Women’s Participation in Exercise of Political Power Cannot Be Disputed, General Assembly President Stresses as She Opens High-Level Event

GA/12126-WOM/2172
12 March 2019
Seventy-third Session, High-level event on "Women in Power" (AM)

Women’s Participation in Exercise of Political Power Cannot Be Disputed, General Assembly President Stresses as She Opens High-Level Event

When women work to rise to the top, whether in politics, business or community advocacy, they face resistance, discrimination, social stereotypes and double standards, the President of the General Assembly said today as she opened a high-level event on “Women in Power”.

The figures speak for themselves, 90 per cent of Heads of Government are men, said María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (Ecuador), calling on world leaders to demonstrate the political will needed to change the course of history.

The great majority of countries have never been governed by women, she continued.  If the current trend continues, achieving equality will take over 100 years.  Women face myriad challenges in politics.  They are judged by how they look and how they are dressed, more than their ideas.  And when they do express their views and opinions, they are held to a much higher standard than men.

This situation is real, and we must work to combat it, she stressed.  Underrepresentation of women in political life contributes to exacerbating inequality.  The benefits of women’s participation in exercising political power clearly cannot be called into question.  If half of the population is excluded, sustainable development is just a thought.  It has been shown that a greater representation of women in parliaments ensures reform of discriminatory laws.

Women also play a key role in conflict resolution and peacebuilding, she emphasized.  When they take part in peace talks, the likelihood of that agreement lasting is increased.  Women must consider what makes them different and how, when they do reach positions of power, they can help build healthy and inclusive societies.  “It is not an easy task, but if anyone knows how to struggle, it is us,” she emphasised.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated that gender equality is a question of power.  “We still live in a male‑dominated world and in a male‑dominated culture,” he added.  “But, I can tell you that we will push back against the pushback.”  The world needs parity and to change power relations of society.  This will advance peace and security and human rights for all.  Gender equality is a fundamental tool.  When women have equal opportunity at work productivity accelerates.  But, when they are excluded everyone pays a price.  The objective is to build better societies and push boundaries of the possible.

Geraldine Byrne Nason (Ireland), Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women, said the power that females need is still elusive.  Governments and elected politicians have the power and responsibility to implement change.  “These are vital bread‑and‑butter issues that matter to women and girls,” she stressed.  This year the Commission’s deliberations focus on schools, access to health care, pensions and the fair distribution of unpaid work.  These issues often define a women’s future.  Their absence could subject a woman to a lifetime of unfulfilled potential.  “We are depending on you to help us find the way,” she added.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General for Gender Equality and Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women), underscored the unprecedented number of females in power at the United Nations.  However, the number of women in senior positions in government and business remains dismally low.  “We are obliged to be change‑makers,” she said.  Women who are without work and the women who carry the burden of society should be able to depend on women leaders to advocate for them.  All those women need social protection and infrastructure that works for them.  “We need to rely on each other,” she added.

The Assembly also held round-table discussions later that morning titled “How women Leaders Change the World” and “Future of Women’s Leadership”.

Round Table I

The General Assembly then held a round table titled “How Women Leaders Change The World”, chaired by Richard Lui, an anchor at MSNBC, featuring Dalia Grybauskaitė, President of Lithuania; Bidya Devi Bhandari, President of Nepal; Paula-Mae Weekes, President of Trinidad and Tobago; Marta Lucía Ramírez, Vice-President of Colombia; and Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission.  The Assembly would also hear a video message from Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, President of Malta.

Ms. GRYBAUSKAITĖ underlined the importance of going outside one’s comfort zone and learning to be a different kind of politician to achieve goals as new technologies are changing the landscape.  When Lithuania was in a deep economic crisis, she said she never wanted to be President, but as an economist, she wanted to help.  Pointing at Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom, who is fighting an uphill battle for her country, she said that, when crisis strikes, women go first, adding that “we on the panel are examples of women” going outside of their comfort zones.

Ms. BHANDARI said her experience, from the grass-roots level and upwards, shows the reality is that the world runs on a social discrimination premise.  Women are undermined for their capabilities, reflecting a problem in perceptions.  “We need to change this,” she said, pointing at constitutional measures that can rectify the current situation.  Now, about 40 per cent of positions at all levels of Government are women, reflecting a push for equal representation.  Such representation should be mandatory to produce results in the political structure.

