Ethical leadership & multilateral cooperation

Sustainable development, democracy, peace: the key role of women

Share this:
Monday, 3 December, 2012

“Have men done more for peace than have women? I don’t think so.”

Gro Harlem Brundtland - Elder
Share this:

Let me express my gratitude for the invitation to speak at The American University in Cairo, and for the opportunity to honour the memory of a remarkable person. Through her personal story perhaps larger lessons can be learned that will resonate with many in the audience here today and among other young Egyptians.

Nadia Younes was so much.

She was an outstanding representative of her country, Egypt. She is a reminder of the significant contributions that Egypt and the Arab World have made to the world, and can do even more in future.

She was a skilled and courageous woman – a testimony to what women can achieve, when given the opportunity.

And she was a distinguished international public servant, who dedicated her life to the United Nations and its mission of international peace, security and human dignity.

I also want to acknowledge Nadia’s sister and brother and other relatives who are here today. I want to pay tribute to you and the AUC for the work you are doing in Nadia’s name to support the education of young people in the Arab world, and to encourage commitment to community and humanitarian service.

Nadia was – and still is – so much admired by her colleagues and all those who knew and worked with her. I was one of those fortunate people.

As Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) I wanted to recruit the best people for my team of Directors. I felt lucky and pleased when, in 2002, Nadia joined us as the Director in charge of external relations and our governing bodies. It was a key position. With her wide experience from the UN system, Nadia provided me with invaluable advice on many issues.

However, Nadia didn’t stay all that long with us in Geneva. Perhaps it was too far away from the field, which is where she loved to be and where she believed that change was possible. Nadia, as you know, left the WHO to take on an assignment for the United Nations in Bagdad in April 2003.

Only four months later, she was killed in the devastating terrorist attack on the UN building in the Iraqi capital that also claimed the life of the head of the UN team, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Many more were killed and injured.

It was a traumatic event for families, friends and the United Nations secretariat, which lost many of its very best people. It was certainly a major loss for those of us at the WHO, who had come to appreciate Nadia as a colleague and to love her as a friend.

Samantha Power, in her biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, wrote, “He wanted a UN 'A' team – the best people he could find, for an extremely demanding job. And as chief of staff of the UN “A” team in Bagdad, he chose Nadia Younes.” It is a sad, but fitting tribute to her qualities.

More than eight years have passed since those tragic events in Baghdad. The eyes of the world are today, even more than at that time, turned towards the countries of the Middle East.

The unexpected, and remarkable, chain of events that are loosely termed the “Arab Spring” or “Arab Awakening” have been followed by the rest of the world with keen interest – and with much hope.

Nadia would have been proud to see these events, especially here in her native Egypt. She would probably have wanted to participate herself, that was the kind of person she was. I am sure she would have shared the aspirations being expressed across the region for democracy, inclusive government, and for economic and social development for the benefit of all.

I imagine that she would have been particularly pleased that women have played a prominent part in the movement for change, and that she would want women to continue to be involved in all the work that is yet to be done to realise the vision for a new Egypt.

Enormous change has taken place in the past year. At the same time, we are all keenly aware that the process of transformation you are in the midst of remains demanding and difficult – and the final outcome is still unclear. Vigilance is still needed to ensure that the enormous gains made in terms of personal and political freedom are not lost or hijacked.

I am always cautious about making predictions – or even offering opinions – about other countries. But, I want to say that personally I am optimistic. This is a region of immense human talent, whose potential has not been fully realised. In the longer term, I think the changes we are witnessing will benefit the region and the world.

But we are all appalled by the situation in Syria. I am deeply concerned by the bloodshed and human suffering taking place in Syria. I want to extend my profound sympathy and sorrow over the many thousands of lives that have been lost and join the growing calls for a halt to the violence and immediate humanitarian access. I wish Kofi Annan every success in the mission with which he is entrusted by the UN and the Arab League.

I am a member of The Elders, a group of independent global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela working together for peace, equity and human rights. The Chair of The Elders, Desmond Tutu, recently appealed for Syrians to choose dialogue above violence – and for the Syrian authorities to stop their military attacks on innocent people. I support this view very strongly – and we as Elders also sincerely hope that the international community will unite in its approach to ending the Syrian crisis. Splits among the leading world powers will only prolong the agony and suffering of the people and increase the risk of lengthy civil war.

I said I was optimistic, but the absence of any progress in resolving the 64-year long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is another tragedy. As Prime Minister of Norway at the time of the Oslo process, I am pained to see that, 20 years later, a two-state solution still seems far away. I had hoped that the Arab Spring would contribute to a broad recognition that a peace agreement is essential for the long-term security of both the Israeli and Palestinian people. Unfortunately, that has not yet happened.

