Making Change Happen - Reaching Across Borders

Madam Chairperson,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honor for me to address you this morning. This week, countries around the world celebrate International Women’s Day – while it is a day that marks the economic, political and social achievements of women around the world, it also provides an opportunity to focus upon and remember the struggles of women throughout the world. Its origin can be traced to 1857 when women garment workers in New York demonstrated against working conditions. Since then, the significance of the event has grown and it has assumed a truly global character.

We are here today because we believe that women leaders are needed to bring innovative ideas, and economic and social transformation to meet the challenge of dramatic shifts in the world, in communities and companies. I am invited here today as your keynote speaker because you know that the common thread in my life is being a change agent. I am unwilling to accept status quo when it seems unfair and am determined to find a fairer way. Throughout my life, I believe that our responsibility as human beings, given the gift of life, is to leave the world a little better, a bit more just.

Lots of problems need solutions. But in an event organized to celebrate International Women’s Day let me focus on women’s leadership in making change happen -- women’s leadership as a force for change. Leaders of the future will need traits and capabilities of leaders throughout history – an instinct for the types of change needed; a steady hand to provide both vision and reassurance that the change is doable; a voice that articulates the deep desires of the group and shapes it into constructive results; and an ability to inspire by the power of personality (the power of one) while making others feel empowered to increase and use their creative abilities and rise above pettiness, manipulation and negativities. But in addition, leaders of the future will need one critical attribute- the ability to build bridges and heal divides, reaching across borders.

Many 19th and 20th century leaders succeeded in being the best advocates for their own interest groups, attracting resources for them and drawing sharp distinctions between insiders and outsiders, “us” and “them”, keeping “them” at arm’s length and engendering suspicion, distrust and animosity often along the fault lines of class, ethnicity, religion, geography, history, colour and gender.
Today we need transformational leaders- those who do not build walls but bridges of trust across divides. We are living in an interdependent world that requires leaders who operate across boundaries and craft visions, inspire actions and empower people from diverse backgrounds to find common solutions to problems that face us as one humanity in our one home -- planet earth. From the global economy to green technologies, from climate change to disaster management and regional connectivity the world is in need of leaders who are able to harness alliances and resources across borders to build the ethics, values and frameworks for a more inclusive and sustainable world. Women, who are transformational leaders, have tried to do this and have in fact made change happen, have made the world a better place for other women and for all our daughters.

I have just arrived from the celebrations in New York where 192 UN Member States gathered to review progress in the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action. One of the most impressive results of the United Nation 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing has been the growth of networks connecting women from the south and the north, east to west and from villages to academia to policy makers, to learn from each other, share ideas, strategies, wins and losses, hurts and gains and to build the leadership of each other and everyone- the power of one, multiplied through networking and collective team leadership, to respond as one to common challenges.

I would like to spend the next few minutes looking back over the last 30 years to see what the power of women as change agents has achieved in Asia Pacific. I’d like to share the challenges we now face and what needs to be done if we are to build a future free from want, from fear and from discrimination. It is an unfinished journey but one started by the collective action and interactions of women across borders. It has brought deep transformations in the way we live our lives, relate to one another & engage with a still unequal world.

i) Establishment of Legal Frameworks

Over the past three decades, women leaders around the world have worked as one to secure important commitments to gender equality and women’s human rights to create a world fit for all women and girls as a matter of rights. It has been thirty years since the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, also referred to as CEDAW, came into force. It has been fifteen years since the Beijing Platform For Action, and ten years since the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. It has also been ten years since UN Member States agreed that gender equality and women’s empowerment were Millennium Development Goals in their own right and central to all other goals. These are the universal frameworks established by women leaders organizing across boundaries, and accepted by all member states of the United Nations.

ii) Implementation of Laws and Conventions

Equipped with these international commitments, women in Asia-Pacific have worked with a wide range of partners including men, to advance women’s rights in the region. They have demanded better access to social and economic opportunities for women. They have called upon their governments to ratify CEDAW. They are united in their quest for governments to invest in women’s leadership and participation. And they have urged the UN to recognize violence against women as a human rights violation.
Today, all but four countries in the region have ratified CEDAW. As a result, these countries are adopting laws and policies to promote and protect women’s rights, including those that improve access to credit, and access to decent employment and equal wages. In other words, economic and social structures are being transformed to create more opportunities for more women, helping more people connect with new opportunities to survive, to create and to thrive.

iii) Institutional Mechanisms

Nearly all governments across the region have established a singular mechanism, such as a Ministry for Women’s Affairs, to advance women rights. Quotas or other affirmative measures have been adopted to increase women’s representation in political decision-making in countries such as Afghanistan, Indonesia, Nepal, and Timor Leste. These new spaces have allowed the emergence of more leaders, more successful women.

iv) Agenda Setting

What other difference has women’s collective leadership made? Today, violence against women is on the political agenda and is being addressed at national, regional and international levels. Women leaders acting together across boundaries have broken many silences and set new agendas to confront common problems across borders. Governments in the region have introduced legislation on all forms of violence against women and established commissions to address the issue. At least 27 countries in the Asian and Pacific region have, or are in the process of developing, national action plans, policies and laws to combat all forms of violence against women. Globally and regionally, attention is being given to awareness-raising, prevention, and the role of men and boys in ending violence against women.

