Opening remarks by Mr. Michael Møller, Director General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, on the occasion of the African Women’s Forum

October 26, 2018

Prime Minister,
Excellences,
Ladies and gentlemen,
 
A very warm welcome to the Palais des Nations. It is indeed a pleasure to join you today.
 
We are meeting three years into our collective journey to make the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development a reality. Our ambitions are crystal clear: a world free of poverty and hunger; a fairer, more equal world; a world that respects the limits of nature.
 
We are making progress, embracing change, and increasingly working together and learning from each other across regions and disciplines.
 
But we also know we are not moving fast enough. In some areas, we risk backsliding.
 
And just as progress in one area supports progress in the other, so too does failure in one force failure in the other.
 
This interdependency is true across the full spectrum of the 2030 Agenda, but it is particularly pronounced in the links between empowering women on the one hand and eradicating poverty and ending hunger on the other, the focus of our discussion today.
 
Let me approach this in the context of a broad picture. And let’s be clear. We’re failing women the world over, in rural and in urban areas, in the Global North and in the Global South - to the detriment of us all.
 
Just 5 percent of heads of state and government are women. Just 5 percent of women lead the world’s largest companies.
 
These abysmal numbers are the result of practical and cultural obstacles women face at all levels, from lack of opportunity to lack of basic human decency, from explicit legal barriers to implicit attitudes and cultural norms.
 
Things are changing of course, with inspiring trailblazers all over the planet, in Africa in particular. Just yesterday, I was excited to see my former colleague Sahle-Work Zewde elected Ethiopia’s first female president. 
 
And I was encouraged to learn that the highest share of women in the workforce globally is found in Africa.
 
But the pace of change is too slow. Just think that it would take another 217 years to achieve gender equality if we don’t accelerate our efforts.
 
Promoting equality is a fundamental goal in itself. But more than this, we simply cannot address the complex and growing global challenges of our day without the full capacity of half of our population. 
 
Women’s equal participation in the labour force would unlock trillions for our global economy - in London as much as in Lagos, in rural Africa as much as in America’s corn belt.
 
Women are proven agents of sustainable development, investing salaries and profits into their families and communities, with benefits for health, education, and stability.
 
With benefits, crucially, for food security.
 
For in our world of plenty, one person in nine still does not have enough to eat. Most of them are women.
 
And it could yet get worse. From overcultivation to overgrazing, from deforestation to desertification: once fertile soils turn into barren land, triggering humanitarian and economic crises.
 
Meanwhile, food demand only grows - in Africa, by over 50 percent in the coming years.
 
Clearly, we need to redouble our efforts promoting and applying sustainable agricultural practices.
 
But thinking about the right answer to this challenge also brings me back to the interdependency I mentioned at the outset.
 
And it reminds me, as so often, of Kofi Annan, who saw this earlier than most. Over a decade ago, he told us that, and I quote him “no tool for development is more effective than the empowerment of women…no other policy as likely to raise productivity…and no policy as sure to improve nutrition and promote health.”
 
And we have since found powerful evidence that there is also no policy more important in sustaining peace. In fact, peace agreements are 30 percent more likely to last when women are meaningfully represented at the negotiating table - instead of routinely excluded.
 
All of which is why Kofi Annan used to say that we are not facing “problems in search of a solution…We know what works, and what doesn’t.”
 
“What doesn’t work” is continuing business as usual, with all its short-sightedness and power imbalances.
 
“What works”, by contrast, is challenging convention, is taking the holistic view, is acting sustainably. “What works”, above all, is women’s empowerment at all levels.
 
Which is why your theme today - “African women, the driving force for economic and social development” - is spot on.
 
All across the continent, women are taking charge, as entrepreneurs, as innovators, as pioneers - they are the ones paving the way towards an Africa that is inclusive and integrated; prosperous and vibrant.
 
Today’s Forum is a chance to move ahead in the fight for gender equality, to keep the ambition high and work together in our collective endeavour for a better, more just future.
 
I wish you every success in your discussions.
 
And I thank you very much for being here today.