work of millennia.  Among other actors, civil society was playing a critical role, she said, praising its efforts to bring Governments along.

Following up, Ms. HINOJOSA asked Ms. Mongella what the world needed to learn from Africa and in what areas Africa should be more proactive.  Ms. MONGELLA said that one distinction of African women was their dignity.  They always stood up and they were fighters.  Another lesson was that a universally-accepted platform like Beijing had given African women a strong negotiating position that allowed them to knock on every door.

At the same time, African men had not been able to disassociate themselves from the issues of women’s equality, since the women had fought alongside them for independence.  The main problem African women still faced was that they had not properly “owned” the Governments, which were still male, with the obvious exception of Liberia.  This was problematic because Governments were still the main decision-making institutions in Africa.  The women of Africa had to use the crises besetting the continent as an opportunity to become actively involved.

Following Ms. HINOJOSA’s comment that, faced with these points, she would not be able to say no and wondered how the men could, Ms. MONGELLA said the men had no alternative but to say yes.

Asked about the “ Beijing process”, Ms. LICUANAN said it was very participatory -- with representatives of Governments, non-governmental organizations and men -- and negotiations were highly charged because the issues were so emotional.  Women wanted change, yet there was fear of change.  Despite differences, a consensus had been reached.  It was a special and unique process.

Recounting the process of selecting a theme of the Conference, she said that at that time, she, as Vice Chairperson, had been assigned to the consultations.  The first title suggested had been: “Half the world, half the power” -- it had a nice bumper sticker ring, but there was concern that the word “power” might threaten men.  The second idea was, “Partnerships for equality, development and peace”, but the Chinese participants cautioned that there was no good Chinese translation for the word “partnership” between men and women, outside of a marriage context.  The final section was:  “United Nations Fourth World Conference: Action for equality, development and peace”.

As to future action, she drew attention to women in the audience holding up placards, which read “GEAR UP NOW”, and which referred to “Gender Equality Architecture Reform”.  Those were intended to push the United Nations towards that change.  However, after the reception this morning to the gender equality entity, such pushing might not be needed.

Ms. HINOJOSA next asked how young women could learn leadership skills and whether progress had been made on that front.

Responding, Ms. LICUANAN said that, as Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women 15 years ago, she had been struck by how many women had asked for the opportunity to speak.  While large meetings tended to generate interest in speaking, the smaller meetings also had seen growing requests for participation.  This year, some 5,000 to 7,000 women had wanted to attend the session.  Younger women were attending and their older sisters had been very welcoming.

Noting that the Foro Intercontinental de Mujeres Indígenas was a network of non-governmental organizations and indigenous women, Ms. HINOJOSA next asked Ms. Rivera Zea how the Beijing Declaration and Platform translated into the work she did in Peru.

Ms. RIVERA ZEA said that indigenous women saw Beijing as a process that began in Mexico in 1975.  At that meeting, only one indigenous woman had been in attendance.  Several more indigenous women had attended the Nairobi conference, but it was hard for Quechua speakers like her to understand them since they had been mostly from northern countries.  At Beijing, that had all changed, with women like herself taking ownership of the process.

Still, the struggle of indigenous women was unique, she said, stressing that the barriers posed by social class and gender both had to be addressed.  Importantly, the dialogue of indigenous women had begun in the context of the feminist movement and the women’s movement, and not just the indigenous movement. 

The Beijing process was structured by regions, and she had worked with other indigenous women on making proposals from her specificity, she noted.  Throughout the year leading up to Beijing, she and her fellow activists had been working on a dream.  At the conference, more than 100 indigenous women from around the world had joined each other in the indigenous tent.  They had issued a declaration themselves.  Indigenous women were always fighting for survival because they were from situations of extreme poverty.  Influenced by the indigenous movement, they had begun to defend collective rights.  They were defending those rights as peoples and indigenous rights as women and considered those rights to be complementary.

Looking forward, Ms. HINOJOSA asked what should be taken into consideration and worked on in terms of indigenous women and women’s equality.

Ms. RIVERA ZEA said that equality within specific genders should be tackled.  If indigenous women had the ability to be as literate as other women, they could contribute to the political and economic development of their societies.  Indigenous women should not be absent from the international arena.  While the presence of indigenous women at Beijing Plus 15 showed that there was forward movement, more needed to be done.

