A replica of New York’s “Fearless Girl” statue stands at Federation Square in Melbourne, Australia. The replica was unveiled by artist Kristen Visbal ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8. Photo: EPA-EFE
Noeleen Heyzer 
Noeleen Heyzer 

Hard-won women’s rights must not be eroded

  • Through multilateral efforts, women have made great strides towards gender equality, taking up leadership positions to advance sustainable development and protect the vulnerable. Recent movements to roll back such gains must not succeed

We join our voices as women colleagues who have worked in governments and multilateral organisations to promote humanitarian relief, advocate for human rights principles and normative policies, advance sustainable development, and resolve some of the world’s most complex conflicts.

We ourselves have leveraged multilateralism to drive positive change for people and our planet. Now we collectively call attention to the need to achieve full gender equality and empowerment of women across all ambits of society and the critical importance of multilateralism as a vehicle in support of that. 

As leaders in our respective fields, we have struggled locally and globally to respond to challenges ranging from the elimination of hunger to achieving peace and security, and from the provision of emergency humanitarian aid in the aftermath of natural and human-induced disasters to the promotion of human rights, including those of women, children, marginalised populations, and those living with disabilities.

Our work at its best was based on the principles of sustainable development and the need to build long-term resilience. It has also been underpinned by our determination to have a positive impact on the lives of those with and for whom we work, particularly the most vulnerable. We are deeply convinced that for peace to be achieved and sustained, the full participation and potential of women must be unleashed.

In some places, the basic rights of women are interpreted as direct challenges to existing power structures

Our shared sense of purpose and responsibility to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment derives from our experiences. Despite decades of notable advances, a reality in which opportunities, freedoms and rights are not defined by gender has not been universally attained.

Even more worrying, we see in some places that the basic rights of women are interpreted as direct and destabilising challenges to existing power structures. That can lead to efforts to roll back hard-won rights and frameworks agreed on in support of gender equality and women’s empowerment, not least those encapsulated in the historic Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995, and the Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security adopted in 2000.
The secretaries general of the four UN conferences on women held up to 1995 meet in Beijing during the landmark fourth conference, on September 5, 1995. Photo: AP

Women increasingly occupy meaningful spaces in local, national and international political structures, and in debates on socio-economic and scientific issues and sustainable development. As we engage through civil society in many campaigns, we see now, close to a quarter of a century after Beijing, more movements gaining traction which seek to halt the gains made by women and erode the rights won.

This regression is what fuels our collective effort now under the banner of “Women Leaders – voices for change and inclusion”. As women leaders, we call on leaders in governments, the private sector and civil society to reinvest in policies and in legal and social frameworks that will achieve gender equality and inclusion. We must redouble current efforts which are insufficient in many places. Politics that seeks to halt and erode gender equality is a risk not only to women, but to all of humanity, because half the population is prevented from contributing to its full potential.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and many other global agreements, treaties and conventions that have been achieved through multilateral efforts demand our collective effort to realise their ambitious vision. They represent the hopes and aspirations of current and future generations. Yet, these transformative agendas and agreements are increasingly and disconcertingly being called into question.

Refugee women and girls of different nationalities take a German-language class in Athens. The workshop was organised by a network working for the development of refugee women in the Greek capital. Photo: AFP

We believe that, by bringing together our voices and leveraging our experiences, as women leaders from diverse backgrounds, we will amplify the reach and impact of our message.

In the coming months, we will speak through different means and publish essays that draw on our diverse – and yet shared – experiences and perspectives as women leaders in our fields. It is our hope that this compilation of work will serve not only to impart insights on the importance of women as multilateral actors, but also serve as a call to action to the women leaders and advocates of tomorrow.

The space that we collectively occupy as women leaders in our fields today was not opened up easily and can never be taken for granted. It is the result of the sacrifices and struggles of generations of women.

Political forces today threaten to erode the progress we have made at both the national level and through landmark global agendas. Whether those forces succeed will depend on whether the women leaders and advocates of today and tomorrow, and all who stand with them, recognise the urgency and peril and act accordingly.

Dr Noeleen Heyzer was United Nations undersecretary general from 2007-2015. This open letter is supported by a number of senior global women leaders from diverse backgrounds