4 April 2011

Remarks to the Global Colloquium of University Presidents: "Empowering Women to Change the World"

Ban Ki-moon

Inequality and discrimination do not only occur in someone else's country or culture. Women and girls experience them everywhere. All the time.

President Gutmann,
Distinguished University Presidents,
Ladies and Gentlemen;

Good evening.

It is a great pleasure to be here, to be invited to talk about one of my top priorities, one of the UN's top priorities.

Let me start by expressing my appreciation to President Amy Gutmann for her contributions and leadership in addressing some of the most delicate challenges of our time - both in her individual capacity and as President of this important institution.

Over the past six years, the Global Colloquium of University Presidents has helped the United Nations generate momentum for change on key global challenges - from migration to climate change, from academic freedom to the role of science in improving the human condition.

At last year's colloquium at Yale, President Gutmann and I talked briefly about what the topic of this year's gathering should be.

It was a short conversation because the answer was so obvious to us both that we decided on the spot that this year we would focus on empowering women to change the world.

Indeed, gender equality and women's empowerment are fundamental to the very identity of the United Nations. And universities can play a significant role in advancing this crucial agenda.

Last year the General Assembly agreed to create UN Women - four UN women's organizations merged into one strong entity - designed to deliver on behalf of the world's women.

Last month we hosted the official launch of UN Women in the General Assembly Hall and welcomed its dynamic new head, Michelle Bachelet, the former President of Chile.

We are fortunate indeed to have such a global leader.

Tomorrow, Ms. Bachelet will talk to you about her vision for UN Women.

Today I would like to talk more generally - about why we need this organization and how your universities - and the world of education in general - can contribute to its success.

We live in exciting times.

Worrying, yes. Volatile, yes.

But steeped in possibility.

We have only to scan the news headlines to appreciate scale of the changes sweeping the world.

In Côte d'Ivoire, the international community stood firm for democracy.

Late last year, the incumbent president was defeated in free and fair elections, then refused to step down.

Women marched in peace to ask him to go. Seven were killed.

A million people have been displaced. A thriving economy brought to a standstill.

Throughout, the international community has stood firm and steadily increased the pressure.

Our peacekeepers are risking their lives to protect civilians throughout the dramatic chapter that is playing out as we speak. Securing a democratic outcome has been costly but is essential.

Africa alone will see 16 presidential elections in the coming year and 6 more in 2012.

It has been vital for the international community to insist on this fundamental principle.

We see even more dramatic events in North Africa and the Middle East.

Two weeks ago I visited Egypt and Tunisia.

Two countries where the actions of ordinary men and women have lit a torch throughout a region - a shining light of hope.

Hope of change, of release from years of oppression, stagnation, and neglect of their legitimate aspirations for a better life.

These events have come suddenly, but they should be no surprise.

For the past decade, the United Nations Arab Human Development Reports have warned of pressures building to explosion.

Now, across the region, people are taking inspiration from each other and calling for change.

From the beginning, I have asked their leaders to listen to the voices of their people.

This is something I repeat in every meeting, every phone call I make with leaders throughout the region and beyond.

They must engage in genuine dialogue - a national dialogue that respects the hopes and demands of their people, men, and women.

I never fail to discuss with leaders how they can increase gender equality and do more for women's empowerment, women's equal rights.

The people who came in their thousands to Tahrir Square in Cairo and, before that, to Bouazizi Square in Tunis - renamed in honour of the vegetable seller whose suicide sparked the protests - were from all walks of life, men, and women.

In conversation after conversation in Cairo and Tunis, women told me that they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with men - standing up for change, for rights, for opportunity.

They expect to take their share in making the revolution succeed, having their fair share of power, making decisions, making policy.

I told them that women represent half the population, they hold up half the sky, and should have their fair share in making the decisions that affects their lives and their countries.

I met with many representatives of change in Egypt and Tunisia.

