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7 septembre 1995 - United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women : Statement by Mrs Colette Codaccioni, French Minister for Solidarity between Generations

(en anglais)

Beijing, 7 septembre 1995

The Fourth World Conference on Women is a huge gathering of women - but also of men - who have come from all over the world and in itself a major event.

But it is not an isolated event : as the outcome of a long preparation process, it stands at the crossroads of two major evolutions that have marked and - to a great extent - revived the debate within the United Nations over the past twenty years.

* The first of these is the growing attention given - since 1975, which was proclaimed the International Women’s Year - to the improvement of women’s status and to the emphasis placed at the Mexico, Copenhagen and Nairobi World Conferences on Women on promoting equality of the sexes, integrating women into the development process, and on the need for them to contribute to the peace effort.

Equality, development, peace, such is the prospect since 1975 for the hopes and gains, but also at times the disappointments which have punctuated women’s path within the United Nations framework.

* The second evolution deals with the place and the importance given by the international community to adopt common social objectives.

When they gathered last March in Copenhagen for the World Summit on Social Development, Heads of State and Government solemnly affirmed their commitment to place people at the centre of the development process. This historic meeting marked a new approach which was prepared by a series of conferences held in Rio, Vienna and Cairo where all became aware that growth and economic development are indissociable from social development and the respect of fundamental rights of man.

There is a great deal at stake for women and for humanity as a whole.

How is it that questions which some still regard as "feminine" have turned into major issues and a major concern for the international community ?

There are two major reasons for this.

* There is, first of all the crucial element of the justice to be rendered to women :

How can one possibly accept the fact that poverty affects mainly women, as 70% of people living in extreme poverty are females ? How can one possibly justify that, throughout the world, the workload of women is much greater than that of men, and that women’s work is, for the most part, not acknowledged in any way ? And also that when their work earns women a wage it is always much lower than a man’s (as average women’s salaries are only three quarters those of men) ?

How can one tolerate the fact that women continue to be subjected to domestic or social violence, to sexual exploitation, and that they be, with their children, the first civilian victims of conflicts and all too often obliged to flee their countries ?

Finally, how is it possible to accept that women, who account for half of the electorate, hold only 10% of parliamentary seats and 6% of ministerial positions in the world ?

The important disparities which remain, in fact or in law, in very many areas, obviously constitute a major issue. The promotion of women is an objective in itself and must be acknowledged as such.

* but the promotion of women is also an essential development condition and as such a major challenge for humanity, whether for men or women.

The overriding importance of the economic and social contribution of women is better understood nowadays, and the international consensus that emerged at Rio in recognition of the central role of women in the protection of the environment, extends today to the economic development process of which women are the cornerstone.

All field players know that the results of development actions are increased tenfold if women take part in designing and implementing projects. And this applies both to actions conducted in industrial countries to fight against poverty and exclusion in underprivileged districts, and to aid development projects implemented with our partners of the South.

In this context, the refusal of real equality between women and men, the negation of fundamental women’s rights entail, for society as a whole, a loss in human capital, a slowing down of economic development and put obstacles in the path of social progress.

Equality : the key-stone of progress. At a time when we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, it is unthinkable for us to accept that the principle of equal rights between men and women - stipulated in the Charter’s Preamble - be called into question in any way.

The alternative between the concepts of equality and equity is a false one : only equality - which is in fact the Conference’s emblem - has any legitimacy as far as rights are concerned, unlike equity which perforce entails a subjective assessment of any given situation.

The present Conference must be a platform for affirming the strong commitment of Governments and of the international community to guarantee equality of rights for women in all areas.

This legal equality is an indispensable prerequisite, but it is only a first step as the law very often comes up against custom, traditions, ingrained habits and prejudice.

As we have been walking it for several years now, we know in France how long and hard is the road leading from equality in law to equality in fact. But we are convinced that the prices experienced today in various ways and to a various extent by all our societies and our economies can only be resolved by way of a new partnership between women and men, based on the equal participation of women in everyday, political economic, social, and cultural life.

Some women and men still contrast the concept of equality to that of being different.

On the one hand, there is fear that equality of the sexes will lead to an asexual society in which women would align their behaviour and way of life with men. On the other, the idea of a sexual specificity is being challenged as it is linked in people’s minds with inegalitarian systems.

This, once again seems beside the point, as the fact that women and men have identical rights does not make them identical.

Equality of opportunities thanks to equal access to education, health services and resources is first and foremost a matter of freedom, and freedom implies freedom of choice.

Equal yet different, both different and equal : what goes for relationships between genders also applies within a given gender. Regarding this, we should keep in mind that female populations are themselves heterogeneous and that some women experience additional difficulties owing to handicaps, age, origin or socio-economic status.

Common values and diversity of models.

We know also that there are fundamental differences between women depending on what part of the world they come from.

The necessary and legitimate acknowledgement of this diversity, the respect of collective values resting on beliefs, traditions and multifarious cultures cannot oppose or call into question the universal principles recognized throughout the international community and which rest on the rights of people, whatever their sex, and on the respect of their dignity.

The fundamental rights of women and little girls are an inalienable, integral and indissociable part of people’s rights, as was underlined at the World Conference in Vienna.

Equality of the sexes is one of these rights.

Far from imposing a unique model that can be adjusted to all circumstances worldwide, equality of the sexes defines the universal framework within which individual and collective freedom can find expression.

In France, we are very attached to this plurality of social and individual models, and we think that responsibility for guaranteeing equality and freedom of choice for all women and men lies with the State.

Empowerment of women.

Women will be able to exercise this freedom to the full only if they are given the means of controlling their own and their collective future and of becoming the players of their own history.

This requires

- women’s education

There is in this respect a great deal of lost time to make up considering women account for three quarters of the victims of illiteracy in the world ;

- information for women on their rights, as how could they assert them without any knowledge of them and if they can get no support in actually getting these rights enforced ?

- access to resources, whether food, economic or financial resources, as women are much more affected by poverty than men. In this perspective, equality of rights with respect to heritage, ownership, and access to credit must be acknowledged and actually put into effect ;

- the guarantee of the best possible health standards, which implies affordable and quality primary health care services ;

- fertility control, which requires access to services and methods to help women decide freely on the number of their children and on birth spacing. Acknowledged at the World Conference in Cairo, this is a fundamental right, from which the present Conference will have to draw all inferences,

- full participation as men’s equals in the decision-making process

Women at all levels, whether local, regional or national, still find themselves too far away from decision-making centres. The fact that women are underrepresented in politics is a fundamental weakness of our democracies the consequences of which we are now beginning to assess. The new partnership I mentioned earlier on naturally calls for the introduction of a democracy based on equal representation at all levels and in all decision-making areas.

The Beijing Conference will be a success only if its statement and platform clearly and unambiguously highlight these fundamental elements and affirm the commitment of participating States and of the international community to act accordingly.

This is a difficult task with many pitfalls. Addressing core concerns without avoiding specificities while stressing universal aspects, being realistic and concrete without giving up ambition : I rely on the solidarity of the women and men attending this conference to triumph over this impossible equation.

I rely especially on the momentum the commitment and the vigilance of non-governmental organizations in providing the necessary impetus to our work as they have done in the past.

Finally, I call upon the spirit of open-mindedness and responsibility of a11 for the outcome of this meeting to live up to the challenges and hopes it has raised.

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