Let me return here to Egypt, and the wave of change taking place across the region. You know the context so much better than I do. The situation is also very different from country to country. There are nevertheless, it seems to me, some common themes at play.

  • The quest of young people for a better future, for decent jobs, access to high quality public education, and a voice in decisions that affect their lives.
  • The demand for fundamental human rights, freedom of expression, equality, and an end to corruption and discrimination.
  • And finally, the importance of establishing inclusive societies – not divided ones – as the only route out of conflict towards long-term stability and prosperity.

Let me underline the special role that women can play in building a better future in the Arab world, and offer some reflections on my own country’s experience.

To me it is obvious that women must play an equal role with men if any society is to be inclusive. The full involvement of women makes societies more successful. Given my own background, as you may imagine, I therefore follow the struggle for women’s rights around the world with particular interest.

Women have played a prominent role over the last twelve months, under very different circumstances, in all of the countries embroiled in the Arab Awakening, including here in Egypt. This is the promising side of the coin.

But, a negative dimension also appears to be emerging. Gains made previously by women in societies in the Middle East and North Africa are being challenged. There are reports that women who played decisive roles in democracy movements are being excluded from negotiations on future systems of governments. For those of us who followed the uprising in Egypt a year ago with keen interest, the recent parliamentary elections were a disappointing setback. While 376 women ran for parliament, only six succeeded in winning seats. Women won only 2 per cent of seats. This is like Norway three generations ago I am afraid.

It is my belief that if Egypt is to develop into a peaceful society with a prosperous economy and a social system that can provide a better life for all, Egyptian women cannot be marginalised from the political process.

I believe it is important to draw on all parts of society and all groups, including minorities, to ensure that their voices are heard, but also to ensure that you draw on the talents of as many people as possible. Only in that way will they feel they have a stake in the success of their society and country. If I can use a football analogy, you cannot build the best team if you exclude at least half the potential players from being considered for selection.

Why, then, is the participation of women so important? Certainly, because it is a fundamental human right, enshrined in UN conventions and declarations to which Egypt is a signatory. A representative democracy must fully include women – as it must represent the voices of all citizens regardless of religion or ethnicity.

Women are also crucial for any country’s effort to promote economic and social development. The World Bank’s latest World Development report argues, quite convincingly, that gender equality is also smart economics. A few years ago, in a pioneering study, the Arab Human Development Report produced by the United Nations first spotlighted the issue of gender as a key factor in holding back the development of most Arab societies. Egyptian economists took part in producing that landmark report.

Their conclusions are now widely accepted: Countries that create better opportunities and conditions for women and girls can raise productivity, improve outcomes for children, and advance development prospects for all. Well-functioning societies need to be able to provide for women and men to participate at all levels and sectors of society.

This is not something that changes overnight of course. In my own country, Norway, women got the right to vote 100 years ago. Today we are very well off in economic terms, and at the top spot of the UN Human Development Index.

You might think this is just because of the wealth generated by oil and gas from the North Sea. That certainly helps but, as we know in this region, large oil and gas revenues do not guarantee broad economic and social development. The reverse is sometimes the case.

A main reason for Norway’s development has been that we have managed to mobilise and put to good use all our human resources. The participation of women in the labour market in Norway is among the highest in the world. Women have doubled the pool of intelligence and talent in the workforce. They have created new jobs and generate tax revenue, enabling us to continue investments in welfare and opportunities for all.

Women also have a strong voice in decision-making. I was proud to be elected as the first female Prime Minister in Norway. And, back in 1986, when I formed my second government, 40 per cent of the cabinet ministers, 8 out of 18, were women. Not all of the public, including many women, were in favour of such a prominent presence of women in government. They were just not used to it.

But, since then, no government in Norway has had less than 40 per cent women ministers. Today, the Norwegian Government headed by Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, is made up equally of women and men. All of our main political parties have, over the last 20 years, had one or more female leaders. After 25 years it has become commonplace and uncontested. And I believe the decisions we make are better – because we benefit from listening to more perspectives in making them.

Of course, sometimes you need more than voluntary action. In the boardrooms of private sector companies in Norway, progress was rather slow. As a result, a law was adopted to ensure there were at least 40 per cent women on corporate boards. Initially viewed with distrust, this is now broadly accepted, and has not adversely affected balance sheets, as critics were saying.

