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Women's rights must not be taken for granted

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"Why is it so important to promote and safeguard gender equality? It is a matter of human rights. It is a matter of democracy. Also, it is pure common sense." Marking 100 years of women's right to vote in Norway, former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland gives a speech on Norway's struggle for gender equality, the centrality of women to a prosperous and equitable world, and why we cannot be complacent about the progress made so far.


Good morning,

It is great to be here today, celebrating progress and requesting change for all those women left behind in large parts of our world. We are all proud to have among us – and to learn from – the new leader of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo.

I have been asked to focus my remarks, at least partly, on my own and our Norwegian experience, as we celebrate 100 years of the right to vote for women in this country.

Change has not happened over night.

I remember a Norway, in the 1950s, when role expectations of girls and boys were still very different and still mostly set in stone.

This was so in daily life in the home and at school. We had classes separating girls and boys, with even fewer weekly hours in mathematics for girls, to give room for us learning how to cook instead!

It is so easy to forget what things were like, only sixty years ago. For many girls, to marry and become a mother and housewife was the natural expectation of life. Higher education and preparing for a life in the workplace was often not on their horizon.

On Women’s Day this year we had a key event, with direct TV coverage, from Kristiansand at the southern tip of Norway. As we all had to limit our remarks to a few minutes, I spent considerable time deciding upon my key message.

Looking back now, I realise sharing it with you also should be the natural entry point for my remarks here at today’s conference.

The decision in 1913 was a key breakthrough for our democracy, for a vision of justice and equality.

We have moved way forward in Norway today. Still, I am concerned that we now too often forget the struggle it took, that we now risk taking things too much for granted, once we have won through with new rules, attitudes and practices.

Today, I am noticing that many among the young, both girls and boys, women and men, think we can forget all debate about equal rights and opportunities. Their opinion is: it is all done! We are already there, so no more concern to us.

This is a dangerous attitude. Setbacks can easily happen when our attentiveness recedes. New challenges in a constantly changing society need to keep us alert, need to be seen and acted upon.

Still, my major concern is the enormous suffering that, even today, is the reality for so many girls and women’s lives in so many places across our globe:

  • Girls who are not being born, because they are not boys;
  • Girls who suffer from malnutrition, or plain hunger, because their father and brothers are being fed first;
  • Girls who are not allowed to go to school, because they are obliged to gather firewood and generally contribute to letting boys learn how to read and write;
  • Girls who are forced to marry at 10, 12, 14 years of age;
  • Often laws and constitutions say something very different, while outdated cultures and traditions prevail and discriminate against the weakest, generation after generation;
  • We need to conclude, I am afraid, that human rights – meant to be universal – are not taken seriously and still have limited impact in too many places;
  • This is still where we are, globally, nearly two-thirds of a century after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was unanimously agreed.

Therefore, let me add: this is why we really need UN Women! We need to promote the key role and the rights of women as a central goal in itself.

Why is it so important to promote and safeguard gender equality? It is a matter of human rights. It is a matter of democracy. Also, it is pure common sense.

Norway’s efforts to develop a gender-equal society have succeeded through determination, political work and commitment. Our society has certainly benefited as a whole. Most men indeed agree – and happily today, even many of those who once were sceptical.

Maintaining equal opportunity and responsibility for men and women in all aspects of life and of society does require continuous awareness and commitment. Even in Norway, we still have work to do.

I was lucky to be raised in a progressive home, with parents who looked upon the potential of girls and boys on an equal basis.

Already as a young girl I decided my vision must be for all women to have the right and opportunity to pursue working careers, as well as motherhood.

I knew that I would be working hard for equality and justice, not only in my own society, but from an international perspective.

I gradually fully realised that this was not just a question of justice and fairness; prosperity and sustainable development do depend on it.

Norway’s wealth comes from women’s participation, not from oil

Societies, rich and poor, need to utilise all their human resources fully, regardless of gender. Not only the 50 per cent who are male. Both women and men must be able to participate in working life, social life and family life. Society as a whole is the loser when the talent and efforts of women are not put to proper use.

It is plainly smart economics to close the gender employment gap.

