The World Summit for Social Development

March 1995, Copenhagen, Denmark

Distinguished Chairperson, may I first congratulate you on your appointment and thank the Government of Denmark for their fine work in organizing this important conference. It is a great honour to address this global gathering on International Women’s Day, especially as UNIFEM is the organization within the UN system dedicated to the empowerment of women.

The Road to Copenhagen

Distinguished delegates and friends from the NGO community, my task today is to put the themes of this conference into the context of the realities of women’s lives; to convey to you what UN conferences on key issues affecting the world look like to the world’s poorest women. Many women have been central in the global process of consensus-building that began at the 1992 Environment and Development Conference, through the 1993 Human Right’s Conference, and at the 1994 International Population and Development Conference. This World Summit for Social Development is the last stop on the road to an historic event for women worldwide: the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women.

From Rio to Vienna to Cairo to Copenhagen and on to Beijing, the common thread running through each conference has implicitly been the empowerment of women. Each conference is a milestone in women’s struggle for equality, peace, and a healthy planet.

Women understand that words written and spoken at these conferences are only the beginning. The task facing UNIFEM is to follow up on the commitments made by the international community and to ensure that the empowerment of women remains central as the path to success for us all.

What does the empowerment of women mean? Women’s empowerment has four components: women’s sense of self worth; the right to determine choices; the power to control their own lives within and outside the home; and the ability to influence the direction of social change and create a just social and economic order nationally and internationally.

Empowerment also emphasizes women’s freedom of choice and power to control their own lives at the public level of social and economic policymaking.  The challenge we face is to direct the strategies of women’s empowerment to the workings of markets and states so that they are responsive to women’s needs and contributions as both producers and reproducers.

What are those gains and commitments towards the empowerment of women that have been made at past UN conferences?

In Rio, world leaders embraced the notion that the effective participation of women as environmental managers is vital to achieving sustainable human development. In Vienna, governments acknowledged that women’s rights are human rights -universal, inalienable and indivisible — and that attention to gender-specific violations, such as violence against women, is necessary to fulfill the promise of human rights for all. In Cairo, gender equality and equity and women’s empowerment, reproductive health and rights were recognized as the cornerstones of effective population-related development policies.

Today, in Copenhagen, the draft Declaration of the World Summit for Social Development recognizes that equality and the empowerment of women are not only essential to the survival of the human race but prerequisites for the achievement of the goals that bring us together today: productive employment, social integration, and poverty eradication.

I look forward to the day that the visionary words of all these conferences are truly transformed into action. UNIFEM already has the commitment to turn rhetoric into realty for women. I am convinced that if UNIFEM is adequately supported and strengthened, we can build the capacity to synthesize the results of these conferences and reach out to women in each country of the world to allow them to improve the quality of their lives. In other words, we can build stable lives and healthy communities by investing in women’s capacity and leadership.

UNIFEM has had twenty years of experience working in the context of women’s poverty, employment and empowerment. We would Like to share our experience with the international community.

Through the Eyes of the Poorest Women

As I said, my task today is to convey to you what the themes of the conference actually mean to the world’s poorest women:

Women who make up 70% of the world’s poor.

Women within poor countries and communities who are more impoverished than men.

Women who bear a disproportionate share of poverty worldwide and women who shoulder an unequal burden in coping with poverty at the local level.

Women among the rural poor whose numbers have doubled in the last twenty years.

First, we must recognize that across most regional and social groups women suffer from social isolation simply because they are women. Before birth, sex-selected abortions are nearly 100 percent female. Female infanticide is still practised, particularly in areas with coercive family planning programs. Women in many countries have no right to their own person; they are denied participation in social, economic, and political institutions. The result: Poverty has a female face.

Social Integration

Seen from the perspective of poor women, social integration takes on a special meaning. Poor women’s lives are the first to be disrupted by war. War is an activity of men in which there is never any victory for women. Collective rape of women in war has re-emerged as a war crime. The challenge of securing peace is fundamental for social integration. Therefore, women can no longer accept a passive fate as victims of war. Today, women are not involved in peacekeeping processes. Peacekeepers must recognize how war affects women and how women can become effective builders of peace.

Displacement of people by war, environmental degradation, and industrial zoning create environment, development, and war refugees. We must recognize that women are the majority of the world’s refugees and then work to protect their rights in recipient countries. Women refugees struggle to survive while continuing as caregivers to their children, the elderly and the sick. Yet, if abused by the person they followed to a new country, they often have no recourse or rights of their own.

Violence against women is pervasive not just in war or refugee camps but on the street, in the workplace, and in the home. Domestic violence not only causes physical suffering but disrupts women’s lives and blocks their individual growth and participation in society.

