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Human Rights Council holds Panel Discussion on women's participation in power and in decision-making

Human Rights Council
AFTERNOON

19 June 2015

The Human Rights Council this afternoon concluded its annual day-long discussion on the human rights of women with a panel focusing on women’s participation in power and in decision-making.  Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Flavia Pansieri, delivered the opening statement.

In her opening remarks, Ms. Pansieri said that although women had increased their participation in political and public life, progress was coming at a snail’s pace.  At present, their participation remained a distant cry from the 50 per cent parity that should be their objective.  Women represented a mere 20 per cent of the world’s parliamentarians and 17 per cent of the Heads of State.  In the economic sphere, women continued to be paid less for work of equal value and in top leadership bodies they were severely underrepresented.   Furthermore, too many of them were trapped in the informal economy and unpaid work at home.  In order to ensure women’s equal enjoyment of the rights to economic and political participation, laws mandating the equality of women and their equal access to resources and opportunities were needed.  In addition, States had to abolish laws which discriminated against women and limited their opportunities, and political systems needed to fully represent women as well as men.  Lastly, there was a need for enabling environments that valued and promoted young women’s voices and equipped them with the skills to become leaders.

The moderator of the panel discussion was Emna Aouij, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice.  Participating in the panel were: Arancha González, Executive Director of the International Trade Centre; Shirin Akhter, Parliamentarian and trade union activist from Bangladesh; Lucrèce Falolou, Project Officer of World Young Women’s Christian Association in Benin; Michèle Ollier, Partner at Index Ventures in France; and Lilian Soto, Researcher on gender, public policies and public administration from Paraguay. 

Arancha González, Executive Director of the International Trade Centre, highlighted the need to ensure that women were better harnessed for economic growth.  Women made up around half of the population and excluding them from the economy was a bad investment.  Other priorities were to make sure that women’s rights were approached in the empowerment chain, ensure that trade education was available to girls, gender parity at work, addressing barriers to the empowerment of women, encouraging women-owned enterprises, and encouraging supplier diversity in companies.   

Shirin Akhter, Parliamentarian and trade union activist, Bangladesh, said that 20 years after the Beijing Conference, women in Bangladesh were empowered: the Head of State, Prime Minister, Speaker of Parliament, and several Government ministers in Bangladesh were women.  Still, the key question was how to achieve equality and equal opportunity, and how to change discriminatory attitudes in practice and in the law.  It was important to change the mind-set of the men and take up initiatives at the grassroots levels.

Lucrèce Falolou, Project Officer of World Young Women’s Christian Association in Benin, elaborated on the role of leadership among women and paid tribute to those women who formed her own personality and achievements.   She noted that women had to have the courage to break out of social attitudes and barriers and give themselves means to achieve positions of responsibility, as well as to know legislation and to educate themselves.  Without education women could not gain their voice.  Marginalized women had to be brought forward, overcoming their own images of themselves.  Women had to dare to be different and to leave their comfort zone.

Michele Ollier, Partner of Index Ventures from France, said the business world was dominated by men and it had not often represented women’s interests.  In addition, stereotypes prevailed, and attitudes tended to be masculine and aggressive and therefore seen as not fitted to women.  But women could do it, they had all the qualities and qualifications that men had. 

Lilian Soto, Researcher on gender, public policies and public administration from Paraguay, said that in countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, major stereotypes included those which painted women as sensitive and thus unfit for political life, that women in politics did not look feminine, and that “good” women were heterosexual women with families and children. 

In the ensuing discussion, speakers noted that the progress made since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration was not consistent.  States thus had to step up their efforts to enforce the principle of parity in participation of women and men in politics and business.  They also had to ensure that women participated in relevant legislation change discussions, and in changing attitudes and social norms.  The process of change also required the involvement of men.  The post-2015 development agenda had to include gender equality and empowerment of women and girls as a stand-alone goal in the new Sustainable Development Goals, and to establish and embed a strong mechanism to collect and disseminate gender-based data.  A gender approach was essential in all public policies, including those affecting the public sector, the private sector and family life.  Furthermore, successful women, especially those in high-level positions in the United Nations, were called to showcase their experience and motivate other women.

Speaking in the ensuing discussion were: European Union, Finland on behalf of Nordic countries, Austria speaking on behalf of Liechtenstein, Slovenia and Switzerland, Ecuador on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Conference, United States, Montenegro, Croatia, Syria, Togo, France, Spain, Japan, El Salvador, China, Ireland, Czech Republic, Bolivia, Canada, Council of Europe, Australia, Estonia,  Rwanda, Mexico, Sierra Leone, United Kingdom, Niger, Lithuania, Albania, Latvia and Venezuela. 