Ms. WEEKES, citing progress in politics and education, said indicators erroneously demonstrate that “things are well” whereas more needs to be done to ensure women are represented across many fields.  In engineering, for instance, men outnumber women.  In Trinidad and Tobago, women hold 30 per cent of parliamentarian seats, without legislation as in Nepal, but more must be done to build a gender-sensitive reality with a view to fully reaping the benefits that all people can bring to the table.

Ms. RAMÍREZ said cultural changes must be introduced in society to achieve equality for women.  As the first female elected Vice-President, she decided to work towards achieving this goal.  Given that only 29 per cent of Members of Parliament are female, she emphasized that women’s participation and leadership must be promoted and fostered.  In Colombia, President Iván Duque Márquez and she have studied this and agreed that gender equality must span all levels of Government.  Efforts include weaving this approach into the national development plan, which recognizes that women’s participation reaches across all the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s goals and targets.  “Female leadership does not come with DNA; it must be fostered and developed,” she said.  Mothers and teachers play a crucial role in teaching girls to think for themselves and overcome challenges.  When she became the first female Minister for Defence, the challenge required making major changes.  As such, girls must have self-esteem and seek power if equality is to become a reality.

Ms. MOGHERINI recalled that, in her career, she was questioned whether she was old enough, at age 41, when she became a minister in Italy.  Being relatively young and a woman, she faced two elements of prejudice.  Today, women have a first responsibility — to be a role model for young girls that tells them that if a man can do it, a woman can do it.  A girl can be anything she wants in life and there should be no limit.  The second responsibility concerns shaping policies, so society can benefit.  Noting that in her role in diplomacy, policy and defence, she was often the only female “around the table”, she said that, when women are in this position, they bring a new perspective, finding common ground more quickly and easily than men with an approach that supports the notion that “if I win, it does not necessarily mean you lose”.  This valuable approach gets away from the zero-sum game that is too often seen in negotiations, and from a security perspective, is critical for the world.  Concerning ongoing democratic crises, she said one element is that Government representatives do not always reflect the populations they represent.  Bringing more women into the equation is one way to change that.

Ms. COLEIRO PRECA, via a video message, said celebrating the participation of women in positions of power can influence girls.  Therefore, the socioeconomic conditions women face around the world must be urgently addressed, as they are crucial stakeholders to achieving economic growth.  When their roles are diminished, all of society suffers.  Changing that means implementing the 2030 Agenda.  Women’s empowerment means that they can control their own destinies and fully access their rights and freedoms as respected individuals.

Mr. LUI then asked the panelists to recall an inspirational moment or person they referred to often during their careers.

Ms. MOGHERINI recalled that when she first took up her appointment as Foreign Minister, she met Madeleine Albright, the first female Secretary of State of the United States, who told a story that, when someone had said she was gaining weight, she replied:  “No, that is my skin getting thicker.”

Ms. WEEKES, noting that her one-year anniversary as President is approaching next week, recalled that, at her inauguration, she was asked about her sexuality because she was a single woman without children.  From that moment on, she said, she made a personal commitment that such a question of a female leader will soon become quite redundant.

Ms. GRYBAUSKAITĖ said that, a decade ago, during the crisis in Lithuania, she looked to the people and their needs and has worked since then towards addressing their concerns.

Ms. BHANDARI said not all children could access education or health care in the village of her birth, an experience that made her realize change is sorely needed.  Although her father was among the well-educated in the village, being a high school principal, he died at age 32, lacking access to medical care when he fell ill.  From that experience, she strove to work for women and all people.

Ms. RAMÍREZ highlighted one female who fought for women’s rights in Colombia in 1957 and became a senator.  When she herself was appointed as Minister for Defence, she made changes that, among other things, allowed women to become generals in the armed forces.  Since then, many women in politics have inspired others, sometimes in the face of shameful attitudes.  But, her mother, however, was the biggest inspiration of all, paving the way for her to pursue her career.

In the ensuing discussion, participants held up examples of how change is possible and ways to achieve further progress.

The Minister for Culture of Norway underlined the importance of facilitating in the labour market for men and women.  While it took time to get to the point where women are Prime Minister, Ministers and other top Government positions in Norway, she said efforts included a solid parental leave plan.  If women can participate in the workforce, it is easy for them to participate in the country, she said.

