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

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Speech by Margot Wallström at R.M. Salas Memorial Lecture in New York

Published

UNFPA, New York 30 April 2019

Check against delivery

Mr/Madam Chair, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen – friends,

I am so honoured and happy to be here and to deliver the 15th Rafael M. Salas Memorial Lecture. It is also a great pleasure to do so this year, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of UNFPA. If I could I would mention all of you at UNFPA by name and thank you for all the important work that you are doing.

Rafael Salas was a pioneer in the field of population assistance. He succeeded in conveying a greater understanding of the crucial links between population and development to a broader audience, without ever losing sight of the people behind the statistics.

This year, we are also commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Programme of Action from the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994.

The UNFPA State of World Population Report 2019 outlines the journey we have been on since 1994 to ensure rights and choices for all. It shows that more needs to be done to close the gaps and achieve the goals agreed in Cairo.

***

I would like to take this opportunity to talk to you about gender equality, then ending on sexual and reproductive health.

Let me start by saying this: these are difficult times. 

We had a recent reminder of this just last week, when the UN adopted resolution 2467 on sexual violence in conflict.

The resolution is important and we have welcomed it. It advances the agenda of conflict-related sexual violence by focusing on the survivors, including children conceived from rape. A thanks and congratulations to the special representative, her team, Germany and others who fought and worked hard on this resolution.

However, sexual and reproductive health and rights were not included in the resolution. Such language was blocked by three permanent members of the UN security council, and you can read media reports about how that happened.

In other words: the international community could not agree on stating the need for basic sexual and reproductive health and rights of survivors of sexual violence in conflict. Shall we deny these victims emergency contraceptives? Safe abortions? The right to know about their bodies, to know about HIV and AIDS?

With all our knowledge, with everything we know and are capable of – is this where we want to be?

I will come back to why this is such a serious problem and why we need to do more to reverse the trend. But first, I would like to look at the broader context of the backsliding of democracy in the world. I will then say a few words about how Sweden works to advance gender equality through our feminist foreign policy. And finally, I will come back to the issue of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and why we need to do more to promote it.

***

What happened last week in the Security Council around resolution 2467 was deeply disappointing. But I cannot say it came as a surprise.

No, these pushbacks against gender equality and women’s rights come at the same time we see a decline of democracy around the world:

This year, for the first time in decades, more people live in countries with authoritarian tendencies than in countries making democratic progress. 

We see this in the statistics on journalists killed in the line of duty. We see it in the hate speech on Twitter and Facebook. We see it in the undermining of democratic processes, institutions and judicial systems, in the erosion of public confidence in democratic values, and as the global elite grows richer and richer, and social inequality rises. 

Wherever authoritarianism gains ground, women always seem to be the first to suffer the consequences.

For some reason, authoritarian leaders seem to care a lot about women – in the wrong way. They care about how they dress, how they behave, their sexuality. They oppose women’s rights to decide about their own sexual and reproductive health. They threaten women’s rights activists. They talk about gender roles that the rest of us thought belonged in the last century.

Why?

I put my theory as a question: are these powerful men afraid? Afraid of losing power, of losing a position, losing wealth. But maybe also afraid of losing love? They are well aware of the power that women hold: of giving life and love.

At the same time, there are parts of the world where democracy is on the rise, and where gender equality is being strengthened. It serves as encouragement to the brave women and men that dare to stand up and speak out. 

Last week I was in Tunis, attending the international Forum on Gender Equality, a follow-up to the Stockholm Forum last year. Tunisia began its democratic transition eight years ago, and remarkable progress has been made on the rule of law, freedom of speech, and the role of women.

Another example from the same continent – one of Africa’s largest countries, Ethiopia – recently appointed a government in which half of the ministers are women.

World finance institutions such as the World Bank increasingly highlight the role of gender equality in economic growth. Ie. limited educational opportunities for girls cost countries between $15 trillion and $30 trillion in lost lifetime productivity and earnings.

When you look at this, it appears that both sides of this polarisation are feeling growing strength and confidence –  a kind of momentum.   

These examples concern gender equality, but this is really part of a larger struggle, between democracy and authoritarianism; between openness and repression; between hope and fear: yes, one might even call it the struggle between good and evil.

