Although businesses were not part of the discussions at the historic Beijing Women’s Conference 20 years ago, it is now clear that achieving gender equality will require the concerted efforts of the private sector, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told participants at the annual Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) event at UN Headquarters.
“Removing the barriers that keep women and girls on the margins of economic, social, cultural and political life must be a top priority for us all – businesses, Governments, the United Nations and civil society,” Mr. Ban said at the 59th Commission on the Status of Women side-line gathering.
“As we reflect on the Beijing+20 findings and prepare to implement the sustainable development goals that will guide us for the next 15 years, until 2030, it is extremely positive to see so many business leaders stepping up to work with us,” Mr. Ban added, who was joined at the event by Former United States Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, his Special Envoy for Climate Change, Mary Robinson, and Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Following the opening segment, several panels took place on women and business.
The Women’s Empowerment Principles provide a roadmap for businesses to play their role in respecting and supporting women’s rights. Launched by the Secretary-General in 2010, the initiative aims to engage businesses to advance gender equality and sustainability. In the past five years, it has reached nearly 1000 companies, each of which has made a commitment at the highest level to implement the seven guiding Principles.
“I am particularly gratified that seven Women’s Empowerment Principles are resonating around the world, helping hundreds of companies to identify gaps and scale up their efforts to implement gender equality and empower women in their workplaces, marketplaces and communities,” the UN chief said.
There are many examples of companies that are taking real steps to close the gender gap, Mr. Ban said. From a global electrical energy company linking gender diversity performance with financial bonuses to a sanitation company in India headed by a female CEO making bio-friendly toilets available to poor communities and from a Turkish bank designing products to support women entrepreneurs to a renewable energy company in Brazil setting up a domestic violence support system.
To that end, Mr. Ban encouraged businesses supporting Women’s Empowerment Principles to join UN Global Compact and communicate their progress annually.
Taking to the podium next in her keynote address, Hillary Clinton said today’s gathering comes at a pivotal moment in gender equality: “We are here to build on the progress of the past and the promise of the future.” Men and women who understand that gender equality is “not just morally right but the smart thing to do” are growing in numbers. “We may be approaching critical mass but we have to keep on pushing because what we are doing here today is smart for companies and for countries.”
“Some of you were with me at the Beijing Conference where remarkably leaders pledged to work for the full participation of women and girls,” Mrs. Clinton said. Out of Beijing came the Beijing Platform for Action and in many parts of the world it turned into an “organizing document.” UN women was created, the Security Council recognized the role of women in peacekeeping missions, the World Bank promoted women’s role in development, and national laws were passed to close gender gaps in health and education.
“Now, 20 years later, it is our job to keep ambition alive,” Mrs. Clinton urged, noting that all the evidence reveals that despite the obstacles that remain, there has never been a better time in history to be born a girl. A girl born in Lesotho 20 years ago could not hope to own property, now she can. A girl born 20 years ago in Rwanda grew up in the shadow of genocide and rape, and now there are more women serving in her country’s Parliament than in anywhere else in the world.
But despite all this progress, “we are still not there yet”. More than 30 million girls never go on to secondary schools. More than one million girls are never born because of gender-based selection mainly in China and India. More than half the nations in the world still have no laws on the books combating gender-based violence and an estimated one in three women is subject to it.
“Rights have to exist in practice not just on paper, and laws have to be backed up with resources not just political will,” Mrs. Clinton declared. She said that deep-seeded cultural bias continues to hold girls back. “Join us in making absolutely clear that the full participation of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century. We can’t afford to leave anyone behind.”
In the United States alone, if the workforce gap between men and women closed the economy would grow by 10 per cent. These numbers are significant for other countries as well. She emphasized the importance of gender-equality being included in the proposed sustainablde development goals (SDGs).
“When I was Secretary of State and I would speak with my colleagues around the world about these issues there was a moment when I saw their eyes would glaze over, ‘I know she’s going to talk to me about women and I’ll smile until we get on to more important issues,’ they would think. But that has changed now,” she said, adding that the progress of the last 20 years was no accident; it took commitment, accountability, unity and hard work.
“These issues remain deeply personal for me. My late mother was born in the United States before women could vote and before there were employment opportunities, but she had real grit and grace and gave me the drive to have integrity and provide a service to others. We each know so many women whose names will never be in the headlines and we can take a moment to think about the teachers and mentors who have changed our lives and now it is time to do that for the next generation.”
Mary Robinson said the women’s empowerment principles were the “best step forward that the UN Global Compact has taken in the last 15 years,” and she stressed the extent of her support for their understanding of the importance of forging the relationship.
Underlining the importance of fully integrating gender equality and women’s empowerment into the several important international processes going on in 2015, she focused her comments on addressing what she called the “double injustice” of climate change and gender inequality. Gender equality, she noted, was recognized within the post-2015 development agenda and the sustainable development goals through Goal 5, but was not as secure in the climate process.
She described her disappointment at the recent meeting in Lima of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) at the failure of negotiators to be specific about the link between climate change and gender equality but she added that she had seen an improvement in Geneva, where “relatively good” gender language and human rights language had entered into the text.
“We need that balance to ensure that we will achieve our objectives,” she said, as she outlined the gravity of the climate change crisis facing the world, including the human rights dimensions faced by countries like Kiribati, which purchased land from Fiji because of the existential threat posed by climate change. If the response to climate change is such that people have to move from the land where “the bones of their ancestors” are buried, it is clear that a people-centred approach was not being taken to tackling the crisis.
She closed on a personal note, saying that she was motivated as a grandmother to consider what her grandchildren would say about the work done by leaders in 2015, because she knew it would hugely impact their lives in 2050.
“That’s why we need this grand alliance,” she said of the link between women and the business sector, “because we have a lot to do to secure a very good, legally binding agreement in Paris,” she said referring to a crucial meeting of UNFCCC parties set for the end of the year.