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Women are powerful drivers of progress when free to claim their rights

05 March 2013


“Women's empowerment unlocks a rush of economic growth, and this is true whether we are in Switzerland or my homeland, South Africa”, said the UN Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay, in her opening statement at a special side event focusing on gender equality and women´s empowerment.

Pillay deplored that women continue to suffer disproportionally from violence, poverty, lack of education, health problems, and unequal access to financial credit and economic resources. “This is not only unjust, it is a terrible waste of human talent”, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights added. 

“When we are free to claim our rights — we are extremely powerful drivers of progress; and this is just as true of a woman in a fishing village as it is of the Director of a multinational agency”, Pillay declared, while underlining that too often, the struggle for women's rights was framed as essentially protecting victims.

The event, organized on 26 February during the 22nd session of the Human Rights Council, brought together fourteen women from around the world who have excelled in the political, economic, social and cultural arenas.  They shared their personal experiences, including the enabling factors that allowed them to assume positions of leadership, and their views on the transformative impact of women in societies around the world and the way forward to address the persistent challenges to true equality. 

Pillay stressed that gender equality was of utmost priority since no country had yet fully met its obligations under Human Rights Law to change all practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or superiority of either sex.  “It is time for girls to stop learning submission, and learn skills. We in this room, who come from many different cultures, know that interpretations of religion and tradition are not static. They evolve”, Pillay said.

The need for quota rules to allow women decision-makers to be represented at 50%, not only in politics but everywhere, was brought up by several participants.  Bineta Diop, Executive Director of Femmes Africa Solidarité, underlined the need for better representation of women in peace processes. “At peace talks, when men are discussing power sharing, women discuss education for their children and health”, she added.

A grassroots approach to gender equality and women’s empowerment was also called for by several panellists, in addition to reforms at political and judicial level.  In her opening remarks, Ruth Dreifuss, Former President of the Swiss Confederation, paid tribute to the millions of women who were struggling to change society at grassroots level.

Education was at the forefront of the discussion.  The involvement of parents and educators should be prioritized to break down traditional stereotypes and promote equal access to education, especially in countries that discourage or even oppose education for girls and women, participants agreed.  Several of them remembered with emotion the determination of their parents, especially their fathers, to provide them with the best education possible.  “It takes a supportive father to get a girls educated in a country like Afghanistan”, declared Shabana Baicj-Rasikh , Founder of the School of Leadership in Afghanistan.

Barbara Hendricks, opera singer and Honorary Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, recalled her childhood in the racially segregated South of the United States and the obstacles she had to overcome as a young adult when she was told that she had to be four times as good as a white man to be paid half as much.  She recognized how indebted she was to all those who fought courageously during the civil rights movement.

When paying tribute to the courage of women human rights defenders who refuse to be submissive, who speak out in public to claim their rights, Pillay remembered the words of young Malala Yousufzai, who was shot last year in Pakistan as a punishment for her campaign to let girls go to school and said "I want to serve the people. I want every girl, every child, to be educated", when asked what she would do next.

Referring to religious stereotypes, Dalia Mogahed, Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and Advisor to the US President in the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships, spoke of her struggles as a Muslim American.  Still, she continued to believe in change and recalled how she felt empowered when she chose conscience—showing her faith openly by wearing a head scarf—over conformity.

Violence against women, in particular sexual violence, was largely discussed.  The current statistics show that up to 70% of women experience violence in their lifetime; one in five women will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime; each year, 10 million under aged girls are married off as children, denying them their rights to education, to health and to live in safety and security, deplored Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Director-General of the UN Office in Geneva.

Pillay spoke about the time when she served as a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and contributed to the ground-breaking recognition by ICTR of rape as a component of genocide for very first time in history, in June 1997, which set a major precedent in international law.  “When you have the power and you have the skills, then, if there is an opportunity, you should act”, Pillay insisted.

Participants to the interactive discussion also included Sabine de Bethune, President of the Senate of Belgium, Sharan Burrow, President of the International Trade Union Confederation, Mervat El-Tallawy, Chairwoman of the National Council of Women in Egypt, Livia Jaroka, first Roma woman elected in the European parliament, Haya Khalil, General Director of the Bahrein Al Noor Institute for the Blind, and Mara Marinaki, Managing Director of the Global and Multilateral Issues at the European External Action Service.

The event was moderated by Ghida Fakhry, Anchorwoman for the Al Jazeera Television Network. It was organized by the Group of Women Ambassadors in Geneva as a special side event of the High-Level Segment of the 22nd session of the Human Rights Council, with the support of the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) and the UN Office in Geneva (UNOG). 

Every year, 8 March is celebrated around the world as International Women's Day.

5 March 2013