Address by Irina Bokova on the occasion of the Closing Ceremony of the Forum

Global Women Leaders Forum
20 May 2016
Grand Hotel, Sofia, Bulgaria,

Address by Irina Bokova,
Director-General of UNESCO
on the occasion of the Closing Ceremony  of the Forum 

Excellency Ms Meher Afroze Chumki, State Minister for Women and Children Affairs of Bangladesh,

Excellency Ms Aminata Touré, Former Prime Minister of Senegal, Special Envoy of the President of Senegal,

Honourable Ms. Yordanka Fandakova, Mayor of Sofia,

Dr Boriana Manolova, CEO Siemens Bulgaria, Chairperson of Council of Women in Business in Bulgaria

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As we come to the end of the Global Women Leaders Forum, I wish to commend all panellists, speakers and participants for their contributions.

This has been a very inspiring forum, bringing together experts, leaders to share best practices of women leaders in different areas of the society.

This work culminates in the adoption of the Sofia Declaration for Women’s Leadership and Gender Equality, which I believe is a very important contribution to the strengthening of public policies, sharing a clear vision and a strong commitment.

The fight for gender equality shows the importance of such declarations – we saw the power of the Beijing Declaration, twenty years ago, to change mindsets.

We know the vital important of international agreements like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to accelerate change.

One year ago, we were here, in Grand Hotel Sofia, to discuss women’s leadership with Minister Ivailo Kalfin at a forum, organized by the Council of Women in Business in Bulgaria and Women’s Campaign International.

There has been great progress, but we all know, not enough.

We cannot accept that only 20 percent of the world leaders are women.

We cannot accept that women earn 10 to 30 percent less than men for the same type of work.

We cannot accept that 1.6 billion women live in countries, where they are unable to apply for some positions and professions.

We cannot accept 38 million girls out of schools across the world, and that half of all out-of-school children in sub-Saharan Africa will never enrol.

In South and West Asia, 80 percent of out-of-school girls are unlikely to start school, compared to just 16 percent for boys.

This is a lost generation of leaders.

The fact is, leadership is not a given – it must be nurtured, supported, it must be taught.

Everyone can become a leader in their field, with the right skills, with the right enabling environment, with the right role models to inspire and nurture talents.

This is why UNESCO launched the Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education in 2011.

This is why we partner with L’Oréal to honour the most talented women in sciences.

This is why UNESCO and Procter and Gamble partner in Senegal, to foster girls’ education and literacy – I visited one of UNESCO’s literacy centres in Pikine, in the suburb of Dakar, and I remember Rokhaya Sow, a teenage girl who said the programme had prevented her from dropping out of school — and I bet she can become one of the leaders of Senegal tomorrow.

This is why UNESCO leads today the largest programs for girl’s education in Afghanistan, targeting 600,000 learners, and in Pakistan.

And this is why we partner with UN Agencies, with the private sector, for the empowerment of adolescent girls and young women through education, with UN Women, with the United Nations Population Fund.

The Declaration we adopt today can contribute to this global effort.

We have addressed key areas that need to be brought to the forefront of women’s leadership.

We have examined the situation of women in politics and government.

We have explored current trends and the future direction of women in business.

We have highlighted the importance of education and training for future women leaders.

We must better recognize how to use information and communication and the media as a channel for women’s empowerment.

More importantly, we know it is not enough to change individual behaviours – we need policies, anti-discrimination laws and equal opportunities.

I remember the words of Professor Iris Bohnet from Harvard University, who made a presentation at UNESCO recently, when she said “Gender biased exist in all of us, men and women, and even when we think we are not biased, we are”.

She took the example of recruitment in orchestras, when conductors have to listen to applicant musicians face-to-face.

An experiment was made when they would place a black veil in front of them, so they could only hear but not see who was playing – the results were astonishing, producing completely different orchestras profiles.

We cannot let the future of gender equality depend on individual behaviours and good will – gender equality calls for de-biasing organizations, from classroom to boardrooms, with systematic and concerted action by all stakeholders.

This is doable – during this Forum, we have heard a wealth of initiatives and ideas, to establish mentoring systems for women, including informal training in decision-making.

We can set specific targets and increase the participation of women, in the formal labour market, and encourage their participation in advisory boards and other platforms – all studies show that the most effective companies are the ones with the most diversified boards.

We need to encourage the development of mechanisms that promote balanced and diverse portrayals of women in the media.

All these measures, in education and training, to change prejudice in culture and in the media, fostering women in science – resonate at the heart of UNESCO mandate, to change behaviours, to change mindsets, for greater dignity and equality.

This is a moral imperative, this is a business imperative, and there is much work to be done.

As we conclude this Forum, I call on Member States and all partners to join forces to advance gender equality in every society.

There is simply no greater force for justice, sustainable development and lasting peace.

Thank you.



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