Press Releases

    OBV/542
    WOM/1547
    9 March 2006

    Women's Role in Decision-Making Central to Progress of Humankind, Secretary-General Says at Women's Day Observance

    Says World is Ready for Woman as United Nations Secretary-General

    NEW YORK, 8 March (UN Headquarters) -- The role of women in decision-making was central to the advancement of women around the world and to the progress of humankind as a whole, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said this morning at the Headquarters' observance of International Women's Day, whose theme this year was "Women in decision-making: meeting challenges, creating change".

    Addressing those gathered for the annual celebration, he said that, more than 10 years after the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), there was still far to go in ensuring that half of the world's population took up its rightful place in the world's decision-making.  But, the international community was finally beginning to understand that women were every bit as affected as any man, by the challenges facing humanity in the twenty-first century -- in economic and social development, as well as in peace and security.  Often, they were more affected.  Therefore, it was right and, indeed, necessary that women should be engaged in decision-making in every area, with equal strength and in equal numbers. 

    Noting recent achievements, he said that, in January, the proportion of women in national parliaments had reached a new global high.  And in recent elections and re-elections to the highest positions in Government, women leaders had made a quantum leap by increasing their representation by more than 30 per cent.  There were now 11 women Heads of State or Government, in countries on every continent, he said, adding, "I think we should also see a clear message in the overwhelming success of women in presidential elections over the past year; the world is ready for a woman as Secretary-General of the United Nations".

    There had also been advancements in the United Nations Secretariat, he noted.  A quarter of a century ago, the proportion of women in D-1 positions and higher, was less than 4 per cent.  Today, it was 26 per cent.  Yet, he would be the first to admit that progress towards gender-parity in the United Nations was nowhere near what it should be.  "Clearly, we have far, far more to do - both in the UN and the world as a whole."

    Opening the panel discussion that followed, Shashi Tharoor, Under-Secretary-General for Communication and Public Information, said undeniable progress towards equality had been made, including the representation of women in parliaments and the recent election of women leaders in Liberia, Chile and Germany.  That was good news, but not good enough.  Much more needed to be done.  Women were underrepresented in the legislative, justice and economic decision-making areas, and in too many other areas, not least peace and security.

    At the United Nations, he noted, women represented some 37.2 per cent of professional staff.  While the Organization had made huge progress over the years, it still fell short of the 50-50 goal.  Equal representation was not about numbers, however.  It was about the impact of women as senior leaders and the way they generated change.  How did that come about?  What did it take to create an enabling environment?  The answers to those questions had to be both visionary and pragmatic. 

    In a nutshell, women's presence made parliament more humane, more sensitive to the real concerns of citizens and, thus, better equipped to respond to the needs of all sectors of society, stated the Vice-Chairperson of the National Council of Namibia and Vice-President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Margaret Mensah Williams.  There were cultural, as well as social and economic factors at play that made it difficult for women to enter politics and climb up to top echelons of Government.  Whether it was local traditions, lack of gender-sensitive policies or inflexible fund-raising and political party mechanisms, women's political empowerment was invariably fraught with challenges and difficulties.

    The picture was also beginning to show some positive signs, she said.  In 1995, women had accounted for 11.3 per cent of legislators in the world's parliaments.  In 2005, they represented 16.3 per cent of legislators, a small 5 per cent increase over 10 years.  In 1995, Sweden had topped the ranking of women in parliament with 40.4 per cent.  Ten years later, political developments in other parts of the world, most notably Africa and Latin America, brought Rwanda to the top of the world classification, with 48.8 per cent women in elected office.  While the situation was moderately encouraging, more than moderate progress was needed.  If current incremental rates continued, an average of 30 per cent of women in parliament would not be reached until 2025. True parity would have to wait until 2040.

    With regard to women's participation in decision-making within management, Anne Kathrine Slungård, Chief, Statoil Board of Elections, Norway, described a new law adopted by her country's parliament in 2003, which stated that 40 per cent of corporate board members were to be women.  If the companies did not start recruiting more women to boards in two years time, they would be dissolved.  As for why that law was enacted, she said that more diversity was needed in management and boards.  Diversity strengthened the companies' possibilities to rapid adjustments and improved the management of the companies.  In Norway, there was a high number of women in paid work, and Norwegian women were also highly educated.  The problem was not that there were no qualified women; it was recruiting highly qualified women into leadership positions and making use of their competence. 

