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Women Leaders’ Summit – Opening remarks by Rt. Hon. Patricia Scotland QC

14 July 2016
Statement by: Rt. Hon. Patricia Scotland QC, Commonwealth Secretary-General

Firstly, I’d like to welcome you all to Marlborough House for our inaugural meeting for women leader’s across the Commonwealth. I’d also like to make special mention of our partners in this endeavour, especially Woman of World, The Royal Commonwealth Society, The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Commonwealth Businesswoman’s Network.  I hope you notice that the Commonwealth binds all these organisations together.  I am also pleased to see the head of the Commonwealth Games Federation with us here this morning.

This meeting is the starting gun for the development of an action plan that will drive Women’s issues during my time as Secretary General.

Women as agents of change is not a new concept; throughout history, women have led movements for change at every level and been an integral part of that change – political, economic and social.  The story of women as change agents is very compelling - one of the grit and tenacity of ordinary women who have transformed themselves, their families and their communities, while battling against great odds. Often they were not noted or remembered. It is also the story of women who have left their mark on global governance, democracy, development and peace.

Politically we are living in a time that sees more woman than ever taking up high office. The arrival of Theresa May as the new British Prime Minister, Angela Merkel’s eleven years and counting as Chancellor of Germany and perhaps even Hilary Clinton in The White House marks an exciting period in woman’s history.  There are so many other women leaders I could name, including Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund or Michaëlle Jean of La Francophonie.  I’m also proud to be the first female Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, representing 53 nations and 2.2 billion people.

Nationalist movements for independence, the suffragette movement, women’s movements for social justice, the quiet revolution on micro-credit, the movement for saving the earth, efforts for forging peace and rebuilding societies after violent conflicts and initiatives against landmines and the nuclear arsenal represent a few facets of women’s leadership at work.

To that, I want to add two more achievements:  the leadership of women was pivotal to ending slavery.  And it was pivotal to ending segregation.  People always remember Martin Luther King’s role in that fight, but they sometimes forget about Rosa Parks, the woman who took real action against segregation.  Remember, it was Martin Luther King who walked with Rosa Parks, not the other way around.

It is of course at the every-day level that women grapple with justice and equality; in every rural and urban home, we have women change agents – mothers and their daughters, women who work for change with their men and communities. It is these small changes that lead to a groundswell of changing tide, as all of us, women and men, girls and boys, build a world without want - an equitable world, an equitable society with a sustainable future.

So human rights for all really starts at home, and I would like us all to reflect on Eleanor Roosevelt’s words all those years ago as she led the UN and the global community in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

She said this: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? - in small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of individual persons, the neighbourhood they live in, the school they attend, the factory, farm or office they work in.  Such are the places where every man, woman or child seeks equal justice, equal opportunities, and equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere”.

In September 2015, when we collectively committed ourselves to the Sustainable Development Goals, we did this knowing that the global landscape should be redefined to be more enabling and inclusive. The landscape should place women, men and children in action and implementation plans, so they can be part of decision-making at all levels. We all know that women, more than anyone else, have borne the brunt of the fall-out of development policies and programmes. Their rights to dignity have been compromised along with the rights of their children and also of their men. Our own Commonwealth Charter also places direct emphasis on gender equality acknowledging it as an essential component of human development and basic human rights.  As the charter puts it: ‘The advancement of women’s rights and the education of girls are critical preconditions for effective and sustainable development.’

How do we ensure that human rights do not get eroded in the face of immense challenges? As the Commonwealth, we have aspired to international human rights standards and development commitments, such as CEDAW, the Beijing Platform for Action, the MDGs and now the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with the SDGs, and COP21. We also have regional treaties, declarations and plans of actions on gender equality.  As we move from aspirations to entitlements and from plans and intentions to actions, I thought it was necessary to convene this Women Leaders’ Summit.  It takes place at an opportune time, a time that recognises women’s capacity and capability to take control of their lives and reshape the world they live in. 

Gender equality is one of the fundamental principles of the Commonwealth and is central to achieving the SDGs.  It is also a topic on which I have focused for the last thirty years.

Redressing gender inequality and empowering women and girls remains challenging almost everywhere, and has with implications for the realisation of democratic and development goals. I am confident that we can work together over the next four years towards the SDG targets, building on the gains already made towards women’s empowerment and gender equality under the MDGs, to transform the political and socio-economic landscape both today and for the children of the future.

The Commonwealth, with its shared histories, including common goals of democracy and development, recognised the importance of advancing women’s rights through the Plan of Action for Gender Equality 2005-2015.  Indeed, the Commonwealth needs a roadmap that will be the landmark and an inspiration for the next four years or more that sets out Commonwealth priorities in empowering women and girls across all development and democracy work. These include gender and equitable trade, gender responsive investments and enterprise development, women’s rights, upholding the rule of law, and ending violence against women and girls, women in leadership and decision-making at all levels, ending child marriage, and security and women’s transformative leadership.

For the Commonwealth to stay relevant to this day and age, we need to respond not only to the changing global political and socio-economic landscapes but also take on board strategic innovations for member countries.  It is in this context that I convene this Summit to enrich the gender equality agenda for the Commonwealth in the coming four years.

You are an incredibly special grouping – spanning the Commonwealth and bringing a wide range of expertise to this Summit.  I believe that this summit has considerable “soft power” that we can exploit to achieve “strong outcomes” for women and girls and also for our men.

Our work to draft the action plan for what the Woman Leaders of the Commonwealth can achieve starts today, but it is just the start. Drawing on your expertise my ambition is to build this group into something pre-eminent in its space. I look forward to taking some of today’s work for discussion at the Woman’s Affairs Ministerial Meeting in September in Samoa. 

I want to emphasise that the SDG and COP21 goals, along with the values in our Charter, are not just for Member States.  They are for each and every one of us.  As we go forward, we must ask ourselves the question ‘What can I do?’  Because it’s not just governments that have the responsibility to change.  So I will be asking each of us here to write down three things that they can change. And if we all do that together, what an amazing difference we can make. I thank each and everyone of you for taking time out to be here today. I look forward to today’s deliberations and outcome, and I will be listening closely to everything you have to say.