Statement by Kemal Dervis on the occasion of International Women's Day

08 Mar 2006

The concept of human development has been championed by UNDP for two decades. One of its basic tenets is that development requires more than economic growth alone. The fight against poverty is not a campaign of charity - it is a mission of empowerment. This is especially true as regards women, given that, of the worlds one billion poorest people, three-fifths are women and girls. Gender equality and womens empowerment as set out in the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals is, therefore, crucial to development.

In three days time, Chile will inaugurate its first ever woman president, Michelle Bachelet. The inauguration will mark the latest chapter in a remarkable twelve months of firsts for women in politics: in November 2005, Liberians elected Africas first woman President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and in the same month Angela Merkel became the first woman Chancellor of Germany. There are now 11 women Heads of State or Government in countries on every continent.

In this context, the selection of this years theme for International Womens Day, Women in Decision-Making, could not come at a more appropriate time. There are and have been women in power before, but what is happening today in many ways goes deeper and is built on more solid foundations. As the above examples illustrate, we may be witnessing a shift in the balance of power at national and international levels, where women are finally being recognized as equals and as leaders.

Despite these successes, however, progress towards the goal of gender equality and womens empowerment still trails conspicuously behind. The sad truth remains that seventy percent of the 130 million children who are out of school are girls. Women account for two-thirds of the 960 million adults in the world who cannot read, which greatly impedes their ability to participate in the political process. With notable exceptions, such as the Nordic countries, women are too often absent from parliaments, making up, on average, only 16 percent of parliamentarians world-wide.

If women do not have power equal to men, they will remain behind. That is the bottom line. For this reason, UNDP is committed to working with its partners to empower women at all levels of the decision-making process.

At the local level, UNDP works to ensure women have the right, and the capacity, to vote. In December 2005, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), for example, UNDP partnered with UNIFEM and the United Nations Mission in the DRC to provide technical and financial support to the Independent Electoral Commission to ensure women's participation in the countrys constitutional referendum. As a result, 60 percent of all voters were women. In Yemen, recognizing that cultural norms and strictures can still make it difficult to register women to cast their ballot, UNDP supported voter education efforts to counter a misleading message that religion banned womens participation in politics. The number of registered women voters subsequently doubled between 1997 and 2003 from 1.7 million to 3.4 million.

In addition, UNDP assists women in working effectively inside the political system. In Pakistan, for example, 27,000 locally elected women councillors participated in UNDP-supported political participation and rights-based training programs to improve their participation in local governance. In Georgia, UNDP supported the creation of a national Gender Equality Council within the parliament to provide leadership to women and introduce laws to both empower them and protect their rights.

At the global level, more than half the countries that held elections in 2003 used affirmative action to increase womens representation in office. These took the form of gender quotas and reservations, which have proven to be the most effective policy tools. In Honduras, UNDPs support for the National Policy of Equal Opportunities paved the way for two landmark pieces of legislation a law on equal opportunities and an electoral law reserving 30 percent of seats for women. Honduras now joins a small but growing number of countries in developing mechanisms to ensure that a minimum number of women take part in decision-making bodies.

Women around the world need the opportunity to share the type of experiences illustrated by the examples above. With this goal in mind, UNDP recently initiated a project in cooperation with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), UNIFEM and the National Democratic Institute to create a global electronic forum to exchange information on strengthening womens political participation, creating a one-stop shop of mutual support for women across borders.

Within UNDP itself I am committed to ensuring that we practice what we preach on gender equality. We are investing resources in placing gender as a central consideration of all our programmes and policies and will hold staff accountable for results.

Without womens equal participation in political life, all members of society will suffer. As world leaders made clear in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, progress for women is progress for all. Equality is not just a worthy goal, but a proven way of accelerating human development. Whether working to ensure equal access to water and energy services, to strengthening the response to HIV/AIDS, or building lasting peace processes, women need a strong voice at the table so that they can determine their future.

Newly-elected women leaders give hope to women worldwide that from the highest political level to the most personal, equality between women and men is a goal that can be achieved. On this International Womens Day, UNDP reaffirms its commitment to ensure that we help to provide women with the capacity to make this goal a reality.

Kemal Derviş