    Presentations were also made by Nabeela Abdulla Al-Mulla, Permanent Representative of Kuwait to the United Nations; Noelí Pocaterra, President of the Permanent Commission of Indigenous Peoples, National Assembly of Venezuela; and Devaki Jain, an economist from India.

    Opening Statements

    KOFI ANNAN, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said the theme of this year's International Women's Day -- the role of women in decision-making -- was central to the advancement of women around the world, and to the progress of humankind as a whole.  More than 10 years after the Beijing Declaration, there was still far to go in ensuring that half of the world's population took up its rightful place in the world's decision-making. 

    But, the international community was finally beginning to understand a fundamental principle:  women were every bit as affected as any man by the challenges facing humanity in the twenty-first century -- in economic and social development, as well as in peace and security.  Often, they were more affected.  It was, therefore, right and, indeed, necessary that women should be engaged in decision-making in every area, with equal strength and in equal numbers.

    The world, he said, was also starting to grasp that there was no policy for progress more effective than the empowerment of women and girls.  Study after study had taught that no other policy was as likely to raise economic productivity, or to reduce infant and maternal mortality.  No other policy was as sure to improve nutrition and promote health, including the prevention of HIV/AIDS.  No other policy was as powerful in increasing the chances of education for the next generation.  And he would venture that no policy was more important in preventing conflict, or in achieving reconciliation after a conflict had ended.

    Noting recent achievements, he said that, in January, the proportion of women in national parliaments had reached a new global high.  And in recent elections and re-elections to the highest positions in Government, women leaders had made a quantum leap, by increasing their representation by more than 30 per cent.  There were now 11 women Heads of State or Government in countries on every continent.  And three countries -- Chile, Spain and Sweden -- now had gender parity in Government.

    There had also been advancements in the United Nations Secretariat, he noted.  A quarter of a century ago, the proportion of women in D-1 positions and higher was less than 4 per cent.  Today, it was 26 per cent.  Yet, he would be the first to admit that progress towards gender parity in the United Nations was nowhere near what it should be.  "Clearly, we have far, far more to do -- both in the UN and the world as a whole."

    In the highest levels of national decision-making, women remained severely underrepresented, he said.  At current rates of progress, it would be 2025 before an average of 30 per cent women in parliament was reached, and 2040 before there was parity.  In the United Nations, much more needed to be done to attract talented women to decision-making posts -- by stepping up efforts with Governments, civil society, professional associations and academia.  And in the case of women who were on board, it was necessary to retain and encourage them, by improving internal procedures for mobility, training and career development -- both at Headquarters and in the field.

    "I think we should also see a clear message in the overwhelming success of women in presidential elections over the past year; the world is ready for a woman as Secretary-General of the United Nations", he stated.  As it was his last International Women's Day as Secretary-General, he would like to think that, when he left the United Nations, he left behind an Organization that was more dynamic not only in itself, but also in the way it empowered, and met the needs of, half the world's population -- its women.  He would also like to think that the reforms he had initiated as Secretary-General had opened up space for the participation of women, and helped to improve the lives of women around the world.

    SHASHI THAROOR, Under-Secretary-General for Communication and Public Information, said, this year, the United Nations was a buzz with talk of reform.  It had become clear that the Organization would only fulfil its mandates in the areas of development, peace and security, and human rights, if women participated fully and were fully involved in shaping polices.  The 2005 World Summit had highlighted the centrality of gender equality, and it was obvious that new bodies established, including the Peace building Commission, must address the situation of women.

    He said undeniable progress towards equality had been made, including the representation of women in parliaments and the recent election of women leaders in Liberia, Chile and Germany.  That was good news, but not good enough.  Much more needed to be done.  Women were underrepresented in the legislative, justice and economic decision-making areas, and in too many other areas, not least peace and security.  At the United Nations, women represented some 37.2 per cent of professional staff.  While the Organization had made huge progress over the years, it still fell short of the 50-50 goal.  Equal representation was not about numbers, however.  It was about the impact of women as senior leaders and the way they generated change.  How did that come about?  What did it take to create an enabling environment?  The answers to those questions had to be both visionary and pragmatic.

    MARGARET MENSAH WILLIAMS, Vice-Chairperson of the National Council of Namibia and Vice-President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, said International Women's Day was a day of celebration.  It was also a time for taking stock of progress made, assessing challenges and pursuing the struggle for gender equality worldwide.  Being a member of parliament was no easy job, but it was a calling that women were fully prepared to heed.  There were cultural, as well as social and economic factors at play that made it difficult for women to enter politics and climb up to top echelons of Government.  Whether it was local traditions, lack of gender-sensitive policies or inflexible fund-raising and political party mechanisms, women's political empowerment was invariably fraught with challenges and difficulties.

