Statement: Starting from girls, making women’s lives count

Statement by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UN Women ahead of the Women’s G7 Forum, 7 – 8 April in Rome


For women and girls across the world, leaving home to learn or to earn a living can be intimidating, hazardous, even deadly, as the recent murder of journalist and human rights defender Miroslava Breach Velducea in Mexico reminds us. She was shot dead in her car "for being a loud-mouth", joining more than 800 women murdered in Chihuahua state since 1993, many of whom were abducted from public transport on their way to and from work. Shortly afterwards, the regional paper she wrote for (Norte de Ciudad Juarez) announced its closure.

When social norms teach boys and men to treat girls’ and women’s bodies as public property that can be touched or harmed with impunity, those beliefs both reflect and perpetrate inequality.  When force silences ethical independent commentary, society is the poorer.

The drive to build gender equality is a direct way to evolve economic justice, achieve sustainable development, promote peaceful, just and inclusive societies, enhance sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and productivity, end poverty in all its forms everywhere, and ensure the wellbeing of all. 

This is a shared responsibility, needing action in all sectors and by everyone: public and private sectors, men and women alike.

This weekend, as leaders, thinkers and decision-makers flood into Rome for the Women’s G7 forum (W7) to discuss solutions ‘starting from girls’ for ‘inequality and sustainable growth’, we have an opportunity to consider and take forward the combined wisdom of the 89 ministers and representatives of 162 Member States that have just wrapped up the 61st Commission on the Status of Women in New York, augmented by the voices and rich experience of 3,900 civil society participants. The G7 has already committed to increase women’s workforce participation; increase technical and vocational education and training; support women in science, technology, engineering and math fields; and call on companies to integrate the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles in their activities.

The Commission’s principal focus this year was the ‘economic empowerment of women in the changing world of work’; its extensive responses and conclusions relate closely to the ‘inequality and sustainable growth’ focus of the W7 forum and respond to issues of mutual concern such as investing in girls’ and women’s education, even while on the move, and especially in technical and vocational training, and in science, technology, engineering and math fields. Both forums aim for transformative action to reduce gaps in workforce participation, achieve equal pay, attain sexual and reproductive health and rights, and build leadership.

These meetings are timely to address the growing strength, unity and determination of women to protect their rights and achieve the changes in society and the economy that can close the global gender gaps. Bolstered by women’s marches all over the world, and a rising tide of solidarity and protest, two deeply interconnected themes reverberated through the Commission’s discussions in plenary halls and side meetings: the human rights of women to participate fully and equally in the world of work, and full bodily autonomy without discrimination, stereotyping or any form of violence.  

As the Women’s Rights Caucus, a coalition of more than 250 feminist and women’s rights organizations from across the globe, reported in its review of the outcome, "Governments must face the facts that women’s rights to exercise autonomy over their bodies and lives are critical to their economic empowerment,” and  “At a time when women’s human rights are under attack globally, international spaces become all the more important.”

Those human rights include women’s “right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on all matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence, as a contribution to the fulfillment of their economic rights, independence and empowerment”.[1] For many, these rights are still distant. The lack of rights for many girls and women contributes in complex and still unresolved ways to their freedom and ability to engage in society both as mothers and as participants in the economy. Direct penalties for motherhood in the world of work in the form of reduced income and career prospects still create long-term financial consequences for women and require careful action to adjustment to redistribute care responsibilities and foster parental leave.

But at the same time as there are distressing signs in several countries of shrinking space for civil society, repression of public media, increasing levels of femicide in some regions, reducing numbers of female Heads of State, and a decrease in the number of women in CEO positions in Fortune 500 positions, there are also many flourishing and important signs of positive change that can serve as best practices for countries to take forward.

Iceland's Parliament is examining a bill that aims to close the wage gap between men and women, prohibiting any discrimination on grounds of gender, race, religion, disability, occupational disability, age and sexual orientation. Women’s collectives like CODEMUH in Honduras  are successfully defending the human and labour rights of women and fighting against gender-based violence in the workplace. In the United States, more than 30 companies have refused to advertise on a major news channel following women’s accusations of sexual harassment by a male show host, and in Mexico, a viral video showing a social experiment   #NoEsDeHombres (‘this is not what being a man is about’) aims to end the normalization of sexual violence against women in public spaces, and to promote a more respectful form of masculinity. The European Commission has announced that 2017 will be a year of focused actions to put an end to violence against women and girls. The UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel for Women’s Economic Empowerment has made recommendations for actions for all stakeholders, including government, businesses and civil society, such as changing social norms; law reform; the need to change business culture and practices; and improve procurement and employment practice in the public sector, all of which will bring transformational change and ‘leave no one behind’.

This is an important time to renew and strengthen resolve for the mutually reinforcing relationship between women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work and the full, effective and accelerated implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the gender-responsive implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. There are more leaders now than ever before ready to take action on this; the W7 must join them in full force.



[1] Commission on the Status of Women, 61st session, Agreed Conclusions, paragraph x, unedited version.