International Development Law Organization took the floor, as did the following civil society organizations: International Service for Human Rights,  World Blind Union, Arab Commission for Human Rights, Global Network for Rights and Development, and All China Women’s Federation.

The Human Rights Council will reconvene on Monday, 22 June, at 9 a.m. to continue the clustered interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions, and the Working Group on discrimination against women in law and practice.   It will then hold an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and the Special Rapporteur on counter terrorism.
 
Opening Statement

FLAVIA PANSIERI, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that 20 years after the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action, this panel was a timely opportunity to examine some of the achievements made and to put forward concrete recommendations to achieve gender equality in economic and political life.  By the time the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women entered into force in 1979, progress had been made, and women had reached the highest public office in diverse countries, such as Sri Lanka, India, Israel, Argentina, Central African Republic, the United Kingdom, Bolivia and Portugal.  In part due to the adoption of gender sensitive laws and temporary special measures to accelerate de facto equality, there were higher levels of political representation of women, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.  More and more countries were taking measures to promote equality in the work place, such as passing laws to guarantee equal pay for equal work and to prohibit sexual harassment. 

At the same time, progress was coming at a snail’s pace.  At present, the participation of women in political and public life, while higher than it was, remained a distant cry from the 50 per cent parity that should be the objective.  Women represented a mere 20 per cent of the world’s parliamentarians and 17 per cent of the Heads of State.  In the economic sphere, women continued to be paid less for work of equal value and in top leadership bodies, women were severely underrepresented.   Furthermore, too many women were trapped in the informal economy and still shouldered most of the unpaid work in the home.  Even though the United Nations Security Council adopted resolutions on women, peace and security, not enough was done to ensure women’s participation at the negotiation table.  Studies had shown that post-conflict agreements negotiated without women broke down faster than those that included women, and that all-male groups took riskier, more aggressive, and less empathetic decisions than mixed groups, which might lead to higher levels of interstate conflict. 

Addressing the barriers to women’s equal enjoyment of the rights to economic and political participation, Ms. Pansieri highlighted harmful gender stereotypes, which confined women to roles deemed “appropriate” or “feminine”.  Deep-seated patriarchal structures manifested in discriminatory social, economic, and political norms further complicated the issue.   A comprehensive and holistic approach which started at an early age was needed to foster change, namely  the action and commitment of men, of male decision-makers, to equality and non-discrimination.  There was a need for laws that mandated the equality of women and their equal access to resources and opportunities, as well as for the abolition of laws which discriminated against women and limited their opportunities, and political systems that were fully representative of women as well as men.  Lastly, there was a need for enabling environments that valued and promoted young women’s voices and equipped them with the skills to become leaders.

Statements by the Moderator and Panellists

EMNA AOUIJ, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice and moderator, said the Working Group had earlier presented its thematic report with an account of the progress accomplished and the main challenges to be tackled so that women could fully participate in public and political life on an equal basis and with respect for democracy and human rights.  To ensure this, it was essential to tackle the structural  and social underpinning roots of gender discrimination.  No country could establish gender equality as long as there was discrimination against women, so there was a long way to go.  Women’s participation in economic and social life was also an important element.  Despite efforts in many countries, challenges remained to ensure equal access to labour.  Efforts also had to be made to ensure that decision makers adopted measures to combat gender-based stereotypes.   She asked the first panellist to present her views regarding the economic empowerment of women. 

ARANCHA GONZÁLEZ, Executive Director of the International Trade Centre, referred to the need to ensure that women were better harnessed for economic growth.  Women made up around half of the population and excluding them from the economy was a bad investment.  Assuring women’s role in the agricultural sector in developing countries would boost the economy and better address malnutrition.  Including women meant better performance.  Women’s participation in the economy benefited the society as a whole.  Women reinvested a lot in the family and other sectors.  Empowering women economically had a trans-generational impact.  The participation of women in the workforce remained unequal, and women were paid less than men.  Area of work number one was to make sure that the legal structure was in place, and that laws ensuring gender equality and access to resources by women were implemented.  Second priority was to make sure that women’s rights were approached in the empowerment chain, and ensure that trade education was available to girls.  Other priorities included ensuring gender parity at work, addressing barriers to the empowerment of women, encouraging women-owned enterprises and encouraging supplier diversity in companies.  The empowerment of women had to be included in the post-2015 development agenda. 