In the Middle East, at least half of all university students are now female. So why are women not equally represented in government, or in leadership roles in the private sector? Is it because many women feel more comfortable filling traditional roles at home, or is it that they don’t dare to challenge their male peers? Or is it because they are not given the opportunity to compete on equal terms? Perhaps the answer is a combination of all the three – but I’m sure you know from your own experiences better than I do.

Now certainly is the time to ensure that women’s rights and participation is fully guaranteed in the new constitution and to ensure that discriminatory laws are removed.


Last December, three women from Africa and the Arab region were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in building peace in their home countries. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her compatriot Leymah Gbowee for their work in Liberia, and Tawakkul Karman for her important contribution to a peaceful transition and freedom of expression in Yemen.

They were not the first women to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But a majority of the recipients in the Nobel Prize’s 110 year history have been men.

Have men done more for peace than have women? I don’t think so.

Throughout history, women in the midst of conflict have protested and demonstrated. They have demanded justice and defied dictators. They have mediated between rivals and reconciled communities. Most of the time, their efforts take place outside the media spotlight and beneath formal decision-making structures. Their work often goes less noticed, while it is the instigators of violence and terrorism – usually men I may add – who make the headlines.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize is a recognition of the potential for peace that lies in the empowerment of women.

In Yemen, Tawakkul Karman deliberately and clearly rejects violence. “We refuse violence and know that it has already caused our country countless problems”, she says. She stresses that Islam is a peaceful religion, and she demands her rights as a Muslim woman to be an activist and to fight for human rights, freedom and democracy.

In Liberia, Leymah Gbowee led a remarkable movement of women against war, demanding an end to the fighting and a voice for women in the peace process.

In a similar way, the Arab Spring has demonstrated that there is enormous power in people coming together in non-violent protest. And I believe their demands are often similar – for a voice in decision-making, an end to fear and violence, and for equality before the law.


I want to turn now to another of the driving passions in my life. As a woman and as a medical doctor, women’s health has always been close to my heart. Without good health, as you all know, so little is possible, for us as individuals or as societies. But the relationship between health and development is perhaps not as well known.

During my term as Director-General of WHO, I established a Commission on Macroeconomics and Health – led by Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University. At that time, health was widely understood to be an important goal and an outcome of development. But the importance of investing in health to promote economic development was much less appreciated. The Commission reported that extending coverage of crucial health services, including a relatively small number of specific interventions to the world’s poor, could save millions of lives each year, spur economic development and promote global security.

I am glad that the work of this Commission will now be followed up through a specific focus on women’s health. Together with the current WHO Director-General, Margaret Chan, and Michelle Bachelet of UN Women, Norway’s Foreign Minister Jonas Støre has launched a project aiming at identifying the economic benefits to be gained by investing in women’s health. The international experts involved will present their report in the fall of 2013.

However, it is already well understood that healthy, educated girls and women are essential to development. That is the thinking behind the UN Secretary-General’s “Every woman, every child” campaign to help member countries reach the Millennium Development Goals related to maternal and child mortality. I am proud to say that Norway is a strong supporter of these efforts.

One of the most important international documents to confirm the rights to sexual and reproductive health was adopted here in Cairo in 1994, at the International Conference on Population and Development. It may have been controversial with some participants at the time, but was a landmark event in relation to women and health, paving the way for other strong international commitments on gender equality.

Regrettably however, despite these fine words and lofty agreements, inadequate health care in connection with pregnancy, childbirth and abortion are still the main causes of death among women of reproductive age in many developing countries.

At the same time, we have reasons for concern over the way in which certain states, as well as certain segments within society, that oppose women’s sexual health and rights are trying to turn the clock back from the principles adopted in Cairo in 1994 and the Beijing Declaration in 1995 that led to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

As we are discussing girls’ and women’s health, let me take this opportunity to raise a topic that is rarely discussed in public yet touches on all three of the key themes of my address today: equality, education and health. This is the often taboo subject of child marriage.

Every year around the world, an estimated 10 million girls are married before they reach 18. A significant number of those, although it is hard to measure precisely, are under 15.

This happens across all continents and religions – with high prevalence in parts of Africa, India and the Middle East. Despite the efforts of a few brave campaigners, I believe that child marriage is a rather unrecognised issue for girls and women here in Egypt, especially in poor rural areas. Likewise, the traditional practice of female genital mutilation continues to be widespread, despite being illegal.

Last month, I was in India with a group of colleagues from the Elders. We visited the state of Bihar, one of India’s poorest, where almost half of young girls are married before the age of 15 and more than 60 per cent marry before 18. When one stops to remember that child marriage has been outlawed in India for more almost a century, these statistics are truly shocking.

