Peace | Speeches

Women and Development

State Visit to the People's Republic of China

Beijing, China

August 29, 2005


Your Excellency, President Hu Jintao
Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends

I am honoured to have been invited to make the keynote address at this historic city of Beijing. I recall vividly my mother the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, addressing the first UN World Conference on Women in 1975 in Mexico City, 30 years ago, as the world’s first woman Head of Government. I wish to express my gratitude to President Hu Jintao for your words of encouragement to us women of the world.

The 10th Anniversary of the Beijing Conference coincides with the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the United Nations and the 5th Anniversary of the UN Millennium Summit. This is therefore a unique opportunity to focus on women’s issues and bring it to the top of the international agenda. The Beijing conference in 1995 took into account UN Global Summits of the early 1990s such as the Rio Environmental Summit of 1992, the Human Rights Summit in Vienna of 1993, the Cairo Population Summit of 1994 and the Copenhagen Social Summit. When one talks of women’s issues, there should not be a narrow selective focus purely on rights of women. The entire construct of society and all the global issues as well as the relations between man and women need to be holistically evaluated. Only a fundamental restructuring of society and its decision making bodies at international as well as national levels could really ensure that women are fully empowered and that they have their rightful place as equal partners in all aspects of human endeavour. Being has much to contribute to this.

Despite undoubted progress in human development at the international level as well as in national contexts, it is a sad fact that women continue to be marginalized even within the very process of so called development. Women still do not have a decisive role although they are deeply involved in every strand of the fabric of human life. One can point to the unpaid household work of women who are the backbone of their respective families. There are women working in the agricultural and non-formal sector, and as in Sri Lanka, even in sectors with a vital financial impact on the economy such as the garment manufacturing industry, the plantation industry and in expatriate labour. Sri Lanka has shown good growth rates but we cannot measure development only in terms of growth figures. We must include its total impact on society equally on men, women and children. Only then can we achieve what is china is called Xiao Kang.

Clearly to achieve a genuinely equitable role for women, we need to ensure that they become a part and parcel of decision-making processes. These should be not only politically at periodic elections, but also continuously in families, in villages and neighborhoods, in political parties, in the business sectors and civil society. They should not be passive participants in the process, but an integral part of the machinery of power. No doubt the world has moved from actions for women’s welfare and upliftment towards the empowerment of women to lead together with men, in every sphere of society and government.

The creation of the United Nations and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights led to a series of treaties and conventions articulating, enshrining and codifying human rights including those of women. However, we strongly believe as Secretary-General Kofi Annan pointed out at the UN Commission on Human Rights in April this year that and I quote: “the era of declaration is now giving way, as it should, to an era of implementation”. Today in Beijing we have so many leaders gathered here who deal with women’s issues. Let us commit ourselves to the task of implementing and giving life to the myriad of declarations and resolutions on Women.

The Beijing Platform of Action continues to be the yardstick by which we measure gender balance and equality. There have been assessments of this Platform of Action at the UN an elsewhere. The message is that we should measure and judge the advancement of women not in isolation but in relation to how they stand in all aspects of life with their male counterparts. Interventionist affirmative actions by governments are needed to effect gender balance.

We have moved through several stages. First was “Women in Development” followed by “Gender and Development” and the “Gender Development Index” and thereafter “Gender Empowerment Measure”. We now have the “Millennium Development Goals”. These call for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women as effective means to combat poverty, hunger, disease, ignorance and to stimulate all round development. This I believe is a reflection of Your Excellency’s policy of “putting women first”.

All eight Millennium Development Goals are closely linked to women. The achievement of these goals and gender equality and empowerment of women are intrinsically dependent on each other.

Permit me to touch briefly on my own country Sri Lanka. We have had people-centered development and welfare policies from the mid 1940s. This has ensured Sri Lanka a high place in the UN Human Development Index. My Governments have implemented pro-poor policies to eradicate poverty as well as to strengthen programmes for gender equality and development of women. We have a Women’s Bureau since 1978 and a Women’s Ministry which includes social welfare and a national Committee on Women Implementing Sri Lanka’s Charter. It has many achievements to its credit including the role in amending the Penal Code to identify new offences and enhance punishment for sexual offense.

We have created in Sri Lanka for the first time in the Developing World, a Child Protection Authority with wide powers to deal with child abuse of all types as well as to institute actions for the protection of Child Rights. We have a female literacy rate of 97%. Enrolment in universities is high, with comparatively high rates of employment at executive levels. High literacy rates have resulted in high standards of maternal and child care, placing Sri Lanka high in the Human development Index. We have now achieved zero gender disparity in implementing Millennium Development Goals, and Education for All.

We are in admiration of China’s great successes in economic and social development – unprecedented anywhere in our globe in the last century. We are proud that the Chinese woman has played an essential role in this process. In china, I understand crimes against women such as trafficking, rape, and forces prostitution have been sharply reduced. China has numerous agreements with other countries to cooperate against trafficking. This sort of inter-country practical action is excellent.

Beyond government activity, community based initiatives everywhere bear testimony to the visible empowerment of women in the rural sectors. Yet much remains to be dome to fully implement the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. At the international level, Sri Lanka is a Party to all seven Covenant and Treaties dealing with human rights, including CEDAW.

What we need is a focus on a shared partnership and leadership in the new millennium. The hand that rocks the cradle could no doubt contribute much to heal the wounds and smooth the conflicts in our troubled world. The Beijing conference should make specific recommendations towards this goal, including steps and measures for women to emerge as equal partners in humanity’s march towards a more enlightened, peaceful and prosperous world. In the last analysis, it is the women themselves who must realize and develop their self worth and emerge to the forefront. To take from Chairman Mao Zedong’s words: “Women hold up more than half the sky”

I Thank you,