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Her Excellency Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garcés Addresses the Women’s Assembly

Her Excellency Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garcés addressed the Women’s Assembly at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

Greetings to each one of you participating in this 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions. Thank you very much for having me today in this global dialogue, much-needed dialogue to speak about peace, about rights and dignity of humankind and the integrity of nature. I am here today to say a few words about half of the world’s population, women and girls. 

Let me begin by the obvious. When women are treated well and fairly, societies are healthier, more prosperous, more equal, more democratic and economies work better. And it is not only an issue of having the numbers right, it is an issue of the quality of our societies and political systems. And the paradox is that we have abundant evidence that inclusive laws and policies, closing gaps, in access to education, jobs, equal pay and representation in decision making, in politics, in financial services, in peace and climate, really pays off in society. 

And yet, gender equality has become a political battlefield. In too many parts of the world, being a woman has become a risk, a liability, and not only social and economic rights and access to financial services, to health protection against gender-based violence, but it’s also on the political and civil rights front. We are witnessing increasing violence against women in politics. And this rollback in women’s rights not only affects women, but has an impact on social cohesion and the quality of our democracies and economies. 

To address this paradox, we need to mind the gap, as I say. The last gender index report has shown that progress on gender equality has been too slow, too fragile, and too fragmented. A third of countries are either making no progress or moving backwards. And less than a quarter of countries are progressing towards gender equality. And basically, the shorthand of that story is that women are underrepresented in all areas, in science, in jobs, in politics, in leadership, and are overrepresented in all domains of underpaid and unpaid work, especially care work, and in all spaces where important decisions are made.

Furthermore, the repercussions of these disparities are not merely statistical. They manifest in real-world scenarios. For example, according to UN Women, 130 million girls are deprived of formal education. The aftermath of the pandemic alone deterred 11 million girls from returning to school. These numbers represent untapped potential and an uncertain future for these girls. A recent study showed that an additional year of schooling can boost girls’ future earnings up to 20%. And in the labor force, despite women showcasing exemplary skills and competence, women find themselves cornered out of higher positions, constituting a mere 25% in leadership roles. This trend will only widen the existing parity gap. Particularly, this happens in the most impoverished rural areas where women are often digitally marginalized, with over 90% of jobs forecasted to require digital skills. And of course, this divide hampers women workforce participation. 

And according to the gender snapshot 2022, 388 million women and girls are living in extreme poverty. This poverty gap is expected to increase by 2030 as women will still be the majority of the world’s extreme poor. Additionally, one in three women has suffered from gender-based violence. For some women and girls, their house is the most dangerous place. It is estimated that every 11 minutes one is killed by someone in her own family.

And the international system is not doing better. A recent report from our organization Global Women Leaders Voices examining 33 of the world’s largest multilateral organizations revealed that merely a third of these organizations are currently led by women. 13 of these organizations have only had male leaders in their entire history, while five of them have elected a woman director just once in their entire history.

Although we have to acknowledge that there has been progress in the past decades, when considering the long arc of history, the journey for women in politics is fraught with peril. An inter-parliamentary union study found that 81% of female parliamentarians have suffered psychological violence and nearly have faced grave threats, including threats of death and physical harm. 

So I think that this scenario is bleak, but we can act. We can make things change, and I would like to leave you with four areas of transformation. 

Number one, affirmative action on legal and policy frameworks to equalize rights. In the 21st century, we still have discriminatory laws and policies that hinder women’s access to public life and equal opportunities. We need more women in power at all levels of governance, from city councils to companies, from parliaments to governments. We need more women in the international system.

The number two is funding, investing in women pays off. Women’s financial inclusion and gender-responsive budgets and investment in public services and infrastructure are highly needed.

The number three is women in the world of work. We need to reduce structural barriers in the business ladder. Women are overrepresented in entry-level positions and within the lowest paid positions. Women’s representation drops from 55 percent at entry level to 27 percent at senior leadership positions, especially this becomes worse in STEM positions. Women representation drops from 29 percent to only 12 percent. This is terrible. We really need to reshape the care economy as well. The care sector is growing in demand and needs radical overhaul since it is frequently unrecognized, unpaid and mostly performed by women. In some countries, it goes up to 80 percent. The remedy to this is visibility and value of the care work and this should be enhanced. It has to be, the care work has to be well-remunerated, professionalized and defeminized. The other critical issue for economic empowerment is to close the digital gap. We already mentioned that women and girls make up the majority of the 3.9 billion people in rural areas who lack internet access. We need more inclusive digital infrastructure for women and girls.

And last but not least, women are agents of peace. No peace process is genuinely inclusive without the voices of women. Women not only have the fundamental right to partake in political decisions at all levels, but also bring about broader perspectives. Our participation in peace-building and peacemaking is not just beneficial, but essential. Our inclusion as women, our protection and elevation as agents of peace will pave the way for a more peaceful and inclusive world.

My final words will be addressed to young women that are the current generation of young professionals, young change makers. We live in a world where peace, security and a life of dignity and rights are not just ideals, but can be achievable tangible realities. However, we know and we have to remember that many, too many girls and women are still left behind. Our mission, our imperative should be to ensure that no one is left behind.

Each one of you are or should become leaders and defenders of a society that is more equal, more peaceful, more humane, and that’s towards nature. Use your voices, your intellect, your passion to push for actions that can transform the lives of women and girls the world over. Surely we are living in a time of great distress, but also of great opportunity where hope and transformative action should be the path and the engine. By working collectively and ensuring no woman or girl is left behind, we can really forge a better world of unity and diversity, diversity of culture, of faith, of language. And the time to start shaping a gender-equal future starts today and it starts with you all.

I thank you for your attention.

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