12 March 2008


12 March 2008
Deputy Secretary-General
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York




Following is the text of UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro’s presentation to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, yesterday, 11 March:

I am pleased to be here to talk about an issue that has great significance for me, both personally and professionally:  the importance of leadership training and development for women and girls in improving economic, political and social progress worldwide.

In the year 2000, national leaders meeting at the United Nations committed themselves to promoting human rights, human security and development by setting eight Millennium Development Goals by the year 2015.  We are now at the midpoint on that timeline, and this month’s commemoration of International Women’s Day offers an opportunity to reflect on where we are and how we need to proceed in order to honour the promise made at the start of this millennium.

In this effort, we are aided by a wealth of reports by United Nations bodies, development agencies and international human rights organizations on progress for the world’s women -- and its implications for reaching the Millennium Development Goals.

The news is quite sobering.  Systematic discrimination against girls and women in the world’s poorest countries will make it impossible for these States to meet the priority goal to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty by the year 2015.  Women and girls form the majority of the world’s poor and hungry, girls are dropping out of primary school at rates far greater than boys, and the spread of HIV disproportionately affects women and girls.  We are also lagging in our efforts to cut maternal mortality rates.

Clearly we must address general concerns about not meeting the MDGs by focusing on women.

We need leadership at all levels:  legal, institutional and personal.  As United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour pointed out on International Women’s Day, laws that discriminate against women are still on the books in virtually every country in the world.  Legal disparities in the social, economic and political arenas are detrimental -– and even sometimes devastating -– to women.

The High Commissioner warned that the most pernicious and dangerous discrimination involves sexual abuse that is not recognized as such under a country’s laws, or is effectively tolerated because legislation is not enforced.  Efforts to combat this violence “will be severely hampered so long as the legal frameworks to protect women, ensure their rights and grant them the possibility of economic and social independence are inadequate”, she said.

All of this underscores the critical importance of women’s leadership.  Millennium Development Goal 3, to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment, recognized this by including an indicator for women’s political leadership:  their share of seats in elected legislatures.  Statistics show that affirmative action measures help raise women’s political profile, especially in countries emerging from conflict, like Rwanda.

But we should not confuse presence with influence.  In most countries, legal frameworks still do not fully support gender equality.  And women still face profound institutional biases against efforts to promote gender equality.  Neither incentives nor performance measures respond to women’s needs for resources or services.

The obstacles to participation can be deadly; physical threats to women in public office have intensified in some countries, most recently in Kenya but also in Iraq and Afghanistan, where women have been targets for assassination.

Another important obstacle is women’s lack of political experience.  Because they have long been neglected by political parties and sometimes excluded outright from public decision-making, women often lack the constituency support and party backing needed to advance gender equality.  We need leadership development, including apprenticeship programmes for young women in political parties, so these potential leaders can be mentored and encouraged to consider a political career.

Leadership programmes should also include training on developing a “women’s manifesto of policy priorities”, which political parties can review and adopt.  We know that political campaigns also need money, and leadership development must include sessions on how to mobilize resources.  Governmental mechanisms must encourage the passage of legislative agendas on gender equality.  We need women’s parliamentary caucuses.  We need parliamentary oversight committees to review legislation from a gender perspective.  And we need better systems so that political leaders can communicate with women constituents.

But even if we bring women into national political leadership, we must understand that this will not automatically promote women’s economic leadership, especially among the poor.  We must encourage and train women to take leadership roles in local governance institutions, which generally make decisions on policies and resource distributions that more directly affect poor women and men.  Research in India, for example, has shown that, when women lead local councils, local budget management shifts to reflect women’s spending priorities.  In Rajasthan and West Bengal, women in local government made sure that more money went into water provision as well as local infrastructure, an important source of employment for poor women.

Women’s economic leadership is imperative to achieving the MDGs, especially Goal 1 on poverty reduction.  Studies have shown that investing in women and girls has a multiplier effect on productivity, efficiency and economic growth –- all vital to reducing poverty.

More and more, the international community is emphasizing that promoting decent work is the only way out of poverty.  For this reason, a new target has been introduced under Goal 1:  promoting full and productive employment and decent work for all.  Labour markets are the main route for transmitting the benefits of economic growth to poor and disadvantaged groups.  In development, the role of the State is shrinking and the role of markets is expanding, so any effort to reduce poverty and promote gender equality must address women’s participation in labour markets.