EMNA AOUIJ, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice and panel moderator, asked about the difference it made for women  to be in legislature.

SHIRIN AKHTER, Parliamentarian and trade union activist, Bangladesh, said that 20 years after the Beijing Conference, women in Bangladesh were empowered: the Head of State, Prime Minister, Speaker of the Parliament, and several Government ministers in Bangladesh were women.  Still, the key question was how to achieve equality and equal opportunity, and how to change discriminatory attitudes in practice and in the law.  The Constitution of Bangladesh was wonderful for women, but there was a need to look into all spheres of the life, at home, workplace, education, health, and security.  Following the 1971 liberation war, quotas for political participation of women had been established which led to an important number of women in Parliament and political parties.  Terrorism in the name of religion was a significant challenge for women in Bangladesh which affected their participation in politics and economy.  It was important to change the mind-set of the men and take up initiatives at the grassroots levels.

EMNA AOUIJ, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice and panel moderator, asked Ms. Falolou to elaborate on the leadership role of young women and to offer some advice for those young women who wanted to occupy decision-making posts.

LUCRÈCE FALOLOU, Project Officer at World Young Women’s Christian Association in Benin, said leadership defined the capacity of an individual to manage other persons or organizations in order to achieve certain objectives.  She paid tribute to the women and networks of women that played an important role in her personal development, in particular to the former Minister of Justice of Benin, Marie-Elise Gbédo.  Women had to have the courage to break social attitudes and barriers and give themselves means to achieve positions of responsibility, as well as to know legislation and to educate themselves.  Without education women could not gain their voice, and they had to invest in the education of their own children.  Marginalized women had to be brought forward, overcoming their own images of themselves.  Women had to dare to be different and to leave their comfort zone.  Ms. Falolou called on women to feel solidarity among themselves and to work hard to gain quality education, which was key for their empowerment.

EMNA AOUIJ, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice and moderator, asked the next panellist what progress she had seen from the business sector to promote the empowerment of women. 

MICHELE OLLIER, Partner of Index Ventures from France, said the business world was dominated by men and it had not often represented women’s interests.  In addition, stereotypes prevailed, and attitudes tended to be masculine and aggressive and therefore seen as not fitted to women.  But women could do it, they had all the qualities and qualifications that men had.  Very few women dared to enter the high risk sector of business, and it was for women to have more confidence and engage into greater risk activities.  Women were well represented at the academic level, but were often afraid of failing to climb those steps.  They had to enable young women to have more confidence in their ability to succeed.  

EMNA AOUIJ, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice and panel moderator, asked how gender stereotypes truly prevented women from public participation and discussion and whether legal measures helped in overcoming such barriers.

LILIAN SOTO, Researcher on gender, public policies and public administration, Paraguay, said that in countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, major stereotypes included those which painted women as sensitive and thus unfit for political life, that women in politics did not look feminine, and that “good” women were heterosexual women with families and children.  In politics there was still the idea that powerful men had the right to women as sex objects and politics was the stomping ground of power and powerful men.  In politics, important issues pertained to macroeconomics, while social issues and issues related to reproductive health were seen as minor.  Education and mass communication media were crucial to address those stereotypes, and could be coupled with quotas for participation of women.  Bolivia had gone in only 10 years from 15 per cent to complete gender parity: over 50 per cent of members of Parliament were women.

Discussion

European Union said that empowerment and participation of women in peace processes were critical to maintaining international peace and security and asked how political leadership of women could be promoted.  Finland, speaking on behalf of Nordic countries, said decisions would never be equal and fair to the whole society if women were not afforded the opportunity to participate; it was crucial to ensure that domestic work and child care were shared equally and that all women had equal access to high quality education.  Austria, also speaking on behalf of Lichtenstein, Switzerland, and Slovenia , said that the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals would provide a crucial impetus to enhance women’s full and equal participation in the political and economic sphere and also said that more efforts were needed to consistently mainstream women’s rights in the Human Rights Council.  Ecuador, speaking on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, said that gender perspective must be a cross-cutting issue in the post-2015 development agenda and all must work together against violence and discrimination against women.  Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation  said that although progress had been made since the adoption of the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a number of challenges remained, including discriminatory social, economic, and political norms, harmful gender-based stereotypes and unequal allocation of resources and opportunities.

