33rd ICW-ICF General Assembly Women’s Rights, Gender Equality and the Post 2015 Development Framework Kyung-wha Kang UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights 19 September 2012, Seoul, Korea

President Schenk of ICW, President Kim Jung-sook of KNCW, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, 

It gives me great honor and pleasure to be here with all of you at the 33rd ICW-CIF General Assembly to celebrate “Progress for women, progress for all”.  I would like to offer my heartfelt thanks and congratulations to President Kim Jung-sook and all of my friends at KNCW and its affiliates, who have done a marvelous job of organizing and preparing for this triennial general assembly of the one of the oldest international organizations dedicated to the cause of the advancement of women.

I bring you the warm greetings of the High Commissioner and all of my colleagues at the UN human rights office, OHCHR.  Women’s rights are human rights, and we at OHCHR place women’s rights and gender equality at the core of our mandate.  We know that our work at our Geneva headquarters, New York and in the field to build, strengthen and implement international human rights norms and to promote and protect the human rights of all, in particular the victims of violations and the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in societies, would mean very little if it weren’t for the tireless efforts of civil society actors, such as yourselves, on the ground and around the world, to urge governments to action and hold them to account.

ICW-CIF has a long and rich history in endeavoring to enhance the status of women and achieve gender equality in societies and at the global arena.  These efforts have contributed much to improving the lives of countless women and girls across generations, and to strengthening the global norms specifically for women, including CEDAW and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and to integrating the gender dimension in others, such as the outcome of the recent Rio+20 gathering. 

But in many corners of the world, these norms have yet to be translated into everyday reality, and millions of women and girls continue to suffer discrimination, violence and life situations over which they have little control.  As recent as last year, in visiting some of the most challenged countries around the world,  For these women and girls, the human rights movement and development efforts in general, and MDGs more specifically have meant very little. 

Ladies and gentlemen,
Now is a pivotal time for women’s rights advocates to raise our voices.  While countries are gearing up to take the final measure of their achievements of the MDGs in the target year of 2015, the global community is already looking beyond to the post MDG years.  And we must ensure that the unfolding discussions and processes in the next three years fully ensures that the global development agenda better integrates the gender dimension and more robustly pushes for women’s rights and gender equality.

If development is human development, equality between women and men and women’s full enjoyment of human rights must be a priority goal.  But gender equality and women’s rights are also instrumental.  The socio-economic benefits of capitalizing on women’s potential and investing in expanded work and educational opportunities for women are now well recognized.    

Thus, the forward-looking development agenda must fully harness the “empowering” effect on societies of empowering women, and ensuring that women enjoy the full spectrum of economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights.   This means expanding upon the MDGs, indeed going beyond the confines of the current MDG framework, and reaffirming and re-dedicating ourselves to the spirit and ambitions of the Millennium Declaration of 2000.

In 2000, at the dawn of the new millennium, world leaders joined together in a historic summit at the UN and committed to tackling some of the world’s most pressing challenges.  The Millennium Declaration adopted at that time was a political commitment of the highest order, covering development, poverty reduction, human rights and good governance, peace and security, and environmental protection.  Specifically, in relation to women, the leaders resolved to:

  1. Promote gender equality and the empowerment of women as effective ways to combat poverty, hunger and disease and to stimulate sustainable development.
  2. Combat all forms of violence against women and implement CEDAW.
  3. Respect fully and uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and its fundamental principle of equality and nondiscrimination, including based on gender.

Subsequently, the General Assembly operationalized the development aspects of the MD into a set of 8 time-bound goals to be achieved by 2015, and thus the MDGs were born: (1) to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, (2) achieve universal primary education,(3) promote gender equality and empower women, (4) reduce child mortality, (5) improve maternal health, (6) combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, (7) ensure environmental sustainability, and (8) develop global partnership for development.  Progress toward these goals were to be organized around 21 targets and 60 indicators. 

These goals have galvanized the development community and played an important role in guiding development planning across the different regions and countries,  But they have also been criticized for detracting from the broader obligations of states to promote and protect the full range of human rights for their peoples.   

The overall picture in achieving the MDGs is a mixed one.  According to the latest report of the Secretary-General on the issue, the MDG target of reducing extreme poverty by half has been reached, as well as the targets on access to improved sources of drinking water, and improving slum conditions.  Important progress has been made in enrolling girls in school and increasing women’s participation in the labour market.   

Regarding MDG 3 on gender equality, even though the MDG framework focused just on political participation, participation in the labour force and parity in education, even these remain largely unfulfilled.  If issues such as violence against women and women’s access to resources such as land and property had been factored in, we would certainly see an even more discouraging picture in achieving gender equality.

Progress on other MDGs is not moving as desired – hunger remains a global challenge, mainly affecting women and children.  Vulnerable employment is prevalent, women and youth being more likely to find themselves working in the informal sector or in insecure and poorly renumerated positions.  The goal on maternal health is the one most off track, with the rate of maternal mortality and morbidity still at unacceptably high levels.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Human rights norms that States have signed on to obliges governments to keep working toward universal access to decent work, basic services and education.  Indeed, seen from the human rights perspective, there is much gap to be filled in the MDG framework if we are to ensure that the progress achieved in real and that basic standards are met.  For example, is the drinking water actually safe to drink?  Were forced evictions utilized in order to improve the slums?  Is primary school free, as required under International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights? 

