New York – March 6, 2015

Your excellency, Mr Sam Kutesa, President of the General Assembly
Your excellency, Mr Ban Ki Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations
Excellencies, distinguished speakers and honourable members and delegates

I am deeply honoured to be invited to speak to this assembly on the issues I am passionate about and the organisation that I work for – the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) has been championing for the past 21 years.

I consider myself to be privileged to work alongside women’s rights activists,who everyday, go out and do their best, and even do battle – simply because we believe that we as women are equal human beings, and equal citizens, and endowed with equal rights before the law.

All that I as a woman enjoy today, were hard-won, by women before me and I acknowledge their work, their sacrifices and their dedication.

I also acknowledge leaders on the world stage who were present at the United Nations, and though coming from different contexts were able to work together and forge a vision for the world which continues to be inspirational even today and presented us with: the 1993 Vienna Declaration, the 1994 Cairo Consensus and the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. It is of course our deepest hope that these are the inspiring standards that member states in the United Nations will continue to adhere to, and be able to forge ahead to greater inclusivity, equality, justice, peace and sustainability.

You who are present here have the same great opportunity, as the leaders in that generation, to present a post-2015 development framework which will inspire generations to come. If you think that the world is indeed a broken place, you are able through this process, to put in place solutions which you think will be able to build the world we want.

I also consider myself fortunate enough to be able to experience through the work we do across 17 countries in Asia Pacific and with regional partners across the Global South, the complex challenges that women face. Amidst this diversity one stark, lone truth stands out. Though indeed more girls are in school, more women are in university, in Parliament and in the workforce; yet, substantive gender equality still remains a distant dream for most women and girls. It remains most distant for those women who are poor, lesser educated, live in rural and hard-to-reach areas, and belong to marginalised groups. These women still form the majority of women in the world today. These are the women we should aim – never to leave behind – in the next 20 years. But despite the chaos of the world we live in, women and girls continue to creatively imagine their futures.

Let me share with you one such story which comes from a travelling journal which we did with the Asian Rural Women’s Coalition. Thirteen-year-old Lina lives in a place of abject poverty- in the rural village of Desa Tegalampel in East Java. Her father is a landless agricultural labourer. Lina’s dreams were almost shattered when one day her mother suggested that Lina should be married in order to live a more comfortable life. “It’s poverty that makes people want to quickly marry off their children so they no longer need be responsible for them,” Lina told us. Her own mother was married at the age of 11, and had Lina when she was just 12 years old. Lina wanted to break the chains of this tradition. She felt that if she had an education, there would be better life opportunities for her. Lina also chanced upon a CSO led reproductive health education programme where she learned about reproductive health and rights as a teenager. It was from that programme that she learned that it was her right to decide when she would get married. After convincing her parents to call off her marriage, inspired by the experience, Lina and her friends created a youth community campaign against early marriages to empower other girls in the community. They call it langit biru which means ‘blue skies’ because it symbolises hope.

Despite 20 years of implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, isn’t it a travesty we continue to live in a world where girls are prohibited from going to schools – some are abducted or perhaps even shot, for seeking an education. Women and girls form the majority of the one billion who are hungry and malnourished because they not only lack access to productive resources, but because culturally, they eat last in the house when there is already very little food in poor households. Poverty and hunger results in micronutrient deficiency, which directly affects mental/cognitive growth and functioning; under-nutrition results in anaemia, wasting and stunting. This has long-term effects on overall well-being and health of women and girls – it is estimated that half of all pregnant women worldwide suffer from iron deficiency anaemia, and this is made worse by repeat pregnancies. Anaemia is one of the contributing reasons for high maternal mortality. At the same time, this limits girls from fully realising their potential and impacts educational, health, and social attainments.

Women are also unequally impacted by the effects of climate change and are on the frontlines in coastal communities, on sparse agricultural lands, where water and other natural resources are dwindling because they are, of course, the natural resource managers for their households and their families. Climate change exarcebates existing gender inequalities and girls and women are at increased risk for dropping out of schools, violence including sexual violence, exhaustion and ill-health due to the impact of climate change.

In recent times we have also witnessed the unparalleled rise of religious fundamentalism and extremism in all parts of the world. This has led to attempts to roll back significant policy successes in women’s rights both at the national level, as well as the international level where governments cite religious and cultural traditions in order to curb the realization of equality for women. This is a relatively new phenomenon. Because twenty years ago, when all member states agreed to Beijing, to Cairo and to Vienna, we were all still belonging to different faiths, and different cultures. But twenty years later, women’s rights and human rights have suddenly become incompatible with our faiths and cultures. Moreover in many of these fundamentalist contexts, women’s human rights defenders, who remain critical to protecting and preserving human rights, are vulnerable to extreme violence and sadly – even death. Safety and equal access to justice must also be ensured for women’s human rights defenders.

In recent months we have experienced that it is becoming difficult to discuss issues of human rights, especially of sexual and reproductive health and rights – because these topics have become divisive and troublesome to handle during inter-governmental meetings. Clearly some special interest groups have that luxury of dismissing these troublesome realities of women. We, on the other hand, do not have this luxury. Our NGO partners report that: in Pakistan, 75% of women living in rural areas deliver at home and do not have access to emergency obstetric care. In Mongolia, 75% of maternal deaths occur among nomadic herders, unregistered migrants and unemployed women. In India, 92 women are raped every day and 1 in every 4 married women experience physical or sexual violence by their husbands. In Nepal, 27% of married women have an unmet need for contraceptive services. In Bangladesh 128 out of 1000 adolescent girls give birth. We need each and everyone of you to be able to stand up for women and girls not only your countries but for all women and girls across the globe. We cannot do this without your support.

We must be cognisant of the fact that sexual and reproductive health and rights are inextricable from economic, socio-cultural and political rights and must be recognized as necessary ingredients to achieving gender equality, women’s empowerment and sustainable development. Without autonomy over bodies, we cannot achieve autonomy over our lives.

Every individual must have the right to decide whom we can love, whom we can have consensual relations with and when, and whom we can enter into marriage with and when.

We must have the right to decide how many children to have if at all, when to have them and how frequently.

We must have the right to a life free from all forms of discrimination and violence regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.

These are indeed challenging times for all of us. But challenging times require us to be bold and to be able to vision a future beyond the current turmoil. It requires all of us to rise out of our comfort zones, and commit to forging a path for the future. In all recent post-2015 negotiations member states have constantly come forward to say that they are looking for a transformative agenda; an agenda which will be able to harness these challenges and yet deliver development solutions to the issues we see proliferating our landscape. How will transformation occur if we are not able to traverse difficult issues? How will transformation happen, if we allow all member states to sink down to the lowest common denominators, rather than aspire to the highest ideals? How will transformation take place if we are not able to identify a comprehensive set of actionable indicators which is able to translate the hopes for a visionary agenda into reality?

We, too, as women’s rights organisations share your desire for a transformative agenda. For us to address these challenges adequately we must be able to bring not only economic change but also social and cultural change to the societies we live in. We must be able to expand our minds and our hearts to include the most marginalised populations into our vision.

A country’s sustainable development indicators are best reflected in how it takes care of its most marginalised communities and is able to include all key stakeholders, especially those with critical voices. We call upon all governments to join us in our efforts for creating a just, equal and equitable world which takes into consideration the needs of all its constituencies and values all people. We need a development justice model that will deliver sustainable, just and equitable development.