Speech by President of Malta Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, at a UNESCO High-Level Conference, entitled “UNESCO’s Soft Power Today: Fostering Women’s Empowerment and Leadership”, on 30 June 2017
It is my pleasure to participate in this important conference on “Fostering Women’s Empowerment and Leadership”, as part of UNESCO’s “Soft Power Today” initiative.
Highlighting gender equity and equality is a topic close to my heart.
I am delighted that gender issues are being recognised, at such a high level meeting, as one of UNESCO’s global priorities.
Women’s empowerment and gender issues are at the heart of the mandate of the United Nations’ Agenda 2030, and its Sustainable Development Goals.
As we know, the Sustainable Development Goals bind the international community, and in particular, SDG Number 5, to end all forms of gender discrimination, and to achieve the meaningful empowerment of women and girls by 2030.
I believe that, through UNESCO’s mandate to address culture, science, and education, we can make real progress to achieve this global goal.
To do so, we must be courageous and determined.
We must confront the underlying discrimination and injustice, which are undermining the dignity of women and girls around the world, and thereby, restrict women and girls from equal participation in our societies.
First and foremost, we must take a critical look at the sources of oppression, which circulate even through our nations, and our international systems, to the detriment of half of the world’s population.
We must be very clear in our objectives.
We must be very determined about implementing policies and strategies for the empowerment and leadership of women.
Let me, therefore, state, in no uncertain terms, that the only pathway to achieve the sustainable and meaningful wellbeing of women and girls is by confronting the patriarchy.
Patriarchal oppressions are present throughout our societies, in the way our cultural narratives function and are disseminated.
Patriarchy is a global perspective. It is a cultural system that we are born into, in which we all participate, and which we perpetuate, often unconsciously, to the great detriment of so many human beings.
Patriarchy, like all forms of oppression, has a way of normalising its abuses, such as the unacceptable injustices faced by so many women and girls.
Patriarchy makes us believe that there are no alternatives to its way of thinking, of acting, and of living. It would have us believe that a deep-rooted change is not possible.
We cannot be complacent in the face of patriarchal oppressions. We must move on, together as women and men, to address all unjust systems of power.
We must keep using all the platforms at our disposal, such as this conference, to affirm that there is, indeed, another way of life.
There are other paths for us to take, on our slow but steady journey, towards a more peace-focused, gender inclusive, and sustainable culture.
In order to open our minds to the limitless potential of women, working with and alongside men, we must challenge the one-dimensional vision of masculinity which is upheld by the patriarchy.
We cannot continue, explicitly or implicitly, to promote damaging attitudes.
We must replace attitudes that privilege power, coercion, control, and extreme competitiveness, with stronger attributes, such as compassion, relational connection, and the ability to nurture humanity.
UNESCO can be truly effective, thanks to its unique ability, to target and inform global educational and cultural narratives.
It is intrinsically part of UNESCO’s mandate, to open the minds and hearts of all people. This gives us hope, in our ability to create a more peace-affirming, inclusive, and dignified culture, which should be of benefit to all humanity.
To achieve such a vision of our world, we must do more to disrupt dualistic and narrowly gendered thinking, especially when it comes to the roles that women and men pursue in society.
Although it may seem that these outdated notions are diminishing in some areas, it is clear that in other ways, these dangerous ideas continue to have long-term, adverse effects.
For example, we cannot ignore the realities of the gender pay gap, which exists across our nations, and continues to restrict women’s access to equitable and equal opportunities for employment.
Nor can we ignore the fact that careers, which are historically associated with women, such as education and childcare, have a disproportionately lower salary.
We must take note of urgent indicators from the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, that it will take 170 years for us to achieve economic gender equality.
We must also address the fact that men often occupy the vast majority of visible roles of influence, within political and economic sectors.
According to last year’s indicators from United Nations Women, only 22.8 percent of all national parliamentarians were women, and globally, there are 38 countries in which women account for less than 10 percent of parliamentarians.
Moreover, women who hold such positions are expected, and in some ways they are forced, to subscribe to patriarchal norms in order to be successful.
The inclusion of women in positions of authority and governance is essential, if we are serious about valuing the voices of people of all genders.
One important contribution that we can and must make, in response to these concerns, is to create safe and respectful spaces for dialogue, which will help to expand the participation of women, and all the oppressed and marginalised communities in society.
Let us also find ways to bring women on board, as stakeholders in processes of dialogue which aim to transform conflict and sow the seeds of peace. Women are perfectly position, within their families and communities, to be powerful activists for the promotion of peace.
To achieve sustainable and equitable peace, we must also question the status quo within our nations and our international systems, which normalises and perpetuates patriarchal oppressions, to the detriment of women, of girls, and minorities.
We cannot go on excusing cultural narratives which justify anti-social and damaging male behaviour, by saying that “boys will be boys”.
Not only does such an attitude endanger the health and safety of women and girls, but it also diminishes the dignity of men and boys, by implying that positive change is not possible.
Nor can we go on celebrating a “macho” culture, where violent and controlling attitudes are celebrated, without criticism.
We must challenge the idea that aggression is part of what it means to be a “real man”, and that femininity should, by extension, be degraded.
Women’s leadership should not be measured by any standard, except a woman’s intrinsic qualities to lead.
To achieve these goals, I believe that institutions such as UNESCO need to do more, to encourage men to be vocal, and to speak out against patriarchal ideas and actions.
Men cannot be silent partners in the work we must do, to achieve the meaningful empowerment of women.
We are all stakeholders, with so much to gain, by addressing the tremendous challenges that patriarchy, normalised violence, and deep-rooted oppression are having, at every level of our societies.
I believe that, in order to ensure that women and girls are empowered, and able to exercise active leadership within society, we must, first of all, work with media stakeholders in our nations.
We must take steps to ensure that the mass media is not perpetuating harmful patriarchal ideas and stereotypes, by promoting narrow gender binaries; by objectifying women through a constant focus on their appearance and body image; and by giving a skewed perception that diminishes the gravity of gender-based violence.
UNESCO, through its cultural and educational work, is ideally placed to promote media accountability, across our communities, and to foster inclusive language and dignified actions, which nurture equity and equality.
Ending patriarchy is about removing the barriers that constrain people of all gender identities, and safeguarding the dignity of each and every individual.
On concluding, let me quote the inspiring words of activist and academic Bell Hooks, who said;
“The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys. Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion… A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.” End quote.
Let me encourage you to work more closely together, to take practical actions to address the underlying cultural and social injustices, which are perpetuating these abuses within our societies and across our globe.
UNESCO has a powerful role to play, to promote innovative educational perspectives and bold cultural narratives, which end, once and for all, the discrimination and violence being faced by women and girls.
We cannot afford to deal with symptomatic manifestations of oppression, while ignoring the root causes.
Let us take this opportunity to implement the full force of the United Nations’ Agenda 2030, and Sustainable Development Goal Number 5, to promote the equality of all genders.
Let us prioritise a zero-tolerance policy, towards patriarchal violence and oppression. In this way, we shall be creating a global culture of respect and dignity, for the benefit of all the people of our world.
Thank you for your attention.