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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Opening Statement by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to the Annual discussion on the integration of a gender perspective throughout the work of the Human Rights Council and that of its mechanisms

15 September 2015

15 September 2015

Distinguished Chair and panellists,
Colleagues and friends,

It gives me a great pleasure to participate in the annual discussion on gender integration in the work of the Human Rights Council.

We are here to participate in one of the most persistent challenges in the human rights landscape: achieving gender equality. In defiance of the Universal Declaration’s simple and resonant statement, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights,” no country has yet achieved full equality between the sexes. Today’s panel focuses on one critical action that makes a real difference in achieving equality between men and women: gender parity.

The equal representation of women and men in all levels of decision-making, employment and education, gender parity goes far deeper than the simply symbolic and visible advancement of specific individuals. It is a crucial indicator of progress towards gender equality. And more importantly, it is a fundamental matter of rights: women and men must be able to participate equally in all spheres of life. They must be equally empowered to voice their opinions and argue for their needs.

Gender parity generates outcomes that are substantively different, and better. While I am wary of arguments that essentialise women’s roles and contributions, it is obvious that our life experiences influence the way in which we think and act. And because of experiences unique to each sex, men and women bring different perspectives – just as people from diverse geographies and cultures bring fresh perspectives and ideas. When equal numbers of women and men are represented, in any forum or situation, the resulting debates, laws, policies and programmes build on the talents and skills of the entire population – not just a fraction. Drawn from a broader pool of people, these are teams of higher quality, whether they work on the factory floor, the corporate boardroom, the parliamentary chamber or any other policy-making group.

Gender parity means visible equality, and this profoundly influences the unspoken notions that have for centuries underpinned discrimination against women and girls. The opportunities that are open to us, and our choices, are severely limited by gender stereotypes, long-standing and widely held views about the appropriate roles and characteristics of each gender. Sometimes the resulting limits are self-imposed. Girls may stay away from computer technology or engineering because beating the boys in Maths is seen as somehow “unfeminine”. Girls who grow up seeing only male presidents or ambassadors may develop a belief that power is essentially male.

The constant, generational hindrance of stereotypes acts as a heavy restraint on our progress towards ending the injustice of discrimination. Thus, currently – and even after a hundred years of struggle -- women are only 20% of the world’s parliamentarians and 17% of Cabinet Ministers. In specific ministries, such as Defence or Finance, the proportion is even lower. Just one-third of management jobs are held by women – and again, in many sectors the numbers are much lower than that. We all know that these differences are not dictated by a lack of talent or skill.

Conversely, when women are represented as numerically equal – equal in skill, equal in influence, knowledge and creativity – the effect is inspirational. This can undo generations of unconscious bias and release a surge of empowerment.

Quotas and other temporary efforts to achieve parity can help to bring women's voices into legal and political systems, the corporate boardroom, the workplace and higher education. This leapfrogs a process that might otherwise take generations. It means that both girls and boys, from an early age, can benefit from role models of achievement and success.

We are here today to discuss gender parity within the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms. As befits an institution that is dedicated to strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe, the Council has made notable efforts to improve gender integration in its working methods; this annual discussion testifies to that. But its panels and discussions are still all too rarely gender-balanced. Very frequently, we see a preponderance of women experts on panels that discuss issues specific to women and children – as if such issues could not be of deep concern to men. In some rare cases, we find a total absence of women on panels which address involving the entire human race. Conversely, discussions on situations of armed conflict, on counter-terrorism, on sanctions regimes and on the death penalty almost seem as though they are reserved for men. The majority of delegates are men; and the women who are present tend to speak up less often than their male counterparts.

Women are 40% of the experts seated in the treaty bodies – but one-third of those women are seated on the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, and many of the others are on the Committee on the Rights of the Child. As for Special Procedures mandate-holders, the appointment of female experts has steadily declined over the past ten sessions. It almost appears as though some mandates are reserved to men – including mandates as obviously relevant to women as torture and summary execution – while specific mandates involving children are viewed as almost women-only domains.

The lack of gender parity in UN human rights bodies may indeed be symptomatic of the under-representation of women in Member States. But we need to do better than our societies. We need to lead by example and show that everyone’s voice and interests are equal in our human rights work.

Just over a month ago, I committed to become a Geneva Gender Champion, joining a campaign that was launched by Director-General Michael Møller, who is with us today, and US Ambassador Pamela Hamamoto. I pledged that I will no longer take part in any panel that does not include women experts. I also committed to improving gender parity within my Office, where although women are 57% of staff graded “Professional” and above, they still represent barely one-third of senior managers.

All of us have the power and responsibility to promote gender parity. If our international commitments to gender equality are to be more than lip service and empty marketing exercises, we must take action, at the national and international level, to address discrimination, combat stereotypes, and promote equality. We must stop regarding parity as a token exercise, and grasp at last that equal representation of women and men, across themes and bodies, not only embodies but also builds more just societies.