21 March 2001


NEW YORK, 21 March (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of the Helvi Sipilä Lecture delivered in Helsinki on 20 March by Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette:

It is a great pleasure for me to be here with you tonight, and a great honour to give the Helvi Sipilä Lecture.

Ms. Sipilä, your life story is a source of courage and inspiration for all of us. For the last 40 years, you have been defending and promoting women's rights tirelessly, here in Finland and in the world at large. We all owe you a great deal.

I am sure it cannot always have been easy, being the first woman to hold the rank of Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations. As you may recall, in 1972 -- the year you were appointed -- there were only 7 women holding the rank of principal officer and higher, that is less than 3 per cent. You have paved the way for women to the highest positions at the United Nations, and I am proud to walk in your footsteps.

Fortunately, I am far from being the only one today. You also have worthy successors at the head of an impressive number of agencies and programmes. And since last November, we have two women Executive Secretaries heading our regional commissions.

Let me also tell you that the percentage of women among staff on what we call geographical appointments, which was less than 15 per cent when you were in office, has today almost reached 40 per cent. At the level of principal officer and higher, women now account for almost 33 per cent.

This is not yet the parity we are fighting for, and although we have more women in top positions than ever before, there are still areas of our work where women are noticeably absent. They are, for example, badly under-represented in peace operations and field missions. Elisabeth Rehn, your former Defence Minister, is one of all too few women to have served as Special Representative of the Secretary-General. You may well wonder why, given what a splendid job she made of her difficult mission in war-torn Bosnia. One of the reasons, certainly, is that there are too few women in the traditional foreign policy circles of many of our Member States. Moreover, States are often unwilling to spare the few that they have for international missions.

But we are making headway. Last October, the Security Council held its first open debate on women, peace and security and adopted a resolution calling for an increased number of women in our peace operations, especially at the senior levels. The Secretary-General will soon form a senior appointments group, whose tasks will include advising him on the selection of women for senior mission posts. And I expect that Member States will now take the necessary steps to present us with as many qualified women candidates as possible for these positions.

Beyond that, the resolution adopted by the Council is groundbreaking in another respect. It recognizes that, while women are often the first victims of armed conflict, they can also be a key to preventing, managing and resolving it. The resolution calls for their full participation and involvement in all peacekeeping efforts.

As the Secretary-General says, "women possess particular skills and experiences that enable them to contribute to all stages of a peace process". In times of conflict, it is often women who take over the running of homes, farms and villages -- that is, when they are not driven away to swell the ranks of refugees and displaced persons, of whom women and children make up a large majority.

Women suffer disproportionately from the impact of armed conflict. Worse still, they are increasingly targeted because they are women. Rape, forced pregnancies, sexual slavery and assault are often used as deliberate instruments of modern warfare. But at least this is now being recognized and some of the perpetrators have been brought to justice. A few weeks ago, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia convicted three men of rape and enslavement as crimes against humanity. These convictions send a clear message that such revolting practices will no longer go unpunished.

But, despite all their suffering, we have seen in many parts of the world -- from Rwanda to Somalia, from Bosnia to Guatemala -- that women are often the first to reach across the battle lines in search of peace. Perhaps it is because they understand better than men do that there is much more to win in peace than in war. Their commitment to bring their societies back to health is so strong that they are able to communicate across the lines of fear and hatred that divide communities. And when the crisis has passed and the world's attention has been drawn elsewhere, it is again women who often do the real work of peace-building.

I have no doubt that if women are given the chance to bring their perspective to the negotiating table and make their voice heard in decision-making processes, the chances for lasting peace and reconciliation will improve considerably.

I would suggest that this recognition of women's contribution in conflict resolution is part of a broader change in the international community's understanding of the role of women in general. World leaders clearly acknowledged this when they met in New York for the Millennium Summit last September. In their Millennium Declaration, they not only reaffirmed the equal rights and opportunities of women and men; they also resolved to promote empowerment of women as an effective way to combat poverty, hunger and disease -- and to stimulate truly sustainable development, which is also the best form of long-term conflict prevention.

In the area of development, as in peace, no strategy will be effective in the long term unless women are involved. This has been confirmed by a recent World Bank report. Analysing the links between gender and economic progress in developing countries, the report shows that women's empowerment strengthens countries' ability to grow, to reduce poverty, and to govern effectively. It shows how countries that reduce gender inequality in areas such as education, employment and property rights can reap significant rewards. Benefits range from falling infant and child mortality to improved nutrition and lower fertility rates, from higher economic productivity and faster growth to lower rates of AIDS prevalence, and, quite intriguingly, less corruption. Countries where women have more rights and play a bigger part in public life tend to have cleaner business and government. And that is true even when comparing countries with the same levels of income, civil liberties, education and legal institutions. That certainly gives us one more strong argument for increasing women's access to employment and positions of power.

Come to that, women make up around 40 per cent of the global work force today, but still face a "glass ceiling" when they try to get to the top. I have already told you about the situation of women at the United Nations. But clearly, we are doing better than many Member States. Only three per cent of top executive jobs are held by women worldwide. At the Millennium Summit, only four countries -- including, of course, Finland -- were represented by women. There are only 11 women Permanent Representatives to the United Nations, including your very able Ambassador, Marjatta Rasi.

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, at the beginning of 2001, women occupied 14.2 per cent of seats in the lower chambers of countries' parliaments, and 13.2 per cent of seats in the upper chamber or senate. There are only 8 countries where women have a 30 per cent or higher share of seats in Parliament, and again, Finland is among them. This is not surprising, since Finnish women were the first in Europe, in 1906, to win the right to vote and the right to stand for parliament.

