Margot Wallström is no longer a government minister, Minister for Foreign Affairs

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Speech by Margot Wallström at Tunis Forum on Gender Equality

Published

Tunis 24 April 2019

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Monsieur le Premier ministre, Madame la directrice générale, ministres, excellences, amis.

Je suis tellement heureuse d’être ici avec vous aujourd’hui. Je voudrais remercier le gouvernement tunisien, l’ONU Femmes et le PNUD pour avoir organisé cette conférence. Et à toutes et à tous ici présents – merci, merci beaucoup pour tout ce que vous faites. Votre travail – souvent dans des conditions difficiles – rend le monde meilleur.

Vous êtes nombreux ici à m’avoir rejoint à la conférence à Stockholm l’année dernière ! L’élan créé là-bas est toujours vivant, grâce à vous, et grâce à la Tunisie, qui a pris le relais.

This is a relay that will continue in France and at the Global Forum next year. These are links in a chain, strongly connected to the Beijing platform, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2020.

Tunisia is the right place for us to meet. This is a country where gender equality has made great progress. Almost half of your local politicians here are women. And your law on violence against women is commendable.

You deserve our homage also in a broader sense. Over the last eight years you have made remarkable progress in the development of democracy, the rule of law and freedom of speech. Tunisia is on the right path, and I encourage you to continue along this route.

There are more than 600 participants from 80 countries gathered here today. Students, entrepreneurs, activists, politicians, researchers, bloggers. Imagine how many cultures, religions, traditions, societies are represented. In this diversity, we are all united in our work for gender equality. And, believe me, this is a time when such unity is badly needed.

I want to begin by describing the challenges facing gender equality and the struggle between good and evil that we experience today. After that, I will make the case for being concrete in our work, and point out three areas where we need to step up our work for gender equality.

***

Excellencies,

We meet in difficult times.

The latest example of this occurred yesterday, when the UN adopted resolution 2467 on sexual violence in conflict.

The resolution is important and we welcome it. It advances the agenda of conflict-related sexual violence by focusing on the survivors.

However, sexual and reproductive health and rights were not included in the resolution. You can all read media reports about how such language was blocked by some.

The international community could not agree on emphasising the need of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence for basic sexual and reproductive health and rights. Shall we deny these victims emergency contraceptives? Safe abortions? Sexual education? The right to know about HIV and AIDS?

I actually think that the United States should consider its membership in the Friends of WPS group.

That is where we are at the moment.

Women are always the first to suffer the consequences of authoritarianism, of a shrinking democratic space, of the questioning of human rights.

For some reason, these authoritarian leaders always start by caring about women. They care about how they dress, how they behave, their sexuality.

Just think of the opposition to sexual and reproductive health and rights. Of threats to women’s rights activists. This has all come in the wake of democratic backsliding, justified by a rhetoric of conservative values – talk of gender roles that we thought belonged in the last century.

And yet: why?

Sometimes, I think that these powerful men are afraid. They are afraid of losing power, of losing wealth, of losing love…

At the same time, we must not forget that in other parts of the world, there is a sense of momentum for gender equality.

Recently, one of Africa’s largest countries, Ethiopia, appointed a government in which half of the ministers are women. I recently received news that a women mediators network in Asia has been initiated by the largest Muslim country in the world – Indonesia. World finance institutions such as the World Bank talk increasingly about the role of gender equality in economic growth.

In a way, what we are seeing is a growing polarisation, a situation in which two opposite camps are both feeling strong and confident.

I see this as part of a larger struggle, between trends of democracy and authoritarianism; between openness and repression; between hope and fear: yes, one might even call it a struggle between good and evil. 

We need to recognise this division, and the fact that we have a responsibility; that it is up to us to fight for what we believe to be right. 

***

I often make the case that we have to be concrete in what we do. Our work should aim at solving real problems in people’s everyday lives; at creating improvements that are felt directly.

Partly because real change is what people want, after all.

But also, by doing so, we show the sceptics and opponents of gender equality that there is nothing mysterious about it. That it is simply about taking down obstacles that hinder women from having the same rights, duties and possibilities as men.

This is an important principle of our feminist foreign policy. To structure this work, we use three Rs – rights, representation and resources.