The health effects of child marriage are very serious. Girls who become pregnant and give birth when they are very young are at a far higher risk of death and injury than women who give birth in their twenties. Their babies are also more likely to become ill and to die in infancy. They and their families are more likely to be poor, and to stay poor. These girls rarely if ever go to school.

So why does it continue? Perhaps for the same kinds of reasons that women are still under-represented in politics, business and leadership positions generally. Because their societies value girls and women less than men, regardless of what the law says. The negative links between poverty and child marriage, child marriage and lack of development, should be clear. So should the answers.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me now try to weave together some of the strands I have been talking about, to give a sense of how and why they are interconnected – and need to be seen as integral elements of the same cloth.

More than 25 years ago, from 1984 to 1987, I had the privilege of chairing The World Commission on Environment and Development, a body set up by the United Nations. A key message of our report was the need for the world to move towards sustainable development – a term we chose to recognise that issues of environment, humanity and economic development are all connected.

Since then our governments have failed to deliver the integrated action that is so urgently needed.

Disturbing, perhaps irreversible, changes are occurring in the world environment. Climate change is taking place at a faster rate than ever before. And our population continues to grow rapidly. Late last year the world’s population crossed the seven billion mark. On current projections from the UN, it could exceed 10 billion by the end of this century.

Globally, over the past decades, hundreds of millions of people have made their way above the poverty line, but inequality within many countries, in the developing and developed world, is growing. More than a billion people still live in absolute poverty. The slowdown in the world economy caused by the world financial crisis has led many countries into employment and social crises. Here in Egypt, I know that a lot of people are suffering economically.

Twenty years after the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, this June, we will all come together again in Rio for a second attempt to put our planet on a healthier long term course. This time, I hope that political and business leaders recognise that environmental problems, poverty, inequality, food, water, energy issues – and even conflict – cannot be seen in isolation. They are all one. Civil society has an important role to play in this process, making the link between the grassroots and governments.

I recently served on a UN Panel on Global Sustainability in preparation for the Rio +20 summit. It is my hope that world leaders will listen to the Panel’s recommendations when they meet in June. Let me highlight a few of them:

  • First, sustainable development is about recognising, understanding and acting on interconnections – above all those between the economy, society, and the natural environment.
  • Second, and perhaps most important, a serious shift towards sustainable development requires gender equality and an end to persistent discrimination against women. The next increment of global growth could well come from the full economic empowerment of women. But this will require policies that explicitly address the unique challenges that limit women’s participation in the economy – securing them equal access to land, capital, credit and markets.
  • Third, governments should build on the great mobilising success of the Millennium Development Goals and agree on a set of key Sustainable Development Goals.
  • And fourth, we need a more effective global body for sustainable development. A new Sustainable Development Council should be created, with the stature and relevance to engage leaders at the highest level.

It is my strong hope that bold decisions can be made in Rio, and that we take a real stride forward. We have to do this, as a responsibility to the future generations that you in this audience represent.


Let me close where I began, with Nadia Younes and the United Nations.

In the preface to the report of the World Commission I chaired, which was entitled “Our Common Future”, I stated: “Perhaps the most urgent task today is to persuade nations of the world to return to multilateralism. The challenge of finding sustainable development paths ought to provide the impetus – indeed the imperative – for a renewed search for multilateral solutions and a restructured international economic system of cooperation.” Written towards the end of the cold war, I believe this statement remains as valid today as it was then.

The United Nations – to which Nadia Younes gave her life – is as indispensable as ever. It is hard to see how the international community can cope with the growing number of interconnected challenges and risks without a strong, well-functioning global multilateral system – of which the UN must remain a key part.

Egypt, the lynchpin of Africa and the Middle East, a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement and a beacon for the rest of the Arab world, has always played a leading role at the United Nations. Secretary-General Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali initiated important reforms in his time, for example through his “Agenda for Peace”. Egypt has also played a prominent role in discussions on reform of the Security Council, to bring its composition up to date and reflect the realities of today’s world, not those of 1945.

As we well know, the UN is never stronger than its member states want it to be. Too often, progress on important global negotiations – on climate change, on disarmament and arms control issues, or on the Doha development round, for example – is blocked by national interests. These override our shared, global interests.

What we need, then, is both reform of the UN’s machinery and systems, and greater political willpower on the part of states to support a reformed UN.

Egypt is well placed to play a leading role in helping bridge these cleavages. The new Egypt can be an important and strategic partner for like-minded countries, North and South, in modernising the multilateral system through the United Nations. Some of the topics I have addressed here today could, perhaps, be part of the agenda.

This achievement would, indeed, be a worthy contribution to honour the memory of Nadia Younes.

I would like to find:

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.