Statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on International Women’s Day
Geneva, 7 March 2012
Mary Kini, Angela Apa and Agnes Sil belong to three warring tribes in the mountains of Papua New Guinea. Tribal laws prohibited them from any interaction with one another. But after years of intertribal violence in their district, they flaunted social taboos and schemed, in secret, to bring peace to their communities. Risking their lives, they surreptitiously discussed peace plans while shopping at the local market, successfully mobilised others to their cause, and walked out onto the battlefield to send out messages of peace.
The women, who have since set up an organisation to promote peace and end violence against women which has received wide recognition in the region, exemplify the kind of crucial work women are courageously doing in communities small and big, sometimes quietly, sometimes in higher profile ways, often in the face of grave risks, in all parts of the world.
It is an established fact that women are most frequently the first to suffer when basic human rights are threatened. Food crises, wars and conflict, climate change, economic downturns and other societal upheavals tend to disproportionately affect women. But what is acknowledged far less is that women can be, and are, powerful agents for change. Women can be counted on to face seemingly insurmountable challenges with great strength of spirit, creativity and intelligence.
This year, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, I call on governments, community leaders and heads of families around the world to recognise, acknowledge and tap into the enormous potential of women to positively impact the world around them. This is a call directed not at any particular region of the world – it is a global call because the failure to capitalise on women’s potential is a global problem.
UN statistics show that as of last year, women held only 19.3 per cent of seats in single or lower houses of parliament worldwide. It was also noted in the latest Millennium Development Goals Report that many women contenders for political office suffer from a shortage of both media coverage and public appearances. In the economic sphere, only 12 of the Fortune 500 companies have women at the helm. Women in rural areas produce 60 to 80 per cent of the food in developing countries, but they rarely have rights to the land they cultivate. Figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation show that for every 100 land owners globally, only 20 are women.
With too few women leaders in politics, and woefully insufficient numbers of women leaders in industry, women are not taking part in decisive discussions on how to respond to global crises. Such exclusion is at our own peril – the refusal to embrace gender equality has led to many scourges, one tragic example being the ferocious spread of HIV/AIDS.
This is why, in echoing the voices from the streets of many cities, towns and villages around the world, we must insist upon structural and institutional changes that will ensure that women are recognized as equal citizens and equal partners in decision-making. This applies particularly in times of transition for states.
Meaningful participation requires that women are able to access relevant information and are empowered, through education and political access, to make contributions. And by women, I am also referring to women from minority groups, poor, elderly, women with disabilities and otherwise vulnerable women. We must think about these women as legitimate rights-holders and future leaders.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day, Empower rural women: end hunger and poverty, emphasizes that efforts at a local community level can have a reverberating impact well beyond. Only by capitalizing on the potential of women to effect change can we ever expect to realize the global aspiration for more just societies, where the human rights and dignity of every woman, child and man are respected.
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