United States said that enhancing women’s participation and power structures across economic, political and social spheres was critical to advancing human rights.  It asked the panellists to elaborate on how States could use existing, new and developing technology to promote women’s participation and leadership within diverse decision-making spaces.  Montenegro noted that gender equality and empowerment of women and girls was a stand-alone goal in the new Sustainable Development Goals.  It noted that the participation of women in public and political life, and in high-level positions in the private sector still remained low.  Croatia said that the elimination of structural reasons for gender inequality in politics and business remained the country’s key task.  It asked the panellists on further priority actions to tackle critical remaining gaps and challenges in the implementation of the Beijing Declaration.  Syria said it was one of the first countries to have given women the right to vote, and one of the first to include them in political life.  Bearing in mind the principle of prevention, women played a very important role in providing assistance.  Togo said that investing in women was investing in better living conditions of the whole population because women were agents of development.  The Government was trying to institute various measures to foster female leadership.  France said that the progress made since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration was not consistent.  States thus had to step up their efforts to enforce the principle of parity, including the participation of women and men in politics and business.  Spain said that challenges remained in relation to women’s agenda in peace and security activities where women continued to be excluded from peace negotiations and conflict resolution initiatives. 

International Service for Human Rights in a joint statement with Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development called the attention of the Council to the situation of women human rights defenders who faced systemic and pervasive attacks against their work, their identity and their bodies.  World Blind Union said that laws and policies continued to discriminate against women and girls with disabilities, who were also at greater risk of violence inside and outside of the home.  Arab Commission for Human Rights noted that a number of Arab countries had in place quotas for the participation of women and asked about best ways empower women at the political level and increase their participation in education.

Response

ARANCHA GONZÁLEZ, Executive Director, International Trade Centre, answering questions on successful measures and practices, said that there was no single magic bullet.  It was important to make it possible for women to participate which required legislation, make it acceptable for women to participate which required changing attitudes and social norms, and to make it happen which required the involvement of men.  Technology was hugely important, for example in education and e-training for women, or in financing through crowdfunding.  The post-2015 development agenda must establish and embed a strong mechanism to collect and disseminate data which were hugely important.

SHIRIN AKHTER, Parliamentarian and trade union activist, Bangladesh, said that the implementation of laws and policies, and the capacity building of women were important for the development of democracy and the participation of women in every area of the life.  In this context, it was crucial to address sexual harassment, and to discuss sharing of domestic duties.

LUCRÈCE FALOLOU, Project Officer at World Young Women’s Christian Association in Benin, underlined the importance of increasing training and management capabilities of women, and to engage in outreach education through the media.  The media needed to be better informed of new communication technologies, and their productive capacities had to be enhanced. 

MICHELE OLLIER, Partner of Index Ventures from France, said the issue of quotas for boards had been often debated.  The problem was that women were sometimes under-experienced.  The importance was to well-identify the necessary skills to be a board member and then to identify women showing these skills.  Women entrepreneurs remained unfortunately a taboo.  Entrepreneurship courses had to be provided to both men and women at school, to raise women’s capacity to take risks. 

LILIAN SOTO, Researcher on gender, public policies and public administration from Paraguay, said equality as another approach to democracy was one of the core elements.  Another core element was the protection of sexual and reproductive rights.  A gender approach was essential in all public policies, including those affecting the public sector, the private sector and the family life.  The sources of financing were also an important point.  Secularism was also central.  

Discussion

Japan said that enhancing women’s voice in decision-making was the key message in the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action; thanks to the measures undertaken by the Government, the number of women in work in Japan had increased by 100,000 over the past two years, and their representation in political life went up by a third in the past three years.  Effective application of equality principles required that women and men were equal in the law, said El Salvador, which undertook measures to address employment of women and had in place legislation aiming to strengthen the constitutional principle of equality of all.  China said that the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action were among the most important policy documents in the area of women’s rights and contained chapters on the participation of women in decision-making.  China had in place active measures to ensure the representation of women.  Kuwait said that since its independence, women had played an important role and had made many efforts to achieve their potential.  Ireland said it had enacted legislation in 2012 which linked State funding for political parties with the 30 per cent quota for women in a quest to correct the imbalance in the political participation of women, and reminded that political participation was more about a seat in the Parliament.  Czech Republic said that the participation of women from minorities in decision-making was necessary for the development of democracy, and it was taking measures to increase the low participation of women in public and political life, including the 30 per cent representation of women in electoral lists.

Bolivia said the latest elections in the country had shown an increase in women’s political participation, and said empowering women was a condition for achieving full equality.  Canada said the full and meaningful participation of women in all structures was necessary to ensure sustainable development, peace and stability.  Council of Europe said the lack of balanced political participation was a democracy deficit, and described its monitoring exercises on the situation of women’s participation in Council of Europe’s Member States.  Australia said it was a significant promoter of women’s participation in the Pacific region, and that women’s full participation in conflict resolution and post-conflict efforts was critical. 