    The picture was also beginning to show some positive signs, she said.  In 1995, women had accounted for 11.3 per cent of legislators in the world's parliaments.  In 2005, they represented 16.3 per cent of legislators, a small 5 per cent increase over 10 years.  In 1995, Sweden had topped the ranking of women in parliament with 40.4 per cent.  Ten years later, political developments in other parts of the world, most notably in Africa and Latin America, brought Rwanda to the top of the world classification, with 48.8 per cent women in elected office.  While the situation was moderately encouraging, more than moderate progress was needed.  If current incremental rates continued, an average of 30 per cent of women in parliament would not be reached until 2025.  True parity would have to wait until 2040.

    She said she was convinced that both men and women were not ready to wait that long to have truly representative, inclusive and participative parliaments, which were the cornerstone of any democracy.  The first objective should be to increase the number of women in political life, most notably in parliament, and to speed up the process of their access to politics.  She called on all to enhance national and international support for women who wished to enter politics.  Women needed to feel fully confident in their capacity to contribute in a constructive way to the management of societies.  A true partnership between men and women in politics must be established.  An important part of the process was ensuring equal access to education for girls and boys.

    Attention must also be focused on enhancing women's input into decision-making, she said.  The mere presence of women had changed politics.  At the very practical level, women were instrumental in transforming the actual physical premises, to make them more gender-friendly and better adapt to the needs of not just working women with families, but also of physically challenged people.  Women also brought about change in the institutional culture, using their influence to instil new working methods and procedures.  They changed the institutional discourse to make it reflect their values.  Women were in a position to influence the legislative agenda and ensure that issues of particular importance to women were allowed a more prominent place in the decision-making process.

    In a nutshell, women's presence made parliaments more humane, more sensitive to the real concerns of citizens and, thus, better equipped to respond to the needs of all sectors of society, she said.  International institutions also needed to be more gender-sensitive.  Decisions that impacted upon the lives of all could not be taken without women and men participating on an equal footing.  Women's participation in politics was a fundamental element of any democratic functioning.

    NABEELA ABDULLA AL-MULLA, Permanent Representative of Kuwait to the United Nations, said she hoped the time would come when Kuwaiti women also occupied positions of power, as women did in other countries.  She noted that, at the United Nations, members of the Asian Group had stated the importance of having an Asian as the next Secretary-General.  So far, there were three official candidates put forward, all of whom were men.

    She noted three factors in meeting the challenge of increasing women's participation in decision-making -- education, opportunity and individual will.  Education was primary in encouraging women and girls to enter school, to meet development goals and to eradicate poverty.  Opportunity had played a major part in her career and in the careers of other women.  Opportunity had allowed her to be Kuwait's first woman Ambassador and the first Arab woman Ambassador in the United Nations.  For 59 years, there had never been women heads of missions of Arab countries.  Also, she was only 1 of 18 women ambassadors at the United Nations, compared to 9 when she first arrived.  Member States should take the lead to achieve gender parity within their own ranks, before they could expect the Secretariat to achieve that goal. 

    Turning to women in the Middle East, she said the region continued to witness women coming to the fore.  Kuwait now had a woman Minister and had changed its electoral law; there were two women Ministers in the United Arab Emirates; and there were many women representatives in chambers of commerce.  In addition, across the region, women, by law, could own, inherit and run businesses, unlike in some other parts of the world.

    NOELÍ POCATERRA, President of the Permanent Commission of Indigenous Peoples, National Assembly of Venezuela, drew attention to the assassination of hundreds of indigenous women in countries around the world.  Indigenous women in Venezuela had seen how everything nowadays was negotiated, including land and water.  That was considered a perversion, and indigenous people were being dragged down in that process.  Indigenous groups had been fighting for land and water ever since invaders came to their lands.

    Since 1963, in Venezuela, efforts had been under way to create intercultural structures to encourage participation, including political participation.  When President Chavez invited them to be part of political decision-making, she had served as mediator to create the Commission for Indigenous Peoples.  Thus, a new stage had begun, which included the participation of indigenous peoples and communities.  Indigenous women were beginning to enter centres of power.  However, poverty remained, for many reasons, particularly due to deprivation of land and non-respect for the rights of indigenous peoples.

