Women's role in conflict resolution: First Minister's UN speech

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon addresses the United Nations on gender equality and the role of women in peacekeeping.

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Thank you Teresa [Whitfield, acting head, Mediation Support Unit] for your introduction. It's an absolute pleasure to be here with you at the United Nations today.

Earlier this afternoon, I did have the pleasure of meeting with the Executive Director of UN Women, and also with the Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights. I'm very grateful to both of you for your time this afternoon, and for having the opportunity to discuss how the Scottish Government can further support the vital work of the United Nations in both of those areas.

And it's really good to see so many of you here today for this discussion about the role of women in conflict resolution. That, obviously, is an issue of significant international significance and importance, but also an area where I hope that Scotland can make a distinct and positive contribution.

Before I came to New York last night, I was over in California, and one of the events I took part in there was at Stanford University. When I was preparing for the speech I was giving at Stanford, I read up on some of the history of that university. And I was quite interested to learn that the founders of Stanford University, Leland and Jane Stanford, at the very establishment of the university, insisted that women were admitted on completely equal terms to men. And Leland Stanford, actually, in a letter back in 1893, said this: he said 'if vocations were thrown open to women, there would be a 25% increase in the nation's production'. And I thought that was really striking, that that letter was written 124 years ago. Because it makes a simple, but overwhelmingly obvious point, and a point that is still so highly relevant today – that any nation that underuses the potential of women, that underuses half of its population, is needlessly impoverishing itself.

And yet last year, the World Economic Forum predicted that, at our current rate of progress, it would take 170 years for the world to reach genuine gender equality. I don't know about you, but I don't think any of us can afford to wait 170 years, and even if we could, it wouldn't be acceptable to wait that long.

So I'm determined, as the First Minister of Scotland, that my country will take a lead in trying to drive forward progress – both within Scotland, but also, where possible, by helping to promote gender equality beyond our own borders.

I vividly remember, in fact – and this goes to something we were discussing earlier on, when I took office as the first woman First