Next, asked by Ms. HINOJOSA what the planners of the next women’s conference should know and what must change in the future, Ms. TANG said she would want to address gender discrimination.  She focused first on gender stereotyping, saying, by way of example, that her mother often scolded her for having a messy room on the premise that girls should be tidy and learn to cook.  She wondered why boys did not face the same expectations. Girls around the world faced those expectations at home, school and in their communities.  Such stereotypes limited the possibilities girls envisioned for their future.

Second, addressing girls’ empowerment, Ms. Tang said that as a young woman anticipating university, she hoped to study math and science, but she wondered whether she could do that in a male-dominated field.  Some girls were not even able to attend school.  Some had been brought up thinking that they could be only wives and mothers.  “We need to let girls know that they too have a voice […] that they have an amazing power to change the world,” she stressed.  They should be the ones deciding their future.

Asked by Ms. HINOJOSA whether she believed that modern young women today were more empowered than in the past or if the stereotyping of women had made it more difficult for them, Ms. TANG said that women today were more equal to men than in the past.  Many more were choosing to study science and getting jobs.  But stereotypes persisted.  When girls saw celebrities in the media, they saw them as the only models for women.  That was not true -- such stereotypes limited their development even more.

Responding to Ms. HINOJOSA’s query about the use of technology and whether it helped liberate or limit women, Ms. MONGELLA said global differences were not only economic.  Information technologies would determine the size of the gaps between nations.  That should be considered very seriously when it came to women’s development.  Without dealing urgently with issues of women’s economic empowerment, poverty and education, and without ensuring that women could be born into --and live out -- a decent life, the world would remain unequal.

As to whether Governments understood the economic reality of disempowered women, Ms. LICUANAN said “it’s a mixed bag”.  She believed Governments today had a greater appreciation of women’s role and how it was pivotal to a country’s future.  However, there was a long way to go.  Governments did not invest as much as they should in women, which was why messages had to be repeated.  Women had benefited from the development of new technologies and the Beijing Conference could not have been organized without them.  But, those technologies were not “women friendly” -- there was discrimination in accessing them and many had been used to subjugate women.  “We have to push on,” she urged.

Asked by Ms. HINOJOSA about what messages she would take home, Ms. RIVERA ZEA said that what indigenous women did best was communicate with each other.  Without access to modern technology, they relied on the radio.  Women needed information to be communicated and disseminated to them.  Also, young women had to be heard.  Traditionally, there was a belief that older women knew everything.  She would return home and spread information.  Any global policy decision was important and must be taken to the local level, she added. 

Questions and Answers

A senator from the Democratic Republic of the Congo recalled that Congolese women had not had a voice in Beijing and stressed that in the 15 years since that Conference, the situation of her countrywomen had gotten worse.  Indeed, women in the Congo were the main victims of war and gender violence and discrimination.

Responding, Ms. MONGELLA said it was true that the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was not better now and suggested that the reason for that was the ongoing political instability and the Government’s lack of effective effort.  She further agreed that, in general, there was a lot of work to do on the African continent, particularly in terms of peace.  But looking at the situation of women in Rwanda -- representatives of whom she had had to smuggle into Beijing -- showed that the situation could change.  She noted that some work was being done to bring women together from regions at peace in support of women in conflict areas, and suggested that her petitioner get her card at the meeting’s end.  She would, she said, be on the next plane to the Congo.

A senator from Belgium asked the panel members to respond to the question of whether the Taliban, which had, among other things, forbidden health care for women and schooling for girls, should be included in the coalition of Afghanistan and how to avoid it.

Ms. LICUANAN said she could not address the specific issue, but it was illustrative of the fact that there had been backtracking around the world in terms of women’s equality, including from the rise of fundamentalism and ongoing conflict.  While those forces had already existed 15 years ago in Beijing, they had returned with a vengeance and were now combined with emerging issues. In renewing the commitment to Beijing, both had to be addressed.

The chair of the National Commission of Women from Pakistan, saying that much progress had been made in terms of women’s equality in her country, asked if the phrase “half the world and half the power” could be used from the United Nations platform.

Ms. RIVERA ZEA said there was talk in her region of 30 per cent quotas for women’s participation, but indigenous women did not think 30 per cent was enough.  Indigenous women had the problem of two forms of violence -– political and domestic.  Because of their lack of access in political decision-making, indigenous women in her region were not included in policies.  She wished that women had half the power, not just because they were women, but because they were capable of using power for justice.

Asked by Ms. HINOJOSA what she took away from this meeting, Ms. TANG said she felt “really, really inspired”.  When she got home, she wanted to educate all of her peers because she was a girl and a woman and everyone should know about this important cause happening around the world.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.