International Forum on Women and Sustainable Development

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Beijing, China
November 9, 2011

Good morning. I am delighted to be back in China to join so many of you who are committed to ensuring that the needs, concerns, and potential of women are fully integrated into the world’s sustainable development efforts. I thank Madame Chen Zhili and the All-China Women’s Federation for their visionary leadership on this issue.

The world has long recognized on paper – from Rio in 1992, to Beijing in 1995 to the adoption of the MDGs, that gender equality and women’s full participation are essential to sustainable development. But we have not always acted upon this knowledge. Today, gender inequality continues to extract high economic costs, widen social disparities, and cause environmental degradation around the world.

Let me make two points. First, women are critical to riving inclusive economic growth. Yet millions of women are still barred from contributing their full economic potential – sidelined by legal, cultural and social barriers that keep them from starting or growing businesses, accessing financial training, and even from inheriting property.

All of these restrictions and inequities come at a high economic cost – not just to women, but to all of society. Addressing them must be a top priority. Some of you participated in September’s APEC Women and the Economy Summit. This week, as we meet here in Beijing, the leaders of the 21 APEC economies are convening in Hawaii. And there, for the first time, the topic of women as vital to driving economic growth will be on the agenda.

Ensuring women’s full economic participation is not just the right thing to do. It is the smart thing to do. We also know that in many countries, women comprise the majority of the agriculture labor force. Yet women farmers are up to 30% less productive than male farmers, and that’s not because they are working less or are less committed. It’s because women farmers have access to fewer resources. They have less fertilizer, fewer tools, poorer quality seeds, and less access to credit and training. In some countries they lack inheritance and land ownership rights. And they have much less time to farm because they also have to do most of the household work. When that resource gap is closed– studies show that women and men are equally productive in agriculture. If we close the resource gap holding women farmers back in developing economies, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, we could feed 150 million more people worldwide every year and raise productivity by 20%.

Secretary Clinton calls this the Age of Participation. I believe we must use this opportunity here in Beijing to identify what we must do to tap the immense economic potential of women around the world as true agents of change in sustainable development.

My second point is that I am pleased that my country is involved in the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and I hope all of your governments will join us. It is a public-private partnership bringing together governments, NGOs and businesses to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and combat environmental pollution by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient cookstoves. Three billion people – most of them women – cook the same way they have for hundreds of years – on an open fire or crude stove with solid fuels such as wood, crop residues, or coal. Women spend up to 20 hours a week collecting this fuel – hours that might be better spent caring for and educating children, cultivating land, or building a business. Moreover, these inefficient cook stoves create smoke conditions that cause an estimated 2 million deaths a year – most of them mothers and young children.

The Clean Cookstoves Alliance has a goal of "100 by ’20" - 100 million homes using clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020. These technologies can reduce fuel consumption, which lessens the fuel collection burdens women and girls face, reduce exposure to dangerous cook stove smoke with terrible health consequences, and reduce environmental pollution. Building this market will also provide economic development opportunities for women who sell, distribute, or manufacture clean cook stoves. We hope all nations represented here will become vital partners in the Clean Cookstoves Alliance. It is a win-win strategy.

Like some of you, I will be in Durban, South Africa, next month for the international climate change discussions, working with leaders from around the world to ensure that women’s voices are fully heard in these talks. The message of this conference must be heard in all the meetings leading to Rio, and in the actions our governments take to implement these goals. Let us work together. This must be our common cause. Thank you very much.