Assistant Secretary General Speech


February 20, 2018 - Washington, DC

Her Excellency, Isabel de Saint Malo de Alvarado, Vice-President and Minister of External Relations of Panama
Her Excellency, María Alejandra Vicuña, Vice-President of Ecuador
Her Excellency, Ana Helena Chacón Echeverría, Second Vice-President of Costa Rica
Ana María Choquehuanca, President of the Inter-American Commission of Women
Elizabeth Odio Benito, Judge, Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Otilia Lux de Coti, Indigenous Rights Activist, Guatemala
Juan Aníbal Barría, Chair of the Permanent Council of the OAS

Welcome to the House of the America. Today we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Inter-American Commission of Women, which was established by the International Conference of American States in 1928 as the result of the coordination and collaboration of women from across the Hemisphere, who opted to take their struggle for the recognition of women as subjects of human rights and active agents of democracy to the international sphere.

Women’s leadership has been a consistent thread throughout the establishment and growth of the CIM over its 90 years, and one which is plainly evident on this morning’s panel.

The legal and policy framework on women's rights and gender equality in the Americas is the most solid in the world, after that of Western Europe. In recent decades, the Americas region has adopted countless binding legal agreements, political statements and declarations of commitment to the human rights of women and gender equality that constitute a strong and unequivocal legal and normative framework for the protection and guarantee of women's rights. On paper, women enjoy a broad range of rights under conditions of equality with men. Women leaders from all sectors have been the main force behind the conquest of these rights, and they are the ones that call States to account when they fail to deliver on those rights.

Since the adoption of the Convention on the Nationality of Women in 1933, the region has been progressively guaranteeing the rights of women in the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural spheres. These guarantees were consolidated in 1979 through the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW/UN).

Since then, the region has continued its progress toward guaranteeing the full exercise of women's rights through agreements that address specific issues that pose a particular obstacle to the full exercise of those rights: these include treatment of the issue of violence against women in the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Belém do Pará Convention, 1994) or the multiple conventions of the International Labour Organization on such topics as equal remuneration, discrimination in employment and occupation, workers with family responsibilities, protection of maternity or decent work for domestic workers, among others.

At the international and inter-American levels, governments have repeatedly committed to achieving gender equality and empowerment of women and girls, most recently in 2015 with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the Sustainable Development Goals. This commitment recognizes not only that the empowerment of women and girls is a right in itself, but acknowledges the growing body of evidence that their empowerment fuels strong and sustainable economies and strengthens the legitimacy of democratic systems by allowing a greater diversity of voices to contribute to political and economic decision-making processes.

Nevertheless, as UN Women has pointed out, "…in all societies, women are less powerful than men and the two areas in which women's rights are least protected, where the rule of law is weakest and men's privilege is often most entrenched are first, women's rights in the private and domestic sphere, including their rights to live free from [discrimination and] violence and to make decisions about their sexuality, on marriage, divorce, and reproductive health, and second, women's economic rights, including the right to decent work and the right to inherit and control land and other productive resources."

The persistent gap between women’s rights on paper and women’s rights in practice is one the biggest obstacles to sustainable development, effective democratic governance and human security. Though the past few decades have seen important progress, for the first time since the Fourth Summit of the Americas in 2005, this hemispheric gathering of Heads of State and Government, which will be held this April in Peru, will include not a single woman.

At the same time, the Americas is facing an unprecedented backlash against the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality that has become highly visible and contested in the context of national electoral processes. The popularity and eventual election of candidates that have openly declared themselves opposed to “gender ideology,” marriage equality, reproductive rights and a host of other issues is the most visible, though certainly not the only, manifestation of a well-funded, well-organized anti-gender and anti-rights movement that seeks to stop, and to roll back, the rights that have been recognized as part of the inter-American and international legal framework.

All too often, women’s rights have been the victim of political negotiations and coalition building, a reality that has given rise to a response from pro-rights groups and movements throughout the hemisphere, contributing to a level of social mobilization and polarization that has rarely been seen in the region. The visibility and increasing popularity of movements like #NiUnaMenos, #MeToo and #TimesUp makes clear that women will not accept any roll-backs in the rights they have conquered over the last century.

In this context, the issue of women’s leadership emerges as fundamental. The total absence of women from the highest elected office in the countries of the hemisphere is a notable, and very visible, indicator. Despite important progress in the six countries that have adopted parity – Bolivia, Nicaragua, Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador and Costa, which now rank among the top 30 countries in the world in terms of the number of women in parliament, the pace of change has been slow, and women still represent only 28.6% of parliamentarians, 24% of executive cabinet-level positions, 29.1% of senior-level posts in the justice sector, and 13.4% of mayors. In the private sector, data on women in leadership and senior positions is scarce; while a growing body of evidence points to the increased effectiveness, productivity and competitiveness of businesses and economies that have more women represented at all levels, women still represent only 32 of the 500 CEOs (or 6.4%) on the Fortune 500 list for 2017.

Closing the implementation gap on women’s rights will be accomplished by women leaders – with the support of men and women champions in all sectors, we hope. And I am pleased that the CIM, with the support of the government of Canada and in collaboration with UN Women, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Pan American Health Organization, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and ParlAmericas, has committed to strengthening our joint efforts in the Hemisphere to support women leaders and to foster new and emerging leaderships that serve to better represent the full diversity of our Continent.

Today, the agenda for gender equality is a central part of the good in the world. But in the hemisphere, and in the inter-American system, we see almost daily new forms of attack against human rights, by those who wish to maintain the patriarchy. Faced with these attacks - our response has to be a decided "Not one step back" - the principles of progressiveness and non-regression of human rights demand it, and beyond principles, it is a matter of life and death for many women on the continent.

I hope that the events of the coming days, the celebration of the 90th anniversary of the CIM, and also later this year, the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Organization of American States, which was established in Bogotá, Colombia in 1948, will serve to renew our energies, reaffirm our commitments and redouble our efforts to continue working towards the objectives of more rights for more women and the full implementation of the regional agenda for gender equality.

Thank you.