Ambassador Yohannes’ Remarks on International Women’s Day 2015

Ambassador Yohannes moderates a panel discussion for International Women's Day with Stefano Scarpetta, Nicola Harrington and Marco Mira d'Ercole
Ambassador Yohannes moderates a panel discussion for International Women’s Day with Stefano Scarpetta, Nicola Harrington and Marco Mira d’Ercole

On March 6, 2015, U.S. Ambassador to the OECD Daniel Yohannes moderated a panel discussion at OECD Headquarters on “Gender Equality and Well-being in OECD and non-OECD Economies.” The event, organized in honor International Women’s Day featured the Director of the Employment, Labor and Social Affairs Directorate, Stefano Scarpetta; the Deputy Director of the Development Center, Nicola Harrington; and the head of the Division for Household Statistics and Progress, Marco Mira d’Ercole. Below are his opening remarks as prepared for delivery.

Mr. Secretary-General,

Excellencies and distinguished guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome to this discussion on gender equality and well-being, organized in honor of International Women’s Day.

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the many achievements and milestones in the ongoing struggle for gender equality.
It’s also an occasion to think about how far we still have to go, and how we can work together to deliver on the promise of empowerment for women worldwide.

2015 is an especially significant year to reflect on the past and future of the gender equality movement. This year we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the landmark Beijing Women’s Conference.  We are also defining the next set of development goals, of which gender should be a key component.

Let me say a few words about Beijing.  Beijing was not the first conference of its kind, but it was revolutionary for two reasons.  The first reason was its reach.  Beijing was the largest conference the UN ever organized, with over 17,000 participants and 30,000 activists from 189 nations.  So it was really the first time the world came together and acknowledged that gender discrimination is not an issue for wealthy countries or poor countries.  It is rather a global challenge with, and I quote, “serious consequences for the well-being of all people in all countries, irrespective of levels of economic development.”

The second reason why Beijing was so important is that it produced a groundbreaking outcome document.  The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is the most progressive and ambitious blueprint to date for advancing women’s rights.  All 189 countries present in Beijing signed on to the platform and committed to making changes in 12 critical areas, including poverty reduction, health, education, and the environment.  And this would have a major impact on the gender equality movement in the years to come.

Indeed, within five years, constitutional amendments were enacted ensuring equal protection under the law in virtually all Latin American countries. In 1995, the United Nations adopted Resolution 1325, the first resolution to address the critical issue of gender and conflict.  Numerous countries used the Platform for Action to press for strong laws on violence against women, and over 100 governments established changes to improve representation of women in public policy-making.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, Beijing helped produce a change in mindset.  Today it is widely accepted that a country’s success depends on its ability to empower its girls and women.  When Hillary Clinton declared at the Beijing Conference that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights,” she made world headlines.  Twenty years later, this has become self-evident.

And yet, as we will discuss today, millions and millions of women and girls continue to be denied their rights and deprived of equal access to education, equal pay, and equal opportunity.

In my former role as CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, I saw firsthand the devastating effects of gender discrimination in the developing world.

To address this discrimination, the MCC required that countries take concrete action on gender equality as a condition for MCC assistance.  And this strong stance on gender had an impact.  For example, we worked with the government of Lesotho to eliminate gender-based restrictions on property ownership.  I met women whose lives, families and communities were transformed by this change.  I remember one woman in particular, Maleribe Leleka, who was able to invest in a piece of land for the first time in her life, and build a safe house for her family.

Of course developing countries aren’t the only ones held back by gender discrimination.  The OECD estimates that if participation rates in the labor force for women were to reach those of men by 2030, OECD member countries would see a 12% boost in their GDP.  The OECD is helping G-20 governments do this very thing by working with governments on specific policy actions that would increase female participation in the labor market.

So the bottom line is that we have a lot of work to do together to empower girls and women everywhere, and to unlock economic growth and prosperity worldwide.  The sustainable development goals should be an important step in this direction.  The United States is deeply committed to ensuring that gender has a central place in the post-2015 agenda. To quote U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, “No country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind.  This is why the United States believes gender equality is critical to our shared goals of prosperity, stability, and peace, and why investing in women and girls worldwide is critical to U.S. foreign policy.”

Now let me turn to the OECD.  This organization has a critical role to play in helping us understand the causes, consequences and solutions to gender discrimination.

But if the OECD is to live up to its potential as a leader in this area, we all need to work together to mainstream gender in a meaningful way.  Gender cannot be a side issue, a separate funding stream, or an afterthought; it must be woven into the fabric of the organization so that it informs every single issue the OECD addresses: environment, inequality, education, investment, agriculture, and so on.

So let’s hear from our panelists about what the OECD is doing now on gender equality and think about how all of us can support and help expand this work.