    After the country's Constitution was adopted, the real challenge began -- building a participatory democracy, she said.  Today, more than ever, indigenous women were participating more actively to build their lifestyles and cultures.  Among the obstacles still encountered, was ignorance among the rest of the population.  It was necessary to work harder with the young and hold dialogues with the elders of indigenous communities, and to ensure that power was used as a tool to help others.

    DEVAKI JAIN, an economist from India, said women, economies and the United Nations were at a critical juncture.  Today's event could create a turning point.  Her book, Women, Development and the United Nations - A Sixty-Year Quest for Equality and Justice, unravelled the interplay of three actors, namely the women's movement, development and the United Nations.  When women were able to transform the other two players, it was due to a magical amalgam of several key ingredients.  The first was knowledge.  Knowledge had been the most crucial source of power. Another ingredient was strategizing through a collective identity as women.  She called that "a place of one's own" or a place were women developed their political will, so as to be able to deal with their outside space.

    She said a third ingredient was political women, as different from women in politics.  In the 1950s and 1960s, the women who made those strategic interventions, in both United Nations and national structures and policies, had emerged as leaders in emancipatory movements in their countries.  Their power had come from their politics, their stature and the issues for which they had fought.  The fourth ingredient was not only the usual political will, but also a national and international political institutional framework.  India provided such a space, and whatever its blemishes, women were able to find the space to introduce knowledge and find the numbers to make a difference, wiping out many myths about literacy, caste and ignorance of public affairs.  The base of development from below, led by women politicians, could, for the first time, enable women to make a difference to economic governance.

    She said capital was looking for cheap labour, and women were moving to provide it at heavy costs to their bodies and their dignity.  A new development framework was needed to promote gender equality.  Today's global landscape had changed, and the progress that had been made had not been enabling.  The 1995 Beijing benchmarks were outdated, as the economic and political world had changed in basic ways.  A women's commission on United Nations reform could document how they experienced the United Nations.  Women had been some of the most successful partners of the United Nations, and the women's movement was the only surviving worldwide movement.  The time had come for the women's movement to sharpen its tools and reveal action through the creation of think-tanks on economics and United Nations reform.

    ANNE KATHRINE SLUNGÅRD, Chief, Statoil Board of Elections, Norway, said that, in December 2003, a large majority of the Norwegian parliament had adopted a new law, which stated that 40 per cent of corporate board members were to be women.  The companies had to start recruiting more women to their boards in two years time.  If they did not, they would be dissolved.  As for why that law was enacted, she said that more diversity was needed in management and boards.  Diversity strengthened the companies' possibilities to rapid adjustments and improved the management of the companies.  In Norway, there was a high number of women in paid work, and Norwegian women were also highly educated.  The problem was not that there were no qualified women, but recruiting highly qualified women into leadership positions and making use of their competence.

    Turning to her own experience, she said that she had been working in politics for 25 years.  For five years, she had served as Mayor of Trondheim.  She noted that only 11 per cent of Norwegian Mayors were women, and when she gave birth to her daughter four years ago, she was the first Norwegian Mayor to take maternity leave.  She held several board positions, in insurance, banking, energy, media, arts institutions and sports.  Norwegian companies were very active in recruiting women, both to board positions and into the administrative management of the companies.  As Chair of Elections in Statoil, she said Norway's largest and most important company must go first and show the way.  The election committee -- with three women and one man -- met regularly, and made an effort to find potential, future board members of both sexes.  It was no secret that it was a bit more challenging to find female candidates.  That was because there were few women in the energy sector, and because women were harder to convince that they should take the challenge.  So it was both a question of getting to know competent female candidates, and a question of culture.

    Discussion

    In a first round of questions, a representative of the Caucus of African Women stressed the need for women candidates in the next campaign for United Nations Secretary-General.

    A speaker from Côte d'Ivoire noted that women, once in politics, changed.  The women who succeeded in politics most often supported the men who headed the political parties.  That situation made solidarity among women a rare thing.  What could be done, so that women would not have to wait until 2040 to achieve parity in national parliaments? she asked.

    A speaker from the United States delegation asked for more information on Norway's new law.  Had women been influential in making the bill a priority?  In some cases, women might not have the same level of training as men.  In that regard, she wondered how it was possible to ensure that women not only had equal numbers, but also equal competence.

    A speaker from Sweden stressed the need for women to be able to make decisions about their own sexuality and reproduction.