International Development Law Organization regretted that women encountered prejudice in access or implementation of justice, and said legal empowerment enabled women to bring about the change that they wanted to see.  Global Network for Rights and Development called attention to the plight of asylum-seeking and refugee women around the world and said that women in refugee camps in Kurdistan were in urgent need of protection.  All China Women Federation called on Governments to enhance their implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action and to ensure economic independence as a basis for women’s freedom, improve education and health, and prevent all forms of violence against women, including trafficking and intimate partner violence.

Estonia said it had made progress in the field of equal political representation, and underlined the importance of continuing combatting gender stereotypes.   Rwanda said that ensuring the empowerment of women and supporting women in leadership roles was a priority, and that ensuring gender equality was not about numbers, but was a rights issue that concerned every member of society.  Women in Rwanda made up over 60 per cent of the members of Parliament.  Mexico noted the importance of the inclusion of women in powers structures and asked about effective mechanisms that supported the participation of women at the highest levels in political and public spheres.

Sierra Leone said that while much had been done to eliminate gender-based discrimination, women still suffered from unequal access to high-level positions in decision-making worldwide.  More needed to be done by successful women to showcase their experience and motivate other women.  United Kingdom noted that women in political and legislative bodies were crucial for shaping the policy-making on issues that affected them.  Their participation had to be equal in times of peace and conflict.  Niger said that effective participation in policy-making was essential for the overall development of their communities.  Their economic contribution to development was also important, so it was crucial to ensure their active participation in the economic sphere.  Lithuania stressed the importance of making female leadership visible.  Women and men should jointly contribute to creating prosperous societies and asked the panel to elaborate on it.  Albania said that despite traditional stereotypes that prevented women from taking part in the public and political life, an increase in female participation in the Albanian administration had been observed in recent years.  Latvia said it was time to change the way women’s rights were viewed, and noted the progress in female participation in politics and business.  Particular attention should be given to the inclusion of disabled women.  Venezuela said women in Venezuela had reached the highest level of public affairs, and underlined the importance of a paradigm shift.  Greece said a national action plan had been implemented in Greece with a view to improve empowerment, and underlined the importance of involving women in conflict resolution and post-conflict initiatives.   

Concluding Remarks

ARANCHA GONZÁLEZ, Executive Director of the International Trade Centre, gave examples of good practices and legislation to use public procurement to empower women.  Moving women entrepreneurs to the formal sector could be done through connecting them to markets and ensuring that their skills were put to good use. 

SHIRIN AKHTER, Parliamentarian and trade union activist, Bangladesh, underlined the importance of bringing gender equality issues and women’s views in the decision-making process.  She also stressed the importance of promoting gender equality and the role of non-governmental organizations in the empowerment of women. 

LUCRÈCE FALOLOU, Project Officer at World Young Women’s Christian Association in Benin, in her concluding remarks said that in order to ensure the better participation of women in power structures, it was important to first define the obstacles.  Women’s leadership should be developed through capacity building programmes and through the promotion of education for all.  The education of women had wide consequences for the entire community, and women had to build confidence and self-esteem.

MICHÈLE OLLIER, Partner, Index Ventures, France, said that stereotypes blocked women’s advancement in the business sector, so women should be more aggressive in showcasing their talents.  Their skills were very important for the private sectors as they traditionally looked for more peaceful solutions.  It was important to elaborate on how to better use the female approach to problems.  All inequalities could be traced back to how communities educated their youth so that was key to promote equality through education at all levels of society.

LILIAN SOTO, Researcher on gender, public policies and public administration from Paraguay, noted that various countries in Latin America had increased the quotas for women participating in State administrations.  In such a way, some degree of equality was achieved.  In Paraguay female participation was as high as in the Nordic countries.  She stressed the need to introduce a practice of rewards and negative rewards for media that promoted negative images of women.  Systematic reporting of women’s issues was also important.

EMNA AOUIJ, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice and panel moderator, said that the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration provided an opportunity to take stock of the progress made in promoting the participation of women in decision-making processes at all levels.  The panel discussion clearly indicated that gender stereotypes and hierarchical power structures continued to have a negative impact on female participation in politics and business.  She encouraged everyone to remain committed and to persist in the common endeavour to ensure that the Beijing targets were met.

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