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Speeches and Discussions

Why women's leadership is vital in an uncertain world

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Mary Robinson at the Women's Empowerment Assembly in Tokyo, March 2023.
Mary Robinson gave a keynote address to the Women’s Empowerment Assembly at The Genron NPO Tokyo Conference on the importance of women's leadership in creating a peaceful, sustainable and equitable future. She calls on leaders to confront prejudice and discrimination, and to hear and respect women's voices.

Read Mary Robinson's speech

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be with you here today for this important and timely discussion. We do indeed live in an uncertain world. I believe that women’s leadership is critical to put us on a path to a peaceful, sustainable and equitable future.

The pioneering Japanese feminist Raicho Hiratsuka wrote in the early twentieth century that “in the beginning, woman was the sun”. This is a powerful image which resonates today. I believe that women have energy, warmth and power, and can illuminate our world with a clear and distinct perspective.

Today we face a series of interlocking crises which have a direct impact on women’s lives, from conflict and the threat of nuclear weapons to climate change, pandemics and systematic inequality.

On top of all of this lies the persistent blight of patriarchal oppression that has denied women their rights and dignity for centuries.

This includes the presence and normalisation of misogyny in society; its links to the violation of the fundamental rights of women in all spheres of life; persistent and systemic social and economic discrimination against women; the shrinking space in many countries for civil society and attacks on the international women’s movement.

What we need now is for women to have a direct impact on these crises, bringing a new wave of feminist solidarity and justice to create a better world for future generations.

We need to reimagine what global leadership looks like so that women have the support and opportunity to be powerful agents for change.

We need gender parity in parliaments, boards of companies and other organisations. This is often best achieved by using quotas, at least initially.

We need women to have greater access to resources so that practical, feminist solutions to the existential threats facing us are found quickly.

And we need a diverse range of voices in women’s leadership to create global solutions to today’s global challenges.

I know from my own experience in public life that women have distinctive leadership characteristics that can yield positive results. From the mothers and daughters in Northern Ireland who built links across divided communities, to the inspirational young climate activists today who are demanding urgent and radical action to save our planet.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, studies showed that female political leaders coped with the pandemic differently, and often better than their male counterparts.

We have seen that countries where women have higher social and political status also have 12% lower CO2 emissions.

And peace agreements led by women have more sustainable impact.

Across the board, women tend to think for the collective whole rather than themselves.

Sadly, there are far too many parts of the world today where this is not the case. Afghanistan is perhaps the most extreme and obscene example, with women and girls persecuted and denied their fundamental human rights by a cruel and dangerous regime.

Women and girls across Afghanistan have suffered incalculable harm from decades of conflict and oppression, and the world cannot turn its back now.

In Iran, women’s rights have been oppressed for decades, but I have been greatly inspired by the protests by brave young women in that country in recent months, which have sparked a wider wave of opposition across Iranian society to a regime perceived as repressive and unrepresentative.

Their voices signal to the world that women’s rights and human rights are truly universal values, not ‘Western constructs’ as some would claim.

At the same time, the prosperous democracies of the Global North should not be complacent about their treatment of women.

Far from it! We need only look at the alarming situation in the United States, where women’s rights to bodily autonomy and sexual reproductive health are increasingly under threat from male-dominated political and legal systems.

This is why it is so important that women leaders have the political space and economic resources to challenge structures of oppression and develop positive, empowering solutions.

Women cannot lead if they do not have the resources to do it.

In climate action for example, only 0.2% of climate-related development aid goes to feminist-focused or women-led organisations.

99% of overall development aid and foundation grants still do not directly reach women’s rights and feminist organisations.

And in peacebuilding, less than 1% of funding goes to women's rights organisations and to addressing violence against women and girls including protecting the safety of women peacebuilders.

We also need to make global finance instruments more accessible for women and feminist organisations, so that women leaders have the tools they need to succeed.

In responding to global crises, climate finance measures and the new pandemic fund must adapt the way they operate to ensure many more women and feminist organisations have access to and control over resources responding to these global threats.

This is why The Elders we are calling for reform of international financial institutions to ensure more resources are available to address the existential threats of pandemics and the climate crisis, and to ensure that these additional resources are accessible for women and feminist organisations.

The same applies to women community and political leaders in countries affected by conflict.

Women are powerful agents for peace, and governments, the UN and other international organisations need to provide more resourcing directly to women peacebuilders and their networks, so that they can fulfil their vital mandate.

As men take up arms, women hold communities together in times of war. This makes them stronger and better equipped to play a key role in securing real peace, as I saw for myself in Northern Ireland.

When I served as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for the Great Lakes region of Africa in 2013-14, I felt a particular responsibility to the mothers, daughters and grandmothers who, since my first visit to the region as President of Ireland in 1994, have shared with me what they have suffered in Bujumbura, Bukavu, Goma, Kigali or Kinshasa.

I feel the same for all women displaced from their homes due to violent conflict, or climate change, or poverty, or any other of the myriad factors driving the mass movement of people across the globe.

In all these situations and contexts, there is a fundamental truth: women’s voices need to be heard, respected and believed.

Women who speak out, confront abusers, assert their rights and demand change are all too often subject to horrendous abuse, both in their workplaces and communities, and also online.

We need action – and for that to be effective, we need our leaders to be bold, confront prejudice and discrimination, be honest enough to confront their own records and demand better from themselves and their administrations.

This is what I call truly ethical leadership. It is a quality that lies at the heart of the work of The Elders, and for me is embodied above all in the figure of our founder, Nelson Mandela.

Madiba not only believed in feminism and female emancipation, he also used his position in public life to make a difference to women’s lives.

In a speech for International Women’s Day in 1996, he said:

“As long as women are bound by poverty and as long as they are looked down upon, human rights will lack substance. As long as outmoded ways of thinking prevent women from making a meaningful contribution to society, progress will be slow. As long as the nation refuses to acknowledge the equal role of more than half of itself, it is doomed to failure."

These are inspirational words which offer a path to a future of true equality – a path we must all follow.

Thank you.

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