Ministers, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
The other day I was reading an article where the writer dared to answer a question he was often posed in his position as United Nations under-secretary general. The question: “What is the single most important thing that can be done to improve the world?”
He ventured that if we had to pick one thing that we must do above all else, it would be ‘educate girls’.
He went onto to say that no action has been proven to do more for the human race than the education of female children. And that common sense tells us: if you educate a boy, you educate a person - but if you educate a girl, you educate a family and benefit an entire community.
And when you think that women account for one-half of a country’s potential talent base, a nation’s competitiveness in the long term depends significantly on whether and how it educates and involves its women.
But it is not just economics; a WHO study established that ‘in Africa, children of mothers who have received just five years of education are 40 percent more likely to live beyond the age of 5.
The health advantages of education are huge...think of the impact on the spread of AIDS, reduction in early marriages, reproductive health and family planning – I could go on...
Sadly, when the evidence is so clear, why is it the world is still not rushing to close the gender gap? Ambitious plans have been laid but remain far from completed. Yes, there has been some progress but, stark disparities continue to prevail.
Gender equality is a human right and is central to meeting the global challenge of Growing Inequalities.
Thank you Minister, for your warm introduction and kind invitation. It is indeed a pleasure for me to be here tonight and an even greater pleasure to see so many distinguished representatives and eminent leaders from around the world. Gathered to discuss Growing Inequalities and how we ensure that inequalities are effectively addressed in the new Development framework after 2015.
So a very warm welcome to Copenhagen.
As member of the High Level Task Force for the International Conference on Population and Development, this is an important opportunity for me to share with you the agenda of this Task Force and how it is intrinsically linked to the global challenges we face in respect to Growing Inequalities.
The Task Force is an independent body of distinguished leaders from government, civil society and the private sector, serving in their individual capacities and recognised for their contributions to human rights and development.
Our vision is a world, where all women and men, adult and young have equal opportunities, freedoms and choices to forge their own life aspirations and destinies.
Our mission is to further the vision and realisation of the Cairo agenda – agreed on by 179 UN member states in 1994 – and bridge it with the new development agenda beyond 2015.
The Cairo agenda is an unfinished agenda and remains, 20 years later, highly relevant for addressing some of the most pressing development challenges in the world today. Therefore, it must remain central to the efforts to ensure everyone a dignified life and the promise of a better future.
I would like to point out three essential pillars of equitable and sustainable development from the Cairo agenda that can also contribute to addressing social, political and economic inequalities:
- Advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights for all women and men
- Advancing women’s empowerment and gender equality
- Advancing the rights and empowerment of adolescents and youth
These are all crucial ends in themselves and are key to eradicating poverty and achieving social justice and equity. Therefore, essential elements in any future development agenda as both smart investments and ethical imperatives for fair, inclusive progress.
The Millennium Development Goals focus on a number of pressing challenges and there has been impressive progress. Progress in a number of areas that one could hardly imagine a decade ago.
However, more than 1.3 billion people continue to live in extreme poverty, and of those children now going to school, it is questionable how many of them when leaving are able to read and write – a stark reminder that we have a long way to go.
This is also true in a number of other areas – including the three pillars I mentioned before: sexual and reproductive health and rights, gender equality and empowerment of women and youth – all areas that deserve fighting for, areas that are close to my heart.
As a woman and as a mother of four healthy children, I am very aware of how fortunate I am to have gone through my pregnancies with full access to information, quality health services and skilled birth attendance – fortunate to give birth in a developed country with good maternal health care.
At the same time, I am painfully aware of the contrasting situation that exists in many other parts of the world.
The issue of preventing maternal deaths and promoting the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and young girls is an issue for all women, not just those living in ‘the contrasting situation’. It is much bigger than that. It is a global development issue that affects the potential of future generations – it is an issue for each and every one of us.
As patron of UNFPA, WHO – Regional Office for Europe and Maternity Worldwide, I have been active in helping to generate greater awareness of these very important issues.
I have travelled to countries greatly challenged by these issues and have met many courageous women and young girls with heart-breaking stories of the consequences they suffer every day due to limited or no access to information and life-saving services. Stories that are hard to comprehend let alone accept especially, when we know what to do and how to do it....
Most recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Mozambique with the Danish Minister for Development Cooperation, Mr. Christian Friis Bach and UNFPA. There a young girl – Palmira – shared her story of how she became a single mother of three boys with three different fathers.
She told me that she became pregnant after her first sexual act because they had no information about safe sex and that she was a teenager with no ability to negotiate safe sex. Her third child was born with serious eye problems because, as she explained, she had contracted an STI which went untreated. Again, lack of access to information and services. All three men rejected their responsibility which meant Palmira had to drop out of school to take care of her children – and at the same time drop her dreams of creating a better life for herself.
Palmira is not alone in facing such difficult challenges at such a young age.
Globally, 1 in 5 girls give birth before they turn 18.
16 million girls between 15 and 19 give birth annually. And for many, the price is much higher, as pregnancy and child-birth complications are the leading cause of death for adolescent girls in low and middle-income countries.
Every year 50.000 adolescent girls are dying. And despite the progress achieved, maternal mortality remains unacceptably high because of persisting social and economic inequalities in many countries.
Every single day 800 women are paying the highest price – their life! A true tragedy as the means to prevent many of these deaths are well-known and, cost-effective solutions are available.
We all know that women and adolescent girls, who have control over decisions regarding their sexuality and the number, timing and spacing of their children; are healthier, better able to complete an education, participate in the workforce and are able to improve livelihoods for themselves and their families – which in turn, benefits societies at large.
The issue of sexual and reproductive health and rights is closely linked to the challenge of empowering women and girls. Women face systematic obstacles due to gender-based discrimination, violence and inequality, severely compromising their human rights and freedoms.
Grave challenges persist that need to be part and parcel of the development efforts in the years to come – also beyond 2015: As many as 6 out of 10 women experience domestic or sexual violence in their lifetime – some even both – making it one of the most pervasive human rights violations.
Two thirds of the world’s 790 million illiterate adults are women and women face higher unemployment rates and are more likely to be in low-paid, less-secure jobs. Not only a high cost for the women themselves and their families but also a high cost and loss of growth potential for the societies in which they live.
And many of the same challenges are affecting youth and adolescents. The world is seeing the largest generation of young people in history. We cannot afford, both economically and socially, to leave the enormous resource that youth and women represent untapped.
This Conference on Addressing Growing Inequalities is an outstanding opportunity to be ambitious in how together you can influence the forming of the post-2015 global development agenda. We need to understand how the next generation thinks, we need think untraditionally and we need to be more tolerant of our differences and more inclusive in our thinking. And on this journey, I urge you not to lose sight of the individual; the story of Palmira from Mozambique who still hopes one day to return to school, and not to lose sight of how the new agenda can support that individual in achieving their full potential.