    A representative of the Catalonia Women's Council of Spain noted that it was disabled women who were helping to change the world.  Some 8 per cent of the world's population were disabled women.  As such, they deserved a place in decision-making positions and politics.

    Responding to comments from the floor, Ms. SLUNGÅRD agreed that qualified women were needed to join public boards.  A Minister from Norway's Conservative Party, a man, had initiated the bill.  The impetus of the bill was the recognition of the need to take action and stop talking.  To achieve gender-parity on company boards, there had been much debate on whether to use a law or other mechanisms.  The new law gave women an opportunity to make boardrooms consist of more than one set of skills.  It was not just a question of women's rights.  Women and men had different education, history, interests and experiences.  By diversifying skills, including women would, in the end, lead to greater competitiveness.

    Ms. AL-MULLA noted that politics changed both women and men.  It was not only women whose outlook changed once in a position of power.  It was human nature.  One way to overcome that was through networking between women and men.  Many men were aware of the need to have greater participation by women. All societies had shortcomings that could only be overcome through cooperation between men and women.  Women had suffered from apartheid.  Did women want to do the same thing to men? she asked.

    Ms. POCATERRA noted that power without conviction corrupted.  Power was just a tool; it was something to be used to help others. She agreed with the need to make room for women with disabilities in decision-making positions.

    Ms. WILLIAMS agreed that the time had come for a female Secretary-General. To accelerate parity, political parties must ensure that their constitutions ensured that 50 per cent of all elected positions went to women.  Only then, would change be possible.  Women should support other women candidates, despite their political party.

    Ms. JAIN said the quota system worked at the national level.  National women's movements were able to make a difference.  All societies were divided by class and other forms of stratification.  It was necessary to level the playing field for women's candidates.  The question was, whether there was a case for women to rethink their strategies and form political formations that challenged existing paradigms.  Without asking that question, women would be asking for linear solutions only.

    During the second round of comments and questions, one speaker noted that Caribbean women were facing a double challenge, and were far from achieving any form of parity.  Due to the high levels of women and girls in education, there were now those that were calling for a halt to achievement and progress by women and girls, in favour of men and boys, and even those advancing the notion of "male marginalization". What could Caribbean women do to face that struggle?

    Another speaker suggested that, in order to hasten the achievement of the 50-50 goal, each of the presenters should mentor other women who could come after them.  Perhaps the time limit for achieving the 50-50 goal could be halved, if women mentored other women.

    In addition, the importance of providing support for enhancing the capacity of non-governmental organizations in developing countries was stressed, as such organizations were vital for promoting women's genuine participation.

    On the issue of mentoring, Ms. JAIN noted that, in Asia and Africa, most women occupying positions of power were young women.  Also, half of India's delegation to the Commission on the Status of Women was under 40.  Most of the leadership in India was coming from those under 40, she said, highlighting the efforts of a certain young woman, who was crucial in ensuring the passing of the Freedom of Information Act.

    Ms. WILLIAMS agreed that mentorship was very important for women in decision-making.  A woman needed to fight twice as hard to get in, and then thrice as hard to stay in that position.  Women in decision-making positions needed other women to support them.  Some of them lost focus and direction, because they felt they were on an island and had no support.  She noted the existence of girl child projects in Africa, in order to train girls to become competent, mature women.  On the issue of reverse discrimination, she emphasized the need to ensure equal access for both girls and boys, as well as to work in partnership with male colleagues.

    Ms. POCATERRA said she was fortunate to belong to an indigenous group and to a matrilineal society.  From the moment of birth, she had been trained by her community.  That training and upbringing had prepared her for her introduction to national and international society, as well as enabled her to stand up and not be shaken.  That maturity and training was what had enabled her to fight to make the voice of the indigenous people heard.  Not every woman was going to arrive at the United Nations, she noted, but a great deal could be done away from the United Nations, within communities, in advisory bodies and in administration.  Power involved not only benefits and challenges, but also risks.  It was necessary to be more bold and daring.  Survival was important, but it was more important to shape character, to fight and to be more visible as women.

    Ms. AL-MULLA said the common denominator among the different presentations was the importance of the participation of women.  It was not necessary to have the post of ambassador to do something for other women, to empower them, to give them the means to empower themselves.

    Ms. SLUNGÅRD noted that everyone had different challenges when they went home.  But there was agreement on the need for mentoring, for taking care of each other and for being a good example.  Above all, she stressed the need to ensure that young girls and women get educated, as education provided self-confidence, which enabled women to stand up in any context.

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