We know that participation of women and girls in education, working life and the economy also gives a significant boost to the national as well as the global economy. It promotes the innovation and holistic approaches necessary for sustainable development.

Many recent studies have confirmed the key role women play in the economy. In Norway’s own history it is clear that a policy of inclusiveness, investing in all of our people, was the strategy that led to continuous and sustainable growth.

A recent analysis found that the centrality of women in the workforce – just the additional contribution of our above-average women’s participation – is a larger part of my country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) than the whole of Norway’s petroleum sector!

International studies also show that countries and companies with higher levels of gender equality have faster growth and better performance.

Quotas: ensuring women’s access to decision-making forums

Let me again go back to my own experience, as a young public health professional and as a mother in the 1960s. It became clear to me that our societies needed to fundamentally change. We had to take a much broader social responsibility: every woman should be able to breastfeed her child, have a much longer pregnancy leave and access to childcare, to fulfil her intrinsic right to combine being a mother with her role in working life.

It was no longer acceptable that women were left to exclude crucial aspects of their lives in a world so dominated by men, men’s lives and men’s choices.

As I entered the political scene at 35 – having been asked to become minister of the environment, and soon even elected as deputy leader of my party – my chances to influence and argue for more progressive policies, for equal rights, equal pay, paid pregnancy leave and women’s rightful role in society, grew.

New policies were pursued in all of these areas during the 1970s and 1980s.

An important goal throughout my life and career has also been to fight for women’s access to all forums where decisions are made. A whole range of progressive legislation has made it possible for men and women to participate in professional life, politics and government on much more equal terms.

In order to improve the political participation of women in public life, we introduced in 1981 a gender balance rule for appointed committees, boards and councils, based on the Gender Equality Act.

In the following years, this principle was pursued inside my party, introducing a new rule of at least 40 per cent of either sex in all of our elected bodies.

When I formed my second government in 1986, there were eight women and ten men. It was an international sensation at the time. Since then, gender equality in all our governments has been the norm.

From 2006, gender balance rules of at least 40 per cent have also been introduced in the private sector, on boards of publicly listed companies. In 2002 there were still only 6 per cent women on these boards! A new legislative initiative really needed to be taken.

Our hope is also to see women more visible in top management positions in the private sector – still only 20 per cent on average today.

Combining parental care with working life

A progressive social policy is no less important as most modern societies struggle with an aging population and decreasing fertility rates.

We have seen in the Nordic countries a positive link between our family and gender equality policies, the fertility rate, and the employment rate. The labour force rate for Norwegian women is the highest in Europe. Norwegian women also have among the highest birthrates in Europe.

It is indeed possible to combine empowerment, care and work.

Each country has to find its own path. But if we want to ensure both women’s and men’s opportunity to work and to care for children and family, we need new and better policies and structures. Women should not be forced to choose one or the other, but be able to opt for both.

Parental leave arrangements, for mothers and fathers, as well as early childcare along with sufficient care systems for the elderly are crucial in the Norwegian experience. These arrangements are generous, but we can afford them. Why? Not because we have found oil; but because they increase employment, participation and productivity, so that they strengthen our economy.

Gender equality is about both women and men, and closely linked to quality of life. Men also have to be involved in the gender equality project. Too many men find out too late that they should have spent more time with their families. We need to widen our understanding of men’s responsibility as fathers to include not only economic provision, but also psychological, emotional and physical care for children. Quality time with children is important for men as well as for women. Studies have shown that men do change traditional attitudes, and confirm they appreciate these broader experiences and aspects of a full life.

To drive such change, we introduced specific fathers’ leave arrangements in the early 1990s, and now 90 per cent of eligible fathers take such leave from work. Today, a period of up to 14 weeks exclusively for fathers also benefits a more equal balance as employers look at men and women. These changes lead to new attitudes in the assessment of men and women who are now judged on a more equal basis than what has traditionally been the case.

Women: be ambitious, courageous, use your voice

During a visit to Japan a few years ago, I had a special meeting with female members of their parliament, the Diet, representing all political parties. They also asked me some personal advice. I told them one aspect of my life-long experience, watching men and women relate to one another. It does not work well to be shy and sit silently at the end of the table. I told them to use their voice fully, to stand up and speak loud and clear.

