Unleashing women's potential
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Unleashing women's potential

International Women's Day (IWD) celebrates generations of women pioneers who dared to make a difference, breaking many "unbreakable" barriers to achieve equal rights and dignity of women.

Today, as we commemorate IWD 2019, there is much to celebrate. We have made great strides over the last 25 years since the Fourth World Conference in Beijing, transforming women's lives economically and socially in a world that is still unequal.

Important milestones have been realised due to the hard work and struggle of so many women who believe that mobilisation and transformation to more inclusive and equitable societies are connected.

They have mobilised using multilateral platforms, various UN conferences and partnerships to bring about significant changes in our world.

First there are major shifts in mindsets and attitudes of our governments. They came together to negotiate ground rules and commit to real change where daughters have the same chances as sons, where women will no longer be under-nourished, under-educated, over-worked and underpaid, where girls can live safe from violence and discrimination. The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action from the Fourth World Conference on Women, CEDAW, the Millennium Development Goals, the infusion of gender equality across the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are all commitments from our governments about various roadmaps and concrete steps they promise to take to move our societies forward.

However, most countries still have a long way to go to create a world where women everywhere matter. This is an agenda that Thailand as chair of Asean can further embrace given its emphasis on "Advancing Partnership for Sustainability".

Second, with the empowerment and agency of women, they no longer accept the way they used to be treated and valued. There is increased leadership, voice and capacity of women to realise their rights to quality education and healthcare, to equal inheritance, legal protection and citizenship, to security and quality of employment, to closing the gender wage gaps, to be free from harassment and sexual violence in private and public spaces.

The unleashing of women's potential has begun to transform our societies. In many Asean countries boys and girls today have equal access to education. Maternal mortality has decreased.

However, access and affordability to quality education, health care and employment continue to differ along the rural–urban, and ethnic divide.

Third, there is increased political will, cultural change and resources to improve gender equality in major organisations.

Multilateral institutions, businesses and governments are appointing more women to senior positions and governing boards. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, is seriously committed to gender parity in the UN and had achieved this among his senior managers.

Today, Christine Lagarde, the first women to head the IMF talks about the importance of gender equality and improving the quality of women's employment as "smart economics". Major corporations now seem to value a more diverse workforce as an important asset for their success.

Finally, there is greater visibility and the breaking of silence about the nature and prevalence of gender-based violence and effective strategies for addressing it.

I played a critical role in the UN Security Council's adoption and implementation of the landmark Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace and Security.

This led to rape treated as a war crime, no longer a trophy of war. It also resulted in women at the peace table and meaningfully engaging with the reconstruction of conflict-affected countries.

Rwanda, the site of one of the most horrible genocides in the world, today leads the world in women's political leadership with the highest percentage of women in parliament.

More men are now standing up to end violence against women in more and more countries. Asean is now taking the Women, Peace and Security Agenda more seriously.

While we have made great strides, the terrain has changed and there are new threats to women's freedom and agency with the rise of religious extremism and ethno-nationalism, the weakening of multilateralism and institutions that promote tolerance and justice.

Women and children form the majority of displaced people fleeing untenable conditions of war we do not know how to end, ethnic/racial/ religious persecution resulting in the world's largest refugee camp in our own neighbourhood. Therefore on this IWD, I together with senior women colleagues have joined our voices in an open letter.

We are leaders who have worked in governments and in multilateral organisations in support of promoting humanitarian relief, advocating for human rights principles and normative policies, advancing sustainable development, and resolving some of the world's most complex conflicts.

We ourselves have leveraged multilateralism in order to drive positive change for peoples and our planet. Now we collectively call attention to the need to achieve full gender equality and empowerment of women across all ambits of society and the critical importance of multilateralism as a vehicle in support of that.

Noeleen Heyzer is United Nations Under-Secretary General (2007-2015) and member of UNSG's High Level Board on Mediation.

Noeleen Heyzer


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