Header image for news printout

Women at work

High-Level discussion, Economic Growth through Women’s Empowerment
Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet
27 September 2018

President Grybauskaitė,
Secretary General
Colleagues, friends,

I would like to begin by thanking President Grybauskaitė for hosting this event. When I was President of Chile, a female journalist once asked me: “How are you going to cope? You don’t have a spouse.” A female journalist.

We all here have some insight into how hard it can be to surmount the obstacles to women’s leadership. I congratulate President Grybauskaitė for leading by example, through boosting women’s engagement in political and economic activities. Lithuania, today, has three times as many women Members of Parliament than it did three years ago: my congratulations.

The question we’re addressing at this meeting is not whether we can afford to bring women fully into economic life. It’s whether we can afford not to.

Research suggests that if women could fully participate in the global economy, they would contribute up to 28 trillion dollars to annual global GDP by the year 2025. That’s a 26% increase compared with a business-as-usual scenario – and especially significant in an age of economic crises, and as we work to deliver the 2030 Agenda.

Empowering women unlocks economic potential at every level in society – from the State, through private companies and state-run enterprises, to individual women, their families and their communities.

Gender inequality is damaging to society as a whole. In terms of health, lifespan, participative, representative institutions, there is just simply no contest, no argument. It is clear that addressing discrimination against women can be a very powerful driver of positive outcomes.

But that’s not all. Beyond the “economic” case, the human rights case is also overwhelming.

Seventy years ago, the Universal Declaration proclaimed, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". And these words, which are very simple, are also – if you pause to think about it – profound. All of us are of equal value. All of us, inherently have a right to freedom – freedom from fear, and from want, but also freedom of choice, in the most fundamental ways, including the freedom to make basic decisions about our lives.

Women's autonomy, choice and rights lead to greater economic growth: I think that's clear, since we make up one-half the population of the world. And this is also more sustainable growth, because it is more broadly based and more deeply beneficial.

But women's empowerment also matters because women matter, and their choices matter. Let us not forget to focus on that. We cannot empower women and girls unless we are respecting, protecting and fulfilling their human rights.

We have seen many remarkable transformations in this respect in recent decades. Fundamental changes in law, in many countries, have empowered women. For millions of women – though not all – there has been an enormous extension of their available choices, and of their effective rights.

It is in no way perfect, and it is not easy: this has been in some ways a painful struggle, and I know that. But women's rights, everywhere, have been progressing, across the board.

Important obstacles still exist.

According to the World Bank, 2.7 billion women worldwide are legally restricted from having the same choice of jobs as men. In 18 countries, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working. Many others impose or endorse discriminatory restrictions on women and girls, including access to property rights, pensions, welfare benefits and loans. And that is strange because it is well-known that women pay back their loans – better than men.

There are examples of good practice we can celebrate. Just last month, Tunisia became the first country in the Middle East and North Africa to announce it would take steps to ensure full gender equality in inheritance. The Tunisian government also announced its intention to amend legislation to ease access to health insurance and pensions by agricultural workers, most of which are women. Once these plans are enacted, they will empower many Tunisian women – and all of society.

Confronting obstacles to women’s economic empowerment means making reforms across an enormous range of issues. We need more work to guarantee women’s and adolescent girls’ right to health, including access to sexual and reproductive health information and services. Women’s economic potential is significantly reduced by unintended pregnancies, sexual and reproductive ill-health, and limited access to family planning. Further exclusion is driven by the ongoing stigma around menstruation, breast-feeding and the menopause.

It should be clear that unless we are able to improve family planning, eliminate preventable maternal mortality, ensure access to contraception, avoid child marriages and other important steps, we will be unable to achieve, not only SDG 5 -- gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls – but also the 2030 Agenda overall.

Let me take another example. Current economic models do not take into account unpaid care and domestic work – even though the formally defined economy cannot be sustained without that work. To facilitate women’s participation in the formal economy, there needs to be a more balanced and equal share of unpaid domestic and care responsibilities. Programs such as parental leave and flexible work or childcare programmes are key.

But to effect these changes, we also need deep shifts in the rigidly conceived notions of masculinity and feminity, which impede women’s full participation in school, in neighbourhoods, in politics, across society and at home.

We need more dialogue around the whole range of issues that impact women’s rights and autonomy. We need strong policies, which take into account the lived reality of women and girls, and we need to involve women and girls – particularly from marginalized and excluded groups – in these conversations.


Unfortunately, what we are seeing in many countries today is strong resistance to important elements of the women’s rights agenda. In several States there have been attempts to pass laws or enact policy changes aimed at controlling, or limiting, women’s freedom to make choices about their lives.

As ever, those who pay the heaviest cost for these policies are the most marginalized women and girls.

The struggle for the equality, dignity and rights for women – as for everyone – needs to be constant and active. It needs to be front and centre of everything we do. It needs to be principled, it needs to be visible, and it needs to be unsparing.

Not only because women’s empowerment is a key, core goal for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – since it delivers, powerfully, both in development, and in development which is sustainable.

Not only because women’s empowerment drives economic growth, and many other benefits for all of society.

But because this is what "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights" means. It means everyone.

Women's rights are intrinsic to human rights. And the absence – the refusal of women's empowerment and women's human rights – undercuts the choice and the freedom of millions of human beings. This is one of the most fundamental injustices of our time.

In this 70th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is my honour to say to you, as the United Nations High Commissioner, that it is quite simply time to empower women – for very many reasons. And I am convinced this can be achieved.

Thank you, and I look forward to your discussions.