The Minister for Gender Equality of France said that, because gender stereotypes still exist, quotas must change the current landscape.

The Vice-President of the Dominican Republic said the stumbling blocks to equality are clear, as are the measures needed to overcome them.  She agreed that the status quo must be challenged to break glass ceilings and walls, pledging to commit to the struggle and lift women needed to continue to do so.

Also participating were ministers, high-level Government officials and representatives of Hungary, China and Canada.

Roundtable II

The second panel, also titled “How Women Leaders Change the World”, was moderated by Shery Ahn, an Anchor for Bloomberg TV, and included the following speakers:  Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, President of Croatia; Kersti Kaljulaid, President of Estonia; Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland; Diene Keita, Minister for Cooperation and African Integration of Guinea; Alain Berset, Federal Councillor, Head of the Federal Department of Home Affairs, Switzerland; and via video-link, Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Ms. GRABAR-KITAROVIĆ said a lot of journalists ask her how she balances work and family.  This question implies an injustice that women are the sole caretakers of family and that men are the hunters.  Underrepresentation of women in Governments is a serious democratic problem.  Equality between women and men is a fundamental right and a vital aspect in all policy areas.  When females are empowered economically, they network and support other women.  There is also a significant impact on the economy.  Women in the peace and security spectrum are often looked as victims.  And while this is true — because they do face many obstacles and challenges — women need to have a place at the table to make decisions and participate in peace and reconciliation processes.  Stereotypes and old mindsets need to be addressed, as well.  Equality begins at home, she said, underscoring the important role of education.  Unfortunately, segregation remains a main challenge in schools, where boys study science and math much more than girls.  It is essential to work with men and the media to address stereotypes.  “We have a right to our femininity,” she stressed.

Ms. KALJULAID said it is important to expel certain attitudes, including that women politicians are softer than their male counterparts.  “We face ridiculing, sexist comments and comments on how we look,” she added.  We all have been pushed aside, she said, referring to the way many global female leaders are treated when they first take office.  “This is normal in your first year,” she added.  It is okay to make a fuss about being mistreated.  Turning to universal health care, she said that providing health-care services is essential for everyone, but particularly critical for girls and women.  Education is vital and free for all boys and girls in Estonia.  Such services are indispensable for girls “to thrive not just survive” in societies.

Ms. JAKOBSDÓTTIR said a similar situation happened to her just 10 minutes ago when someone asked her where the Prime Minister of Iceland was.  The structure of power was created by men not just decades, but centuries ago.  “Think differently,” she said, adding that there are plenty of examples of how women have changed the structure of power.  She said she embraces demonstrations for women’s rights because the fact is they are still underrepresented and absent from halls of power.  Employment, services that ensure family well-being, and economic growth are all essential in empowering women and promoting gender equality.  “I wouldn’t be where I am today if Iceland didn’t have the parental leave that it does,” she continued, adding that women should never have to choose between having a family and a career.  Both men and women have a right to have a family and a career.  Enabling men and women to share domestic and care responsibilities is vital.

Ms. KEITA said she grew up in a situation where men and women made their contributions in the field.  She recalled women overcoming extreme obstacles.  There were women who were raped and grew up in camps, but turned out to be incredible educators and teachers.  She paid tribute to the United Nations for its work in promoting diversity.  While violence often means war, there is a lot of violence against women in countries at peace.  Sometimes curbing this is a question of allowing a girl to wait to marry later in life.  Having worked for the United Nations for 29 years, she said she travelled back home to Guinea to “walk the talk”.  She recalled that Guinea was one of the first countries to prohibit polygamy, which has a real impact on women.  The message to the new generation must reach both boys and girls.  “I am proud of my son and how our boys are raised,” she added.

Mr. BERSET said his country, Switzerland, has already had five female Presidents.  “But, five Presidents is actually far from enough,” he added.  Diversity cannot exist without equality.  Diversity is important because it represents innovation.  He noted the progress spearheaded by the women in positions of power in Switzerland.  Recently, his country decided to abandon nuclear energy.  “This courageous step was taken at a time when there was a majority of women in Government,” he added.  Equality in private life, home life, at work and in politics is something that needs to appear in policy.  It must be a cross-cutting theme in all discussions.  Diversity and equality are the strengths of our societies, he underscored.