Yes, women can!

I told them to be ambitious and courageous. Inspire your fellow citizens – men and women. Mobilise your politicians. Motivate your fellow sisters. Educate your men. And teach gender equality to your daughters and sons.

Of course, social change does not come by itself. It comes with political will. Targeted affirmative action and legislation in the field of gender equality and family provisions have been crucial to promote and safeguard social change.

However, introducing laws and regulations and changing the attitude of men will not create the necessary result unless women seize new opportunities and are willing to opt for change. Women need to truly believe that we do have a wider role to play in governing society, and not be content only to govern the household. If we are to stimulate men to give more family and household care, we must also be willing to hand over to them more responsibility in those areas.

Invest in women for a more equal, prosperous and sustainable world

As we turn to the global scene, challenges are enormous, even though considerable progress has been made over the last few decades.

There are also several examples of setbacks, unfortunately. Inequalities have been increasing in many areas across the world. Take just one example, from China, as we look at the disadvantage of women in society. Here, differences in income levels have increased enormously over the last two decades.

In 1990, in cities, women received 77.5 per cent of men’s average wages. In 1999 it had slipped down to 70 per cent, and by 2010 to the level of 67.5 per cent.

In the countryside numbers fell even more dramatically, from 79 per cent in 1999 to an abysmal 56 per cent ten years later!

As you know, crucial international processes are now underway in key areas, such as the MDGs and post-2015 development framework, climate negotiations, as well as decisions on the Sustainable Development Goals.

I want to underline today that we now need to realise the centrality of women in all of these areas.

Women are key when it comes to eradicating poverty, promoting prosperity and sustainability, and securing health and education for all, as well as all other human rights. All these goals depend fundamentally on improving the lives and mobilising the potential of girls and women.

As I watch key actors today on the global scene, such as the leaders of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), I see real progress; better reason for hope that the world can more effectively come together to link key sectors, across the world and across countries, to improve our results on the crucial road ahead, for people and the planet.

To quote just one key sentence from World Bank President Jim Kim: “At a time when the world is looking for additional sources of growth, there is an untapped market out there that everyone should invest in more: women”!

As for the IMF, here is a key quote: “If the number of female workers was raised to the same level as that of men in the United Arab Emirates, GDP would expand by 12 per cent, in Japan by 9 per cent, and in the United States by 5 per cent.”

Statistics are not as easily available in poorer and less developed countries. However, there is no doubt that raising women out of discrimination and unnecessary barriers would mean a great boost to the prosperity and dignity of any county, rich or poor.

The misuse of religion and tradition is holding women back

I would like to share with you one final area of concern: the discrimination against women based upon religion and tradition.

Nelson Mandela, in 2007, called together a group of former leaders to become ‘Elders’ in a global perspective, serving humanity on an independent basis, focusing on overcoming conflict and promoting peace and human rights.

We women in this group were impressed when our esteemed colleague, President Jimmy Carter, argued convincingly and with conviction against the use – and indeed misuse – of religion to discriminate against women.

Based on our intensive debate, we decided to issue a concrete statement on this vital issue for so many women, across the world, and across all the main religions:

“The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a higher authority, is unacceptable”.

In a conference he called together at The Carter Center, President Carter concluded that “the truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.”

He also made clear that “child marriage, the physical abuse of women, women’s slavery, genital cutting, are all excessive human rights abuses that exist in the world in direct contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and, in my opinion, in direct contravention of the basic premises of every great religion.”

All who have somehow been engaged in international negotiations have observed how obstructive and unreasonable this type of misuse of religion has been in holding back or even undermining previous agreements, such as the results of the Cairo Conference in 1994.

As we work together to get the most out of the crucial processes of consensus-building and mobilising the world toward common goals, overcoming barriers like these is one of our key challenges.

Thank you.

Address by Gro Harlem Brundtland in Oslo, 14 November 2013. The conference, 'Women, Power and Politics: The Road to Sustainable Democracy', was organised by the Forum for Women and Development (FOKUS) and Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

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