Speech at the ICFTU/APRO Regional Follow-up Workshop on the Observance of International Women's Day 2000 and Strategic Planning for 2001-2002

by Ms Mitsuko Horiuchi, Regional Director, ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Statement | Bangkok | 12 July 2000

Sister Junko Takashima, Chair, ICFTU-APRO Women’s Committee;
Brother Pratueng Saengsank, President, Labour Congress of Thailand;
Sister Kyungjin Song;
Sisters and brothers

Good morning - it is a very great pleasure to join you here this morning, and I thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you. Your theme is one that is close to all our hearts, and that is high on my personal agenda. International Women’s Day has, of course, always been firmly tied to women workers. It is also a day for reaching out – for sending a clear message to people in every walk of life about the needs and concerns of women. In 1908, women workers demonstrating in a women’s day march in New York did just that – their "bread and roses" slogan is still remembered today. The decision by the United Nations in the 1970s to establish International Women’s Day on March 8 sent another clear message. And, of course, as your very presence here today demonstrates – the day’s message, its ethos, spreads far beyond a single square on a calendar. It is, rather, a starting point, a rallying point, a day for speaking out, taking stock and planning for the future. Your decision to on International Women’s Day to adopt a three-year theme, "women, democracy and development", is a significant one. In today’s changing world, those concepts have assumed new importance. And, your commitment over many years to ensuring that our common goal of gender equality is part and parcel of our daily work is similarly important. Gender equality is a simple question of justice. Achieving it is something we are all responsible for – women and men alike.

Many of the challenges we face have been heightened by the rapid advance of globalization. We live in an increasingly interconnected world, in an increasingly global economy. Globalization has brought both opportunities and risks. In Asia and the Pacific, women have felt both. In many countries we have seen significant increases in women’s participation in the labour market. In many countries, the gender gap has become smaller. Indeed, these changes have been so marked that many refer to the "feminization" of the labour market. However, there are risks too. Many of the jobs that women occupy are low skill, low pay, and offer few prospects. Women make up an estimated 90 per cent of the labour force in the export processing zones that have mushroomed around the world. In some, labour rights and access to training are serious concerns. And, we have learned that globalization can be volatile, producing devastating shocks such as the Asian financial crisis. This proved harder on women than on men, pushing many back into informal sector and agricultural households. More and more often we are hearing that globalization’s benefits are not reaching enough people. Inequality is rising, between and within countries. Those with education and skills are far more likely to be able to capitalize on its opportunities – something that can further widen the gap between men’s and women’s wages.

It is in this context that your theme, "Women, democracy and development", is crucial. It brings together pressing – but still under-recognized – issues. I am confident that the three-year programme you are working on here will do much to help improve awareness. The importance of this was highlighted by the Beijing +5 Special Session of the UN in New York in June. Its comprehensive outcome document included a review of achievements and obstacles with regard to women and the media. It pointed to the valuable role that information and communication technologies can play, especially the internet, in helping to empower women. Empowerment is essential if women are to participate in and benefit from development as equals. Women must take their places among the ranks of the world’s decision makers if we are to mount a serious challenge to inequality. That means achieving democracy at every level. We have come a long way since the struggle for women’s suffrage at the beginning of this century. But we have a long way to go. In the parliaments of the world - the voices are overwhelmingly male. Only 16 of the world’s nations have achieved a rate of more than 25 per cent parliamentary representation of women. Within the trade unions of our region – although representation is still not equal – there has been encouraging progress. More women are taking on important posts in general councils and on executive boards. Some unions are setting targets; others are endorsing policies to substantially increase the number of women involved in trade union and related activities. These are significant achievements, and I congratulate you all on the progress you have made

Gender equality is one of the pillars of the ILO’s primary goal, Decent Work. This decent work agenda brings together development and human rights, founded on the principles expressed in the fundamental ILO Conventions. Gender equality, and the principles of non-discrimination and equal remuneration for work of equal value, is indivisible from the whole. Our Director-General Juan Somavia has also given gender equality high priority – in terms of our Organization’s work, and its internal structure. Indeed, Mr Somavia chose International Women’s Day last year to make a public statement of commitment. This year, on the same day, he followed with a message to staff, reviewing our achievements and the challenges which remain. I should like to mention here the ILO’s Convention on Maternity Protection, adopted at the International Labour Conference in June. This is something which I firmly believe will help us make real progress towards ensuring that women can reconcile their reproductive roles with their place in the world of work.

Gender equality is, in essence, a question of justice. Why should we women be discriminated against, for no other reason than that we are born women? It is in the world of work that many of these injustices become most apparent. Trades unions have played and continue to play a vital role – fighting to remedy those injustices – and to bring them before the eyes of the world at large.

We need to send this message to the world. We live in the information age, when new communications technology offers us an unprecedented opportunity to share information, and to win support. We have all seen the rising influence of non-government organizations, much of it due to the way they have seized the opportunities that this technology presents. I would urge you to consider how we might do the same – to help us move closer to our shared goal.

Once again, I thank you for inviting me here this morning, and I congratulate you on your commitment. I look forward to seeing the results of your workshop, and assure you that the ILO stands ready and willing to work with you. We share a common goal, and I am confident that this workshop will help us take an important step towards it.