This means looking at whether women have the same right to education, to work, to marry who they want, to divorce, to run businesses, to open bank accounts, for example. Are women represented where decisions are made that affect them – in government, parliament, local assemblies, businesses and organisations? Do women’s and girls’ interests receive the same resources – in budgets, in development cooperation?

We must always remind sceptics that gender equality is not a women’s issue – it is a human rights issue and a peace and security issue. It improves life not only for one half, but for both halves of the population.

Gender equality leads to more sustainable peace. This is what the international community concluded 20 years ago when the UN adopted resolution 1325.

And it goes beyond that. Gender equality is a matter of democracy. Of human rights. Of social development.

Societies where men and women are equal are more prosperous. They are healthier, their economies are doing better, they are better educated.

The reason is not that women are better than men (although we sometimes might like to think so…) But that we have different experiences and different knowledge.

***

Now, let me point out three areas where our work can be stepped up.

Firstly, there is so much we can do to improve girls’ and women’s social and economic rights. I would encourage you to look at the World Bank report Women, Business and the Law for an excellent example of meticulous, systematic research on how women are discriminated against in economic activity in different countries. I actually think this report could be used as a tool, working our way through it, heading by heading, to eradicate discrimination against women.

In this area, the conditions for girls need particular attention. We should do more to support girls’ right to education. And let me ask all of you to join me in the battle against child marriages. This practice has such a high price. It deprives girls of the right to be children, of their education, and of their right to their own bodies. And imagine what an obstacle this is to development, how much a society loses, when so much potential is trapped.

Secondly, as I mentioned before, there is the issue of sexual and reproductive health and rights. This is, perhaps, the area which is the subject of the most resistance from conservative forces. It is essential to counter this pressure by compensating with investments in maternal health, safe and legal abortions, access to contraception and sex education.

Thirdly: nothing about them without them. Women’s participation – in democratic institutions, in justice systems, in business, in peace processes, in civil service. We should never accept that women have less than half the representation. If someone ever asks why, you might just ask them to look around. There’s not much to lose by giving it a try, is there?

In all this work, we must do all we can to stop violence against women. Because how can we ask women to participate, to make use of rights and resources, if they are not safe even in their own homes? 

Let me stress that gender equality cannot be achieved without men and boys. We all need to work together. Men and boys are central to contributing to an equal sharing of parental duties, influence, finances, education and pay.

I want to say something about fathers. Many successful women I have talked to seem to have one thing in common: a supportive father who believed in his daughter. That is not to diminish the role of mothers. But sometimes we forget how much it means to have a father who does not accept that his daughter does not have the same opportunities as a boy.

You might have seen the photo exhibition ‘Swedish dads’, which has now become ‘Rwandian dads’, ‘Latvian dads’ and ‘Tunisian dads’. I know that this work has instigated debate and discussion in many countries – also here in Tunisia.  

***

Excellencies,

Some of you might have heard of Greta Thunberg – a 16-year-old girl from Sweden who has become world-famous for her fight against climate change.

There is one quote that I would like to share – when adults have been saying that it gives them hope to see the activism of younger generations, she has said “I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic. Then I want you to act”.

She is talking about the climate, another defining issue of our time. But maybe there is something for us to take with us, too – do we sometimes talk and debate too much, and act too little?

And yet, I cannot help but feel hopeful. Meeting with all of you, learning about your work, and your courage.

***

I would like to end this speech by citing a poem by the Polish writer Tadeusz Rozewicz, about ‘Old women’. What he captures is this – when boys and men are on the battlefields, it is women who keep life going. They are the ones who go to markets, cook and take care of households. Born in Poland in the 1920s, he surely knew what he was writing about…

I like old women;
Ugly women, mean women
They are the salt of the earth

Dictators clown around, come and go
Hands stained with human blood

Old women get up at dawn
buy meat, fruit, bread
clean, cook, stand on the street

Their sons discover America
perish at Thermopylae
die on the cross
conquer the cosmos

Old women are indestructible
they smile knowingly

And when they die
a tear rolls down a cheek
and joins a smile on the face of a young woman

I think this poem illustrates how women carry. They carry children, water, meat and bread, but they also carry the responsibilities of keeping a family together. Of bringing up children and making life work despite sorrow. They carry the painful experience of violence. Despite all burdens, they carry on.

And so must we. Let us carry on the work for gender equality. Despite the setbacks, with the help of all good forces. 

I am confident that the world belongs to those who work to make it better. And that means all of you. Bon courage!