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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

25th Annual International Women’s Conference – “East and West meet in Saint-Petersburg”Conference theme: Women Changing the World

17 October 2019

Video statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

17 October 2019

Greetings from Geneva. I’m sorry I can’t join you in Saint Petersburg for this important 25th anniversary conference.  Six years ago I was with you as Executive Director of UN Women. Today, as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, I continue to work with my lifelong passion for women’s equality and rights – because women’s rights ARE human rights. 

There is no room for doubt. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims equal dignity and rights for all human beings, without discrimination.  We cannot hope to deliver universal human rights if we are violating or are oblivious to the rights of half the global population – around three-and-a-half billion women and girls. 

As we know, the struggle to make these rights a reality has been a long road. For decades, human rights violations and abuses inflicted on women and girls were dismissed as family matters or cultural norms. Even now, with these rights guaranteed under international law, our journey is far from over. Women and girls still suffer discrimination in all spheres of life. Their opportunities, choices and freedoms are restricted. They are poorer than men, less likely to be able to access education and other basic services, and far more likely to suffer gender-based and sexual violence.

Global statistics demonstrate this only too well.  More than 2.7 billion women are legally restricted from having the same job choices as men. There are 44 countries where more than a fifth of women are illiterate. An estimated 25 million unsafe abortions take place every year. Women carry out three quarters of unpaid care work.

With so many challenges ahead, it’s important to remind ourselves how far we’ve come.  We’ve seen huge progress at the global, political and public level. Gender equality is accepted as a legitimate goal.  Gender-based violence and sexual harassment are openly discussed and tackled. More women are in leadership positions.  FGM rates have fallen. Maternal mortality rates have been halved. Contraceptives are more freely available. Laws criminalising abortions and same-sex relationships have been repealed. 

The role of human rights defenders and feminist movements in achieving this progress cannot be stressed enough. From my work with women across your region, I know that you have wisdom to share, much to show us about resilience and persistence, and much to teach us about being powerful advocates for human rights, even in the face of severe personal risk. All people who publicly support an end to discrimination may find their reputations, their work and even their lives are threatened.   

It is vital that we don’t stop pushing forward to deliver the full measure of gender equality. This will not only empower women and girls. It will enrich our societies – politically, socially and economically.  

As Women Changing the World, we need to step up the pace of change, build stronger partnerships, sweep away more stereotypes, and not rest until all women and all girls have the right to make their own decisions about their lives and their bodies. 

Women are Changing the World – and we’re not done yet!

Thank you, and I wish you a very successful and fruitful conference.