9 March 2006

No Policy for Progress more Effective than Empowerment of Women, Secretary-General Says in Remarks to Women's Day Observance

NEW YORK, 8 March (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of remarks by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on International Women's Day, 8 March:

I am delighted to be with you on this special day for women and men everywhere.  Let me thank all of you for being here, and let me extend a warm welcome to the distinguished panellists who are here to help us celebrate the occasion.

The theme of this year's International Women's Day -- the role of women in decision-making -- is central to the advancement of women around the world, and to the progress of humankind as a whole.

As the Beijing Declaration tells us, "women's empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision-making process and access to power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace".

More than 10 years after the Beijing Declaration, we still have far to go in ensuring that half the world's population takes up its rightful place in the world's decision-making.

But the international community is finally beginning to understand a fundamental principle:  women are every bit as affected as any man by the challenges facing humanity in the twenty-first century -- in economic and social development, as well as in peace and security.  Often, they are more affected.  It is, therefore, right and indeed necessary that women should be engaged in decision-making in every area, with equal strength and in equal numbers.

The world is also starting to grasp that there is no policy for progress more effective than the empowerment of women and girls.  Study after study has taught us that no other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, or to reduce infant and maternal mortality.  No other policy is as sure to improve nutrition and promote health -- including the prevention of HIV/AIDS.  No other policy is as powerful in increasing the chances of education for the next generation.  And I would also venture that no policy is more important in preventing conflict, or in achieving reconciliation after a conflict has ended.

World leaders gave voice to those principles at the 2005 World Summit.  As they declared in their Outcome Document, "progress for women is progress for all".

We do have achievements to celebrate.  In January of this year, the proportion of women in national parliaments reached a new global high.  And in recent elections and re-elections to the highest positions in Government, women leaders made a quantum leap by increasing their representation by more than 30 per cent.  There are now 11 women Heads of State or Government, in countries on every continent.  And three countries -- Chile, Spain and Sweden -- now have gender parity in Government.

Here in the United Nations Secretariat, we have also advanced.  A quarter of a century ago, when we first celebrated International Women's Day, the proportion of women in D-1 positions and higher was less than 4 per cent. Today, it is 26 per cent.  Yet, I am the first to admit that progress towards gender parity in the UN is nowhere near what it should be.

Clearly, we have far, far more to do -- both in the UN and the world as a whole.

In the highest levels of national decision-making, women remain severely underrepresented.  At current rates of progress, it will be 2025 before we reach an average of 30 per cent women in parliament, and 2040 before there is parity.

In the UN, we need to do much more to attract talented women to decision-making posts -- by stepping up our work with Governments, civil society, professional associations and academia.  And in the case of women who are on board, we need to retain and encourage them, by improving our internal procedures for mobility, training and career development -- both at Headquarters and in the field.

Let us remember that, in individual countries, the increase in the number of women in decision-making has not happened by itself.  Rather, it is often the result of institutional and electoral initiatives, such as the adoption of goals and quotas, political party commitment and sustained mobilization.  It is also the result of targeted and concerted measures to improve the balance between life and work.

Those are lessons we need to take very seriously here in the UN.

I think we should also see a clear message in the overwhelming success of women in presidential elections over the past year:  the world is ready for a woman Secretary-General.  Some of my male colleagues are going to kill me, but that's OK.

Friends, this is my last International Women's Day as Secretary-General.  I would like to think that when I leave the United Nations, I leave behind me an Organization that is more dynamic not only in itself, but also in the way it empowers, and meets the needs of, half the world's population -- its women.  That the reforms I have initiated as Secretary-General also open up space for the participation of women, and help to improve the lives of women around the world.

Women should be empowered in, and by, every dimension of our work -- whether we are talking about strengthening the UN's human rights machinery or formulating a comprehensive strategy against terrorism; whether we are looking at the establishment of the Peacebuilding Commission or the efforts of the new high-level panel to explore how the UN family can work more coherently and effectively for development, humanitarian assistance and the environment around the world. 

And let me say that, even when I leave this job, I'm not going to abandon the cause.  My wife Nane and I intend to devote quite a bit of our time to the advancement of women and girls' education.

I believe that, together, we can achieve partnership in all nations, and in the United Nations.  We have advanced partnerships across the board -- with Governments, with civil society, with foundations, with universities -- and we need to strengthen these partnerships.  I have valued immeasurably your support and your sisterhood over the past decade, and I wish you continued courage and strength in the years ahead.

* *** *