Ms. ARDERN said she is among only 5 per cent of women world leaders.  As a young woman, she did not question how her gender would get in the way of becoming Prime Minister.  New Zealand has a history of empowering women and welcoming them in positions of power.  She does, however, wonder how gender affects confidence when women pursue pay equality and work to combat gender-based violence.  What is done to boost the confidence of women is one of the underlining issues they will continue to face.  Women fight so hard to be in the room.  “We must put a foot in the door as we bring women in positions of true equality,” she stressed.

Ms. AHN asked how the “Me Too” Movement had impacted policy.

Ms. GRABAR-KITAROVIĆ said that it was real eye opener for Iceland, recalling how men came up to her on the street to tell her that they had begun to think about things differently.  Men were becoming more aware of their impact.

Mr. BERSET said the movement had confronted every individual who now considers how they interact with women.  It will be a major mistake to think that fighting for equality, first and foremost, concerns women.  “That is not how it works,” he stressed, adding that the education of boys is critical.  “Things are moving, and they are changing.”

The representative of Slovakia, noting that she is Chairwoman of her country’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said that she was appointed to the role at the age of 32.  “I know how hard it is for a young female politician,” she added.  Therefore, it is important to have essential role models.

Ms. GRABAR-KITAROVIĆ said the number of women in foreign affairs is on the rise.  As President of Croatia, she insists that women are considered for ambassadorial posts around the world.

Ms. KEITA appealed to leaders to take seriously what is negotiated and adopted in the halls of the United Nations, because it does make an impact on the lives of women.

The representative of Georgia, who serves as Deputy Head to her country’s President, said her nation had recently joined the list of those to have women presidents.  “Each and every one of you is an example and paves the way for girls.  Now they know that they can go all the way up in politics and business,” she added.  Women must break the primary stereotype that politics is a dirty field.

Also speaking today were representatives of Mauritius, Russian Federation and Niger.

Round Table III

The Assembly then held a round table titled “Future of Women’s Leadership”, chaired by Folly Bah Thibault, Principal Presenter at Al Jazeera, featuring:  Mary Robinson, President of the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice and Chair of the Elders; Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Chairperson of Qatar Museums; Marina Pendeš, Minister for Defence of Bosnia and Herzegovina; and Muniba Mazari, artist, speaker, humanitarian, television anchor and National Goodwill Ambassador for UN-Women Pakistan.

Ms. ROBINSON recalled the words of a colleague who said that on the heels of International Women’s Day, it was a timely opportunity to challenge patriarchal structures and fight back against gender-based violence.  If women’s leadership is going to matter, connections must be made at all levels.  When efforts were made to get gender into the agenda of the 2010 Climate Change Conference in Cancun, women had the power to determine who made up their delegations, thus opening up space for their voices from among front-line defenders, she said, highlighting that those protecting their communities’ land and water rights are most at risk.  Going forward, strategies must be drafted to continue to open space for younger women with a view to achieving an intergenerational equity that reflects an understanding of youth and their unique concerns and challenges.  When she was elected President of Ireland in 1990, she said it left an impression after the inauguration when the military honoured her as the leader of their country.  Underlining the importance of girls believing in themselves and also of being disruptive, she pointed at 16-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden, who is now speaking for young people while at the same time inspiring them.  Citing the words of former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, she said one is never too young to lead and never too old to learn.

Ms. AL‑THANI recalled her own childhood, when it was not common for women to work.  Now, they are attending higher education institutions in Qatar, where there are more women graduates than men.  When women are given an equal opportunity, they can be equal to men.  As a mother of five children, she recognizes that the role of women goes beyond the workforce.  While women should be able to attain a work-life balance, reforms and policies have not caught up.  If women were in policy-making positions, they could change this.  In her capacity, she has created a nursing room in her organization’s offices so women can work and be mothers.  “If I was not a woman, I probably wouldn’t have thought about this,” she said.  It takes leadership to go back to her religion to realize that both women and men have rights.  Culturally, there are no hindrances, but structurally, there are.  A global review to find the best practices can lead to enabling women to achieve the future they want.

