New York, 9 June 2000
Mr. President, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen:
On behalf of the United Nations Children's Fund, I am very pleased to address this Special Session of the General Assembly to review and appraise progress towards the goals that were set at the Fourth World Conference on Women.
From the founding Conference in San Francisco 55 years ago, through Mexico City and Copenhagen and Nairobi and Beijing and on to this historic week, the United Nations, its agencies and its partners have worked tirelessly to elevate the cause of women's rights and girls' rights to the highest reaches of the international agenda.
The years have only deepened that commitment -- a commitment securely anchored in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which together guide UNICEF in fulfilling its General Assembly mandate to advocate for the protection of children's rights, to help meet their basic needs, and to expand their opportunities to develop fully and to participate.
The Beijing gathering was a watershed event in that struggle, one that refocused our strategic objectives as it set new priorities for assuring women an equal role in building a better world.
Like the Beijing Conference, this Special Session has shown itself to be greater than the sum of its parts. For the measure of this week's gathering is not only in the specific actions that have been taken. It is in the evolution of the extraordinary process that has brought so many people together -- and that has brought so many crucial issues and ideas to the fore.
The very fact that 10,000 delegates from every region of the world, including young people, have gathered in this place -- to meet, to debate, to exchange ideas and information, and to affirm old alliances and new -- that in itself, Mr. President, is as eloquent and empowering a statement as any that could be drafted.
Yet for all the inspirational power of such events, they are not, in themselves, what we need most of all to sustain the struggle. They cannot close the gap between the legal recognition of the rights of women and girls -- and the real-life discrimination and marginalization and outright violence that they still endure, day in and day out, in every corner of the world.
Mr. President, the realization of women's rights will come only through action -- action to implement programmes that will improve the daily lives of women and consolidate their equal status -- and it is a process that must begin with steps that will ensure the survival, protection and full development of the girl child.
Mr. President, following the Beijing Conference, the General Assembly called on States, the UN System and all other actors to implement the Platform for Action "by promoting an active and visible policy of mainstreaming a gender perspective at all levels."
We have moved some steps closer to that world. But we are still far from fulfilling the promises made at Beijing. The statistics are well-known:
Women and children are a majority of the 1.2 billion people who are living in absolute poverty, and they suffer disproportionately from the adverse effects of globalization, such as the widening gap between rich and poor and the impact of the so-called digital divide.
Nearly 600,000 women and girls of child-bearing age still die each year during pregnancy and in labour.
Countless numbers of women and children endure violence, abuse and exploitation in their daily lives as a result of armed conflict or discrimination in their own families -- a fact underscored by new findings that at least one woman or girl in three is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime.
Women and girls are the most affected by HIV/AIDS, which infects 8,500 children and young people and kills 2,500 women each and every day.
Some 600 million women cannot read or write -- and the majority of the 110 million children not in school are girls.
Mr. President, in the course of this week's process of review and appraisal, UNICEF has expressed its deep concern that political will, resources and actions have yet to match the commitments that were made in Beijing.
But we are heartened by the wealth of new ideas and specific actions that have been discussed for accelerating change within the context of the Beijing Platform for Action -- action that we hope will come as we accelerate implementation of the parallel commitments that were made at the 1990 World Summit for Children and other development conferences of the past decade.
Throughout this process, Mr. President, we have witnessed once again the power of partnerships. The propellant energy and enthusiasm of non-governmental and women's groups, now so familiar a part of UN gatherings conferences, have only grown with the influx of youth groups from all parts of the world. Their participation has inspired open and frank intergenerational dialogue on everything from education, violence, and social and political participation to macroeconomic policies, HIV/AIDS prevention and peace building.
Mr. President, UNICEF remains convinced that the goals of development, equality and peace are within reach -- that we can create a world where the rights of women and girls are not violated or exploited, where they are free to develop to their full potential, and to play active leadership roles in their community.
If women are to enter and participate in government bodies, political parties, labour unions and community organizations and the like, then we must free girls to expand their capacities and horizons, to voice their opinions and achieve their dreams.
But for this to happen, we must act now, using the tools and knowledge that already exist for reducing poverty and eliminating the entrenched discrimination that marginalizes women and children.
Fulfilling the right of every girl to education is the key to promoting true equality between boys and girls and men and women.
That is why the UN Initiative on Girls' Education that was launched by the Secretary-General at the World Education Forum in Dakar last month is so important -- and why UNICEF continues to work closely with UNESCO, UNDP, the World Bank, bilateral agencies and others in promoting quality basic education for all, with girls' education our top priority.
Girls' education is a proven "best investment" for human, social, and economic development. But most importantly, it is every girl's right.
Mr. President, we must break the intergenerational cycle of discrimination and disadvantage -- and we must begin by creating environments where girls and boys are respected and cared for equally in early childhood.
We must ensure that they are breast-fed, that they have access to unpolluted air, safe drinking water and uncontaminated food -- that they live where there are adequate sanitation facilities -- and, above all, that they have time and space to play, to interact with others, to learn, and to be loved.
We must ensure also that there is good care not only for young children but for their mothers -- who often have no voice, limited access to resources, no legal protection and no respect.
And we must involve fathers in the care of young children.
If girls are to realize their rights to education and prepare for adulthood, they must not be deprived of schooling for reasons of domestic labour and poverty.
At the same time, schools must be transformed into safe places where girls can learn, participate, feel respected -- and develop confidence and self esteem.
That means eliminating all forms of gender bias and discrimination in education systems and in learning processes. It means that schools must have adequate hygiene and sanitation facilities, health and nutrition services, and policies that guarantee physical and mental health, safety, and security.
It also means that schools must be equipped to deliver quality education. We must find ways for them to be used more creatively to reduce, rather than increase, disparities in access to quality learning.
That includes making sure that girls have opportunities to benefit from the benefits of both new and old technologies, such as Internet connectivity and radio instruction.
And we must aim for socialization of girls and boys in a culture of non-violence and respect for each other's rights, inherent dignity, and equality. Equality in relationships with men and boys is essential if women and girls are to protect themselves against violence and HIV/AIDS.
To achieve these ends, new collaborative relationships are needed within communities -- among youth groups, religious leaders, non-governmental organisations, schoolteachers, health professionals, men's groups and women's groups -- and between communities and policy and decision-makers at all levels.
Distinguished Delegates, we have entered a new era in fulfilling the human rights of women and girls. Throughout this week, fresh ideas have emerged for making equality, development and peace a reality. Innovative actions and strategies have been recommended for overcoming obstacles and addressing the emerging issues -- and new partnerships have been forged for creating an enabling environment to fulfil the equal rights of women and girls.
Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates: we have a framework for global action in the Platform for Action.
We have instruments like the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. And we know what we have to do. Now let us begin the real work.