The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) is “Equality for Women is Progress for All” and a panel of speakers was on hand today here at UN Headquarters to commemorate the event. Ban Ki Moon, General Assembly President John Ashe, UN Women executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucke, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The speeches all marked achievements in gender equality and conveyed a sense of urgency for more progress, but the most inspiring words came from the women on the panel as they ushered in the upcoming 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women here at the UN.
Panel moderator Isha Sesay of CNN, introduced Clinton to the loudest applause of the day by quoting a speech the former First Lady gave nearly 20 years ago in Beijing at the Fourth World Conference of Women. (It is hard to forget those famous words, “let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”)
Clinton kept fighting for that message through her years as Secretary of State. Today Clinton noted, “women, girls, and the cause of gender equality have to be at the heart of any development agenda.” And in a recognition of correlation between economic growth and increased opportunity for women, she added: “it’s not just the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do.” Her words today were not political in tone and perhaps even more passionate than when she was in public office as she noted that gender equality and women’s empowerment “remains the great unfinished business of the 20th century.” Her assessment was spot on when you look at the progress, and lack thereof, on the Millennium Development Goals.
The amiable Director Mlambo-Ngucka began with “Happy Women’s Day! It’s a celebration, no need to be so serious.” This is her first IWD as Director of UN Women and it was one of the first times she hints that she may have gone to the Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson school of diplomacy. As Eliasson has called for human rights to be part of every effort at the UN, so Mlambo-Ngucka today called for gender equality to also be included. What seems like an obvious and almost absurd stance to request to most of us is something Mlambo-Ngucka has to actively push for during her tenure. She noted that if the world continues at current pace, girls in sub-Saharan Africa would only receive full acess to primary education in the year 2086. Expressing her frustration in a ‘velvet hammer’ manner, she noted that it was time “for a big leap forward in 21st century, not baby steps. We’ve done baby steps.” It was the kind of strong language usually only heard in tense Security Council sessions here but it was a welcome change for those fighting for gender equality.
The women’s words were encouraging in this continued struggle, but it would make the efforts that much more powerful to have prominent male leaders harnessing the same tone and call for progress, especially when there is hard data that proves gender inequality could solve daunting levels of poverty and conflict. The diplomatic community may not be quite there yet, but Mlambo-Ngucke and Clinton are two wonderful leaders to have in this fight.