Furthermore, each of these goals have particular gendered aspects to be considered, as inequalities based on gender cuts across all them.  But a gender perspective has not consistently informed the way in which programs have been designed and implemented to achieve these goals.  MDG 1 on eradicating extreme poverty and hunger cannot be divorced from the fact that the majority of people living in poverty are women and girls, and similarly, addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic without acknowledging the disproportionate impact of the disease on women and girls leads to interventions which fail to comprehensively tack the issue.  MDG 5 focused on maternal health has an explicit focus on women, but the corresponding indicators focus on measures that do not get to the heart of why women are during in childbirth.  MDG 7 covers issues such as environmental degradation, access to water and sanitation, and improving the lives of slum dwellers, all of which have distinct gender aspects.  MDG 8 pertaining to the establishment of partnerships for development, and covering issues such as international trade, aid, debt relief and access to medicines, also has gender dimensions, which have rarely been examined in sufficient detail.  Besides the general failure to acknowledge the gender aspects of each of the MDGs, significant human rights concerns for women have been omitted from the global monitoring framework, such as women’s inequality in access to land and property, and violence against women. 

The SG’s recent report on the achievement of the MDGs does go beyond the narrow analysis of the identified indicators for each goal.  Gender-disaggregated data is provided for many of the indicators, which paints a picture of the differential impact on women.  The report includes an examination of funding patterns for reproductive health services under Goal 5 on maternal health.  Gender equality and the elimination of discrimination against women, including all forms of violence against women, are recognized as critical for the achievement of the MDGs.  Thus efforts have been begun to be made to redress the lack of attention to women’s rights and gender in the original formulation of the Goals.  These efforts need to be strengthened based on international human rights law, such as CEDAW, as well as the global political commitments contained in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Looking ahead, in shaping the post-2015 development landscape, we have an important opportunity to learn from the past, and to ensure that women’s rights and human rights more generally permeates our common agenda to confront the intertwined challenges of poverty, health, the environment and sustainable development.  It is too early to foresee the exact nature of the post-2015 development agenda, but there are core elements we should insist upon:

  1. Explicit attention to inequalities.  A human rights-based approach requires attention to the most marginalized and excluded groups in society, including women within those groups.  While these groups may remain hidden and are hard to reach, due to physical, cultural, linguistic of other barriers, they are overwhelmingly represented amongst those living in extreme poverty, with low levels of education, and limited access to health care and other services. 
  2. Explicit attention to gender equality, both as a goal in its own right, and as a crucial dimension throughout all of the other identified priorities.  Women are overrepresented in extreme poverty, they are disproportionately affected by the food, financial, climate and health crises of our modern day world.  The gendered dimension of these challenges, and the deep-rooted discrimination that prevent women from fully contributing to and benefiting from the adaptive measures must be addressed.
  3. Explicit attention to the areas particularly important to women.  The Task Force on Education and Gender Equality, which published its report in 2005, identified seven priority areas for women, which remain relevant today.
  4. Strengthen opportunities for post-primary education for girls, while meeting obligations for universal free primary education.
  5. Guarantee sexual and reproductive health and rights.
  6. Invest in infrastructure to reduce women and girls’ time burdens.
  7. Guarantee women’s and girls’ property and inheritance rights.
  8. Eliminate gender inequality in employment by decreasing women’s reliance on informal employment, closing gender gaps in earnings, and reducing occupational segregation.
  9. Increase women’s share of seats in national parliaments and local government bodies.
  10. Combat violence against women and girls.

Some of these priority areas are covered in the current MDG framework partially, while some were omitted.  We should aim for a post 2015 development framework in which progress in all of these areas would be explicitly promoted and tracked.  More generally, the next development agenda should be more faithfully based on human rights norms and identify the targets and indicators accordingly.  With human rights indicators which are gender sensitive, and tailored to the national and local contexts, based on a participatory and inclusive process, development would become truly human development.

In this process toward sustainable human development, civil society actors for women have a critical role to play.  As world leaders begin to chart the post-MDGs development horizon, let us ensure that their deliberations contribute to an environment in which women’s rights are fully recognized and women are empowered to claim those rights. 

There is much work to be done.  One of the most unforgettable stories I’ve heard during my visits to the field last year is about a 19 year-old mother of four in a remote village in Niger, living a life that is entirely beyond her control, over which she had no say.  But I came back from the visit with hope for her and other women and girls of the country, as they now have a President and government who are deeply committed to serving the people, advancing gender equality, and governance based on human rights principles.  The story of such lives of women and girls without control or choice repeats itself for a myriad women and girls in many corners of the world, some governed by rulers who are dismissive of women, women’s rights and human rights in general.  It is for these women and girls that the post 2015 global development agenda must end up making a real difference.  I hope that our collective efforts as women leaders, activities and advocates, will contribute to that end. 

Thank you for your attention.