New York

04 May 2011

Secretary-General's Remarks at Roundtable on Gender Equality and Democracy [As delivered]

Mrs. Clark,

Madam Bachelet,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for joining me on this very important roundtable debate on this issue that I am always committed and I am always proud to make, even modest, any contribution I can.

I thank everyone involved in making this roundtable possible.

I especially welcome the collaboration between the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance and various UN departments and entities.

We need look no further than the daily headlines to see the timeliness of this gathering.

Women were among those who marched in Cote d'Ivoire to uphold the democratic will of the people –with several of them killed for making that stand.

In Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, women have been among those in the vanguard demanding change, rights, dignity, and opportunity.

With that in mind, I would like to stress four points.

First, gender inequality in decision-making remains a great impediment to democracy.

Certainly there has been important progress. More women, in more countries, are taking their place in parliament.

Yet fewer than 10 per cent of countries have female heads of state or government. Fewer than 30 countries have reached the target of 30 per cent women in national parliaments.

The challenge extends from parliaments to peace processes.

Last year, when we marked the 10th anniversary of Security Council resolution 1325, our message was loud and clear: women need to be at the negotiating table, playing their rightful role in conflict prevention and resolution, in peacekeeping and peacebuilding. Not only to ensure that women's needs and perspectives are reflected, but as a basic human right.

We must do more to address the gender gap in democratic participation.

Second, while women's political participation improves democracy, the reverse is also true: democracy is an incubator for gender equality.

It provides public space for discussion of human rights and women's empowerment. It enables women's groups to mobilize. It makes it easier for women to realize their political, civil, economic and social rights.

But let us not allow the long-standing democracies to congratulate themselves too readily: even there, women still experience discrimination, inequality and high levels of violence.

Third, gender equality must be treated as an explicit goal of democracy-building, not as an “add on”.

Experience has taught us that democratic ideals of inclusiveness, accountability and transparency cannot be achieved without laws, policies, measures and practices that address inequalities.

Moreover, we must go beyond thinking about this issue mostly at the time of elections. Rather, we must weave these ideals into the social, political and economic fabric of a society, so that girls and women can reach their potential on an equal basis with men, whatever they choose to do.

Our work - with women farmers and female journalists, with judicial systems and grassroots networks, in peacetime and in post-conflict settings - tells us that women are effective entry points for building more transparent and inclusive governance.

Women can operate in challenging and restrictive environments. Often, the impact is sustained, boding well for future generations.

That brings me to my fourth point:

The United Nations is more involved in democracy-building than ever before.

In the 2005 World Summit Declaration, Member States committed themselves to the protection and promotion of democracy. That same year saw the creation of the UN Democracy Fund.

Many UN departments, funds and programmes have expanded their democracy programming. And now, with the establishment of UN Women, another strong actor has joined the arena.

Across the constellations of entities and activity, we need a stronger gender perspective going forward.

Our responsibility is to ensure that our democracy assistance is gender responsive.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Questions of gender equality and democracy are very much on display right now, in the Middle East and North Africa.

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.

Tunisia was among the first Arab countries to grant women the right to vote, in the late 1950s. Tunisian women have also made important gains in the professions and parliament.

Girls growing up with such role models quite naturally expect to follow suit.

Today, Tunisian women rightly expect to play central roles in making the revolution succeed, having their fair share of power, making decisions, enjoying their rights.

Of course, there is still a great distance still to travel, there and elsewhere. When women and girls marched to Tahrir Square in Cairo on International Women's Day, they were met with insults and violence from men.

But this can change. Mindsets can change.

National actors have to lead the transformation. But it is our responsibility to assist them.

Already, in Egypt, the UN Democracy Fund has funded a watchdog body in an effort to ensure women's political access and participation.

For my part, I continue to press leaders to listen to the voices of their people –all their people. In fact, during the last two months whenever I was speaking to leaders in the region, I have never failed to remind them, to urge them, to include women group leaders. Normally we talk about opposition political leaders, but I told them [to] include women, civil society leaders and business leaders and all the spectrums of life. I have never failed to mention women, to remind them, that they should do more for women's empowerment.

Women must be an integral part of the emerging structures.

Thank you again for your commitment to this work. I look forward to hearing your recommendations on how the UN system can improve its democracy assistance programming.

Let us do our utmost to promote women's democratic participation -- and to ensure that democracies accountable to women.

Thank you very much.