This is a challenging task.  Women, especially in developing countries, generally have only limited power over household economic decision-making.  And they have limited voice in leadership structures that manage community resources or oversee local development projects.  At the national and international levels, poor women are rarely represented or consulted in economic policymaking, planning, budgeting or monitoring.  And at all levels, women are less represented than men in trade unions and social movements.

There are constraints on women’s economic participation operating at all these levels.  Norms and expectations on women’s roles restrict their ability to own household property, travel or work outside the village or home, and govern how household assets are passed from one generation to the next.  Men dominate traditional community organizations, such as the various councils in India or tribal or clan councils in some African countries.  This limits women’s participation in decision-making over community resources.  Women also suffer “time poverty” caused by their overwhelming responsibility for household and child-rearing tasks -– another major obstacle to their ability to engage in productive work, let alone take on economic leadership in local markets.

Women have been helped by social movements.  Although these movements are not directly focused on women’s rights, they are concerned about the economic rights of the poor, most of whom are women, and the working poor, where women make up 60 per cent.  Good governance movements have also created space for women’s participation in the economic policy arena.  National Governments are devolving powers to local bodies, bringing economic governance closer to poor people, especially poor women, who are constrained from participating at the national level by restrictions on their time and mobility.  At least on paper, management of local water, forests and community infrastructure is being devolved to local levels.

But all of these efforts to achieve gender equality and development must be supported by action to end violence against women.  The persistence of this problem is one of the major constraints to women’s economic and political leadership at all levels.  Violence against women is one of the most widespread and systematic violations of human rights, eroding women’s health, productivity and independence to the detriment of countries’ efforts to overcome poverty and foster inclusive development.  Violence against women and girls negatively affects prospects for achieving the MDGs on poverty, gender equality, maternal and child health and halting the spread of HIV and AIDS.  As the UN Millennium Project Report affirms, freedom from violence, especially for girls and women, is a core right essential to their ability to lead a productive life.

On International Women’s Day this year, which also marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, three UN Special Rapporteurs joined their voices to call on Governments to invest in women and girls to ensure gender equality and prevent violence against women.  They said women’s access to sources of finance as well as participation in decision-making on macroeconomic and fiscal policies are paramount to bridging the gap between universal human rights standards and the realities facing most of the world’s women.

All three experts agreed that the focus on economic growth, in the context of globalization, has favoured markets over human development, and this has had often devastating impacts on women.

Women’s increasing participation in the labour force has opened new opportunities, but it has also exposed many more women to exploitation, abuse and violence.  Despite a growing international commitment to combat violence against women, the Rapporteurs warned that increased poverty and marginalization, coupled with a lack of protection, is fuelling gender-based violence, making women and girls easy targets for trafficking and other abuses, and eroding their ability to enjoy full human rights.  And society pays a price when victims of domestic violence cannot engage in productive work. 

All of this lends urgency to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s recent launch of a United Nations campaign to end violence against women.  His personal pledge to bring in men as well as women, world leaders as well as civil society and the private sector, is just the kind of high-level commitment needed to fight this global scourge.

The campaign will support efforts by Governments, women’s and other organizations, the United Nations and donor partners to combat gender-based violence.  It sends the clear message that ending violence against women stands on a par with other critical development goals.  I share the hopes of millions of women worldwide that the Secretary-General’s campaign will propel new levels of action and new resources to reach them.

In all these efforts to empower women, the United Nations must be at the forefront.  To this end, we must bolster our own gender-specific machinery and ensure that it is better funded.  We can do this by creating one dynamic and strengthened gender entity, consolidating resources that are currently scattered among several structures.  This, I firmly believe, would attract better funding from the donor community, and would produce a reach and impact we can only dream of today.

By mobilizing forces of change globally while inspiring countries to improve results nationally, this new entity would better advance our cause to empower women and realize gender equality worldwide.  That is why the Secretary-General and I are urging Member States to successfully conclude consultations on this issue.

The net effect of these measures will reverberate far beyond gender equality.  Empowering women is not just an end in itself; it is a prerequisite for reaching all of the Millennium Development Goals -– our common vision to build a better world in the twenty-first century.

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