One cannot ignore another violence against women — the violence of economic systems that do not value the contributions women make.

As was agreed in Vienna, women’s rights are human rights and “violence against women must be eliminated in public and private life.”

Seen from the perspective of poor women, social isolation and disintegration are the cause, not the effect, of their poverty. Their traditional social and economic isolation coupled with the recent weakening of traditional familial ties of reciprocity and mutual obligation have left millions of women in the developing world face-to-face with the prospect of impoverishment.


Employment generation has special significance for poor women. For them, unemployment and underemployment have little meaning. For those women who are able to get formal sector jobs, employment generation alone is not enough: jobs need to offer equal pay for equal work, human dignity, and security

For women, who cannot get formal sector jobs — the vast majority — are not likely to be unemployed or underemployed. Across the developing world, women work longer hours than men, and put in triple days of paid work, unpaid work, and domestic work. With women heading one third of all households world-wide, more attention must be paid to what women need to maintain a livelihood.

As was agreed in the International Covenant of Economic and Social Rights, equal pay for equal work is a right.

Women also require personal safety in employment. Women should be protected and provided with a safe workplace, whether in the home or not.

Many new jobs are being created with minimal safeguards to protect women’s health and safety. We can only guess at the impact on women’s health from environmental hazards.

As was agreed in Rio, women are the caretakers of the environment and important actors in sustainable development.

Clearly, what most women in the developing world want from employment is to secure the livelihoods of their families, to gain economic independence and power for themselves, and to participate in the structures and institutions that govern their lives.


The “feminization of poverty” increases at an ever faster pace. Not only do women make up 70% of the world’s one billion poor, but 62% of all women live in countries with a gross domestic product of less than $1,000 US dollars a year. Many factors are making women poorer than men. The first, which sets the stage for all the others, is discrimination against women.

Girls are born with three strikes against them because they receive lower quality health care, nutrition and education than boys. Women make up two-thirds of the world’s illiterate and half of the women in Asia and Africa are malnourished. This power imbalance only grows greater in many countries as women are prohibited from owning or inheriting land, property, and other assets.

As was agreed in Cairo, women have the equal right to obtain credit and negotiate contracts in their own name and on their own behalf and exercise their legal rights to inheritance.

Women lack access to training that builds skills and knowledge. Many enter the labour force or engage in productive activities on an unequal footing due to illiteracy, which is then compounded by a lack of entrepreneurial and technical skills.

As was agreed in Cairo, governments and employers are urged to eliminate gender discrimination in hiring, wages, benefits, training and job security.

From the perspectives of poor women, poverty cannot be alleviated until its causes are addressed: powerful prejudicial social inheritance systems; discriminatory market structures; gender-blind development models andpolicies; the global political crises of militarism and fundamentalism; and the global economic crises of debt, trade, and restructuring.

Experience tells us that these causes will not be addressed unless and until women and their organizations are empowered to demand and enact change.

The Role of UNIFEM

Having evolved out of women’s hopes and aspirations, while at the same time being part of the United Nations system, UNIFEM is the only fund in the UN system solely devoted to the empowerment of women and brings women’s concerns to the UN system as a whole. Simply put, UNIFEM invests in women.

For UNIFEM to help implement what was agreed in these international conferences, it must continue to pursue new partnerships with other actors in the private and non-profit sectors as well as with governmental agencies. UNIFEM will continue to move upstream on the micro-macro continuum taking experience gained at the micro-level and using it deliberately to affect change at the macro-level to ensure that macro-development contributes to the well-being of all.

UNIFEM is a valuable resource for “lessons learned” because it has twenty years of experience implementing projects affecting women’s livelihoods, personal security and leadership.

UNIFEM is a nexus for multiple networks, drawing in international and regional agencies, governments and NGOs, policymakers and local communities, as well as any other relevant grouping engaged in innovative development thinking and practice. Through these multiple linkages extended globally, UNIFEM can be an extremely effective advocate of women, articulating and amplifying the realities of the different regions.

UNIFEM seeks to contribute to systems and processes that strengthen women’s agenda for change. UNIFEM raises funds and then puts them directly into the hands of women. It also facilitates women’s input into the promotion of good governance, greater accountability and new ethics based on secure livelihoods. In the process, UNIFEM aims to provide women with the analytical and practical tools that empower them and enhance their life chances.

As significant as International Women’s Day has become, women can no longer be satisfied with symbolic gestures. Women want real, long-term commitments that make a difference in their life every day of the year.

At this critical juncture of human history, UNIFEM is striving to pull together every effort, large and small, that is headed in the right direction. For it is only through a global convergence of energies from every level and sector that we will build a new development agenda for a sustainable and equitable world, not just for ourselves but for future generations.