There are more women in politics than ever before, and they are making a real difference. Yet, the statistics show that politics continues to be a bastion of male domination, and this is true even in countries where women have become very active in traditional male areas like business.

I would think that democracy is democracy only if it is truly representative. In my opinion, so long as women remain relatively few in politics, governments will have a truncated vision, and will deprive themselves of half the intellectual and creative potential of their population.

In politics too, women's particular skills and experiences can bring a valuable contribution, and to all issues, not only to the social agenda or the so-called "women's issues". As far as I am concerned, there is no such thing as "a women's issue": every issue is a "women's issue", and women should get involved in all areas of human concern.

A century of struggle for women's rights has had a major impact. Women have been quite successful in establishing the necessary international legal and policy framework in support of women's equality. One hundred and sixty-six countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which establishes an international bill of rights for women and defines the obligations of governments to guarantee the enjoyment of those rights. With the adoption in 1999 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention -- which introduces a right to petition under the Convention -- an important instrument has been added to our tool kit for the promotion of women's rights.

Three United Nations world conferences -- Mexico City in 1975, Copenhagen in 1980 and Nairobi in 1985 -- provided real impetus for the advancement of women and laid the groundwork for invaluable links between national women's movements and the international community. The Beijing Conference in 1995 marked the culmination of this cycle of conferences, which served as real engines of progress for women around the world. The World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in 1993, was also a watershed. For the first time, women's rights were recognized as human rights, and human rights as women's rights. And the Platform for Action adopted in Beijing offered the first truly comprehensive plan to improve the situation of women in the world.

You may sometimes hear cynical remarks about how these United Nations conferences are just "talking shops" and nothing ever comes of it. I want to strongly reject that notion. And anyone who could have witnessed six months ago the Beijing Review Conference could not be unaffected by the overwhelming effervescence and energy of the thousands of women gathered in New York, to make sure that the emphasis would be on "Action" and not just a "Plan".

The impact that the conferences have had on Member States' policy priorities was often reflected in the way national governments dealt with them. I recall a conversation I had with the Minister who was responsible for women’s affairs in Costa Rica. She told me that in the run-up to the Mexico City conference, Costa Rica had only a small office dealing with women’s issues; ten years later, at the time of the Nairobi Conference, this small office had grown into a full-fledged department. Finally, by the time the Beijing Conference was on the horizon, the importance of this issue had been so elevated that there was now a woman Minister responsible for women’s affairs.

Another milestone was, of course, the creation, in 1976, of a voluntary fund to promote the political and economic empowerment of women in developing countries. In 1984, this voluntary fund became the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), an autonomous entity within the United Nations Development Programme. Today, it is led by one of the most dynamic individuals in the United Nations system, Noeleen Heyzer, who, I am sure, is well known to you.

In the past 6 years, the fund has succeeded in doubling its resource base. What we need now is to double it again: for with very little money, UNIFEM does a remarkable amount of good. With the support of its 19 national committees -- of which Suomen UNIFEM is the oldest -- it helps thousands of women worldwide to improve the quality of life for themselves and their families.

In some parts of the world, women's freedoms are nowadays generally taken for granted, and the focus has shifted to equality in practice -- to equal opportunities in education, to equal political representation, to equal access to jobs, to equal pay for equal work and to an equal share of power.

But in many countries, women continue to fight for their most basic rights. Baby girls are still killed because of social norms favouring sons. Many girls are still not sent to school, or less than their brothers are. They are poorly fed, not properly cared for, infected during genital mutilations. Pregnancy and childbirth are still not safe for millions of women around the world. Forced marriages and honour killings are still all too common.

Poverty or traditional practices are not solely responsible for the intolerable sufferings of these women. In Afghanistan, women are specifically targeted by the Taliban's regime of terror, which forbids them the right to work, to education or to be in public without having their face and body covered.

Globalization also has its negative impact. While it contributes to make human rights and women's rights better known, it has also created new vulnerabilities to old threats. Criminal networks are taking advantage of the most advanced technologies to traffic women around the world as cheap labour or for sexual exploitation. It is estimated that trafficking in women and children has become the third highest source of illegal income worldwide.

As we all know too well, the fight is far from over. We need to take more determined action, we need a change of mentalities and attitudes towards women, if we want to achieve real equality and build a better future for all the girls and women of the world. And, friends, this is a responsibility we all share, women and men alike.

At the global level, the United Nations will continue to actively promote the empowerment of women, and to act as a catalyst and an intermediary to help ensure that the concerns of women are taken into account in the formulation of national policies.

At the local level, gender issues are now mainstreamed into all operational activities of the United Nations system. The United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, World Food Programme, International Labour Organization and others have active gender programmes and targets. Women are of course central to the United Nations Children's Fund’s work for children. Much of the United Nations Population Fund mandate revolves around women's health and reproductive rights. And I know that we can also rely on UNIFEM's national antennas and on the many women's organizations which, since the beginning of the women's movement, have been a driving force in all countries.

Suomen UNIFEM and the National Council of Women of Finland, both of which we are celebrating today, have done much to promote the cause of women in Finland, and to extend the benefits of their progress at the national level to women in the developing world. So, I would like to warmly congratulate all their members for their active dedication to the cause of women. I know that the vast majority of them are working voluntarily. This proves that every one of us has the power to make a difference. Let us start by proclaiming loud and clear that women's rights are the responsibility of all; that eliminating discrimination and violence against women is the responsibility of all; and that women's empowerment is progress for all.

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