Securing all of these commitments has been challenging; but we are just getting started. We now need to focus on ensuring that governments and others turn these commitments into reality so that we have a secure world for all women and girls – across all class, ethnic and cultural divides.

v) Identifying new and persistent challenges

Despite progress, many challenges remain. Violations of women’s rights continue. More than one in three women around the world are beaten or are coerced into sex in the course of her lifetime. The rise of extremism in the name of culture has led to the closing of spaces for women and to an increase in violence against women. Many women migrant workers and domestic workers continue to suffer abuse at the hands of their employers. Trafficking of women and girls continues. The economic crisis has led to rising income insecurity and violence due to increase in criminality and petty theft, targeting women. To address these new and persistent challenges, women’s political leadership matter; improved governance and accountability matter. All play critical roles in paving the way for a more balanced and secure future. Let me take this argument further.

vi) Political Representation & Decision-Making

A world fit for both men and women starts from the perspective of men and women as citizens with equal rights and opportunities for participation in the decision-making of their society – from the household and community to the market place, the workplace, and in all levels of public assemblies and offices. When women lead side by side with men, more alternatives are offered, more skill sets are used, and more out of the box thinking occurs from both sides. More opportunities are created by being at the power table of decision making and resource allocation.

The Beijing Platform for Action helped establish a minimum standard of 30 percent representation of women in decision-making positions. It regards balanced leadership as critical for human progress, for the achievement of sustainable long-term economic growth or “smart economies” and for general well-being. A token woman or two at the table is not enough to change how companies or organizations work. The goal is to strive for parity; but 30 percent is the tipping point where change begins to happen. Women’s full participation in leadership improves outcomes. Research indicates that firms with one-third or more women as corporate officers and directors reap richer rewards. These firms perform better financially, as they use all their human potential and they tend to have better family policies ---a better life-work balance that benefits both women and men, making them more productive.

Increasing the number of women in policy and decision-making positions is crucial to achieving the MDGs. A study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union shows that higher numbers of women in parliament generally contributes to stronger attention to women’s issues. This is why women’s share of seats in parliament is one of the four indicators under MDG 3: which is to promote gender equality and empower women.

Around the world, gender equality in democratic governance continues to be extremely limited. Fifteen years after Beijing, only 24 countries world wide have passed the 30 percent benchmark. Nepal and New Zealand are the only two countries in Asia Pacific that have reached this goal.

Women are outnumbered 4 to 1 in the world’s legislatures. By mid-year 2009, only 17 heads of state were women. Over the past decade, the proportion of women in national assemblies has increased to a global average of 18.4%. At this rate it will take many countries between 20 and 40 years to reach the gender parity zone of between 40 and 60 percent. In other words barriers still exist, waiting to be broken.

Increasing women’s share of seats in parliament will not solve all our problems. But it will help level the playing field on which women battle for equality. While women campaign for equal representation, they recognize that there is no guarantee that elected women will make decisions that benefit the majority of women. Individual women have many different priorities; and there are many structural factors that prevent women from advancing. However, there are ways to cross these structural barriers, share experiences and work together to make positive change. This is why having champions and networking at conferences such as this one play such an important role in sharing lessons, developing new skills and building communities across boundaries.

vii) Strengthening Accountability.

Institutional and organizational effectiveness matter. Besides nurturing leadership, the other side of the coin is to strengthen accountability. Improving accountability to women starts with valuing women’s lives by implementing policies and laws that defend their rights to live lifes free from want, free from fear and free from discrimination.

Women’s groups and gender equality advocates have made some significant progress in the formulation of legislation from the rights to inherit property to criminalizing domestic violence. In Malaysia, after 11 years of campaigns, the Domestic Violence Act was adopted in 1996. In Thailand, a Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill was submitted to parliament in 2005 and adopted in November 2007. Women in Turkey, Nepal, and the Republic of Korea effectively used CEDAW to promote the development of domestic violence laws.
Having legislation in place is just the start. Laws need to be enforced fairly. This means addressing gender and other biases in the normative, procedural and cultural dimensions of the rule of law institution and justice systems. It requires that justice and law enforcement officials prosecute all who commit crimes against women. It also means putting an end to impunity for such crimes. The Secretary-General of the United Nations is leading a worldwide campaign to do this, enlisting male champions and the media to bring an end to violence in women’s lives.

Money matters. We must follow the money. One of the most effective ways for governments to improve their accountability is to invest in women and girls, including through gender-responsive budgeting. More emphasis needs to be placed on gender-responsive budgeting and tracking allocations to reach the intended groups for intended purpose including through social auditing by community groups as part of the regular budget processes. A number of countries in our region have made important progress in this area but much remains to be done especially in the area of maternal health. Maternal mortality is still widespread in Asia.

Accountability requires governance reforms that equip, for example, public health institutions with the incentives, skills, information and procedures to respond to women’s needs it means investing in affordable, effective quality health care including for the poor.

viii) Moving Forward

A vital lesson from the decades of campaigning leading up to Beijing, and from the 15 years since, is that one fundamental issue underlies progress in all these areas – power. That is, who makes the decisions, who drives the agenda, who allocates resources and who benefits?

Ensuring that women have full and equal access to decision-making at all levels – from global politics and macro-economic policy making to national budgets and household management – is ultimately critical to real and sustained progress in all the critical areas of the Beijing Platform of Action.

Women must be legitimate participants in all spheres of public life – as leaders in government, businesses and the broader community. If their voices are not heard and acted upon, their aspirations, needs and concerns will not be addressed with the urgency they deserve.

For this reason, ESCAP is emphasizing organizational effectiveness and accountability, and support for women’s leadership as a key areas of its work to promote gender equality in the region. This will include a focus on emerging leadership amongst young women – those leaders who will in the future will carry forward the flame of those who helped to light the torch of the 4th World Conference on Women.


The stakes for women are high. Women want a world in which inequality based on gender, class, caste and ethnicity is absent from every country. Women want a world where fulfillment of basic needs becomes basic rights and where poverty and all forms of violence are eliminated. Where women's unpaid work of nurturing, caring and weaving the fabric of community will be valued and shared equally by men. They want a world where women have the opportunity to develop their full potential where progress for women is progress for all. We can finish this journey, that we started.

I Thank You.