Ms. PENDEŠ, sharing her own work experiences, said she delegated a team to work on a Security Council resolution, tasking them to be results-oriented, leading to a quota for women in the armed forces.  She also joined a group of female defence leaders in North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member countries, implementing change in various ways involving the armed forces.  Education and economic opportunities are key for women to become leaders and contributors to social progress.  However, statistics are not satisfactory.  For instance, implementing laws is slow, with women making up 21 per cent of parliamentarians in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  While it feels good to criticize the system, females can and must play a critical role in making changes, with women moving into decision-making positions in their various areas of expertise.  “I cannot make changes in the economic sphere, but I can make change in the defence field,” she said.  Having studied at a military technical academy, she underlined the importance of having support from one’s family and from other women.  In her 15 years working in the defence field, she said she always felt respect from the armed forces.

Ms. MAZARI, declaring that every girl is a born leader, told participants to not let anyone say otherwise.  Behind every successful woman is a woman, too, she said, recalling that her mother was the only person who did not give up on her when she was on her deathbed.  When the world tends to tell women that they are lesser beings, she stated:  “You are not.”  As the mother of an eight-year-old son, she teaches him that women and men are equal.  As a leader, she is responsible to empower others around her, she said, sending a message to all:  that women must break barriers.

In the ensuing interactive discussion, participants shared best practices, concerns and challenges with the panellists, who then lent their experience and perspectives on finding ways forward, from implementing quotas to making positive changes at the family level.

The representative of the United Kingdom said that, in society today, there is no excuse not to include women.  If all the seats at the table are full, one only needs to pull up an extra chair.  Appreciative that, at the United Nations, survivors of sexual violence can get a voice, she said they must be heard and supported.  Pledging to use her position as Countess of Wessex to advance progress on addressing sexual violence, she said she anticipated working with partners in this direction.

The representative of Cuba, highlighting progress made in her country, said women occupy senior positions of power across many fields, from politics to the judicial system, with ongoing efforts towards making further progress.

The representative of Timor-Leste said a quota system has resulted in an increase in women’s participation in the Government, as they now make up 21 per cent of executive-level positions.  However, gender issues still require attention to make even further gains.

Ms. AL‑THANI, answering a question about quotas in Qatar, said she has the opposite problem, as her organization is made up of more women than men.  But, each nation requires different approaches based on its situation.

Ms. MAZARI offered a different view, saying that, every time one asks for a quota, it is really like asking for a favour.  Instead, representation should be a right.

Ms. PENDEŠ said quotas are important because if there is no framework to ensure enough women in a political party, there is no opportunity for them to be elected and make decisions that can lead to further improvements.  Investing in women means investing in family, society and the future.

The representative of Sudan said the 2005 Constitution granted equal rights to women, enhancing their role in the family and cultural and other fields.  Women have held positions as advisers, judges and other high-level jobs.  While challenges remain, Sudan has “come a long way” since the 1960s, she said.

The representative of Pakistan said many changes have been brought about by legislation in her country.  Women have a right to equal participation, and in a leadership role, they can make a difference that benefits all of society.

Ms. AL‑THANI reflected on the situation in the Middle East, where religion is often used as an excuse for the situation of women.

Ms. MAZARI said there is no religion in Pakistan that keeps women from being leaders.  Wondering who is raising men to deal with a strong woman, she emphasized that it is time for all women to raise strong sons who are aware of women’s rights.  Being a Muslim, she said her religion gives her all the authority and all the rights she needs to succeed.  But, many women are unaware of their rights and are taken advantage of.  Noting her earlier point, that behind every successful woman is a woman, she said she wished to add that behind every successful woman is a man, who encouraged her when she strove towards her goals.

The Minister of National Solidarity, the Family and the Status of Women of Algeria said that women play a critical role, through combating extremism and discrimination, that is not prohibited under the law nor religion.  Women must have the will to change mindsets and break down stereotypes.  In Algeria, reforms that led to a 2012 law on increasing women’s visibility in elected positions, in turn led to a vast increase in their participation.  Women must now work and show a sense of responsibility and not wait for change to come from men, she said, emphasizing that “change is in our hands”.

Also participating were ministers, members of parliament, high-level Government officials and representatives of Belgium, Cameroon and Finland.

For information media. Not an official record.