This may sound dramatic, but complacency is dangerous. We need to be alert – those of us who believe in openness and democracy must join forces.

***

Excellencies,

Moving on to the practical side of gender equality, I would like to say a few words about our feminist foreign policy, and how we work globally.

I like to make the case that, to be relevant, policies must be concrete. Our work should seek to solve real problems in people’s everyday lives, make improvements that can be felt directly.

By doing so, we also show sceptics and opponents of gender equality that there is nothing mysterious about it – that it is simply about removing obstacles that hinder women from having the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities as men.

This is an important starting point for 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, and so on. Are women represented where decisions are made that affect them – in government, parliament, local assemblies, businesses and peace talks? 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, a democracy and a peace and security issue. It improves life not only for one half of the population, 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. More women means more peace!

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

Gender-equal societies are more prosperous. They are healthier, their economies stronger, their people better educated.

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

And it is encouraging that our feminist foreign policy has received so much attention and gained a following. Canada also pursues a feminist approach to its foreign policy and France engages in feminist diplomacy. We see a strong interest in Spain, in Tunisia as I mentioned, and in many more places around the world.

I hope that one day, we can add the United States to that list.

***

Excellencies,

Let me move on to the third part of this lecture and return to the issue of sexual and reproductive health and rights, one of today’s most pressing issues.

Let me mention some facts from this year’s State of World Population Report.

  • 214 million women want to prevent a pregnancy, but are not using modern methods of contraception.
  • Every fifth birth takes place without the attendance of skilled health personnel.
  • Every day, more than 800 women die from preventable causes during pregnancy and childbirth.

A lot of progress have been made by the UNFPA but more needs to be done. According to another report, an average of nine US dollars per capita a year would be enough to pay for the contraceptives and health services needed to address these needs.

Nine dollars a year per person, and we would save hundreds of thousands of lives, improve health and well-being, and increase productivity and household income.

And yet, this basic human right to decide over one’s own body, sexuality and reproduction is so controversial. For some reason, the female body has become a battleground.

For Sweden, one consequence of this has been a stepping-up of support to organisations working for sexual and reproductive health and rights, where other actors have retreated. That is why Sweden is such a proud contributor of core support to UNFPA.

Somehow it becomes even more disturbing – offensive even – when  women who have been affected by sexual violence in war and conflict are denied these rights.

Having worked as the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, I can tell you that I still have nightmares about the horrors and fate suffered by victims of these crimes. The terrified 15-year old girl, gangraped and shot. Absolutely not ready to have a child of her own in a society where children born out of rape were called snake-babies.

It was especially encouraging that Dennis Mukwege and Nadia Murad were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for their work to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

***

Excellencies,

I want to mention Dennis Mukwege for one more reason: as a role model for men and boys. Because gender equality cannot be achieved without men. How can we achieve shared parental responsibility, economic opportunity, education and pay, without them?

And frankly, how can we ask women to participate and use their rights if they cannot even feel safe in their own homes? We must do all we can to stop violence against women.

I have something to say about fathers as well. You know, many successful women I have talked to seem to have had one thing in common while growing up: 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 refuses to accept that his daughter does not have the same opportunities as a boy.

I would like to end this lecture by mentioning another man – Polish writer Tadeusz Rozewicz, who has written a poem about ‘Old women’ that I will soon read to you.

In this poem, Rozewicz, captures how, when boys and men are on the battlefields, it is women who keep life going.

And it makes me think: what would happen if women just stopped doing all this? If they stopped going to markets, cooking and taking care of children and households?

Rozewicz wrote:

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

Women carry. They carry children, water, firewood and bread. They carry the responsibilities of keeping a family together. Of bringing up children and making life work despite sorrow. They carry the painful experiences of violence. Despite all burdens, they carry on.

And – coming back to where I started – so must we. I encourage all of you to carry on, despite these gloomy times. Despite setbacks, challenges and headwinds.

There are so many fantastic people that works every day to turn this around. Let us join forces, let us fight for what we believe to be right. Please join me in the action for gender equality.

I believe that the world belongs to those who work to make it better. Let that be all of us.

Thank you.