Women were always among them. Not always in equal numbers. But always outspoken and eloquent in defence of their aspirations and their rights.

To me, this is one of the most significant aspects of what we are seeing in the people's movements in North Africa and the Middle East.

But, as we saw when women and girls marched to Tahrir Square on the 8th of March, and were met with insults and violence from men, there is still a wide gulf between aspiration and reality.

This is why we need UN Women. And it is why we need the engagement of all sectors of society - governments, the business sector, communities and individuals, and you, the world of academia.

This year marks one hundred years since the first anniversary of International Women's Day.

Women's rights have come a long way in the past century - through determined advocacy, practical action, and enlightened policy making.

And let me be clear, most of what has been gained has been thanks to the efforts of women themselves.

But, in too many countries and too many societies, women are still second-class citizens, denied fundamental rights, deprived of legitimate opportunity.

Too many women, in too many countries, have no other role beyond marrying and producing children at a young age, then taking care of those families.

Although the gender gap in education is closing, far too many girls are still denied schooling, leave prematurely, or complete school with few skills and fewer opportunities.

Two-thirds of illiterate adults are female.

In the area of decision-making, we see more women, in more countries, taking their rightful seat in parliament.

Yet fewer than 10 per cent of countries have female heads of state or government.

In just 28 countries are there more than 30 per cent of women in parliament.

Worldwide on average only one in six of cabinet ministers is a woman.

And even where women are prominent in politics, they are still severely under-represented at the highest levels of business and industry.

Furthermore, in the home and at school, in the workplace and in the community, being female still means being vulnerable.

Women and girls continue to endure unacceptable discrimination and violence, often at the hand of intimate partners or relatives.

That is why I launched my UNiTE to End Violence Against Women campaign, along with its Network of Men Leaders.

And it is why I have appointed a Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

We are working to end impunity and change mindsets.

But, ladies and gentlemen, as one of the young people I met in Egypt said: “Change came from within and must keep coming from within.”

Inequality and discrimination do not only occur in someone else's country or culture.

Women and girls experience them everywhere. All the time.

Even at your universities.

It is our job to change that.

When I became Secretary-General there was a lot I needed to learn, and there were things I needed to change - in myself and in the organization.

This process is still happening.

I have increased the number of women in senior leadership posts by more than 40 per cent.

One third of my senior management group is now female, our chief humanitarian coordinator; the head of the UN Development Programme; my legal counsel and the UN's head of management.

Women are in charge of the World Health Organisation and field support for our peacekeepers.

My top cop, who runs our international police operation is a woman.

The heads of our economic commissions in Asia, Latin America and the Arab world are women too.

And, of course, the new head of UN Women, is a role model to women around the world.

Let us welcome her.

My challenge now is to see the same kind of representation of women throughout middle management.

You have a similar challenge.

Gender stereotypes and barriers are common throughout academia.

In Europe female graduates outnumber men - except in fields such as engineering or technology.

Here in the United States, women graduate from PhD programmes in roughly the same numbers as men. Yet less than 30 per cent of tenured faculty are female.

There must be reasons for this. Is it because women find it harder to juggle the competing and legitimate demands of pursuing a career and raising a family?

Is it because of unspoken prejudices about what women can or should do?

Universities play an important role.

They can provide the training in critical thinking that a functional democracy needs.

They provide a foundation for the economic and medical research that is so essential to society's well-being.

And they supply graduates to the workforce.

So it is essential that this issue of women's rights and women's representation is reflected in your curricula, your appointments, your practices, and your partnerships.

Why, for instance, do your female graduates here in the United States earn less than 75 per cent of their male colleagues?

The actress Geena Davis made a simple eloquent point last month at the launch of UN Women. She said: “If girls can see it, they can be it.”

Our job is to give girls and young women the inspiration and the tools to be what we know they can be.

For example, in Liberia, we sent an all-female police unit from India.

There was an immediate practical benefit - women felt safer and they felt more empowered to complain about the abuse they were enduring.

But there was another, unanticipated, consequence.

Liberian women queued up to join their own police service.

Because they saw it, they knew they could be it.

So, ladies and gentlemen, this is one way you can help us make UN Women a success. You can use your power and partnerships to promote women's empowerment at home.

The second area where I would like to appeal for your support is in the field of research.

We know that working for gender equality and women's empowerment is the right thing to do.

But often that is not enough. We need to be able to show how it is the smart thing to do.

For example, only 13 of the 500 largest corporations in the world have a female Chief Executive Officer.

That is a sad statistic, but is it significant to shareholders?

What if they were told that the Fortune 500 companies with the most women on their boards were 53 per cent more profitable than those with the fewest women board members?

As academics, you understand the value of research, and well-constructed arguments.

It also lies at the core of much of our work.

United Nations reports are cited worldwide.

One of them is our report on the World's Women, produced every five years at the request of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women.

It looks at population patterns, health, education, women in the workplace, women's role in power and decision making, the environment, and women's share of the burden of poverty.

But, at the end of last year's report, it lamented the lack of available statistics for many countries, and the fact that many statistics are not comparable because concepts, definitions, methods and the quality of the data vary from country to country.

I believe universities can play an important role in changing this story - in helping to generate the data and in building the bridge from information to policy.

Indeed, universities can play a central role in promoting all the UN's goals.

This is why I established the UN Academic Impact initiative last year.

Today, it has nearly six hundred members from a hundred countries, including universities and other institutions of higher education and research.

From this Colloquium, I know that New York University is a member, and I encourage all here to join.

Each year, participating organizations undertake an activity that contributes to a UN objective - such as improving access to education, empowering women, or working to improve women's and children's health.

This is another top priority for me, and for UN Women.

Too many women still die giving birth to new life. Too many children die from preventable illnesses.

Last year, the Millennium Development Goals summit focused attention on the goals on which we are farthest behind: women's and children's health.

I was especially encouraged to see Member States, private companies and the philanthropic community pledge $40 billion in support of my global strategy to improve the health of women and children over the next four years.

This is important for two reasons:

First, because action on MDGs 4 and 5 -- maternal and children's health -- has a multiplier effect on all the other MDGs, including poverty reduction, education, gender equality, HIV/AIDS, and environmental sustainability.

Second, because the Strategy embodies a new “business model”. Where once we might have stopped at the creation of a normative and strategic framework, today we are going further. We are facilitating partnerships between actors that have not traditionally worked together. And we are re-shaping UN operations on the ground so that the $40 billion becomes a reality.

I urge you to join this effort.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me close by returning to where I began.

I think it is no coincidence that the revolutionary fervour sweeping North Africa and the Middle East began in Tunisia - and that women played such a role.

It was the first country in the Arab world to give women the right to vote.

Girls grow up literate.

They see women well-represented in professions and parliament.

As a result, they have a strong understanding of their fundamental rights.

But, as one woman told me, the status of women is still held back by discrimination, even if it is held up by law.

Her story is not unique. We can find it in every country and every institution represented in this room.

But it can change. We can change. But it will take work, just as it will take much work to translate the hopes of the young people I met in North Africa into reality.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt represent one of the greatest opportunities to advance democracy and human rights in a generation.

Properly handled, they can become a model for similar transformations across the Arab world and beyond.

But let me say three things, loud and clear.

First, change cannot be resisted forever. Nor should it.

To paraphrase John F. Kennedy: “Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable”.

History is not on the side of leaders who insist on clinging to power against the will of their people.

Second, the changes we are seeing must respect the fundamental rights and aspirations of women.

Third, the long-term success of these changes cannot be taken for granted.

They need the strong backing of the international community.

If these revolutions are to produce real change for the region, and if our new UN entity for women is to produce real change for women, they need the committed and coordinated support of us all.

As I say, again and again, wherever I go, when I meet women - young and old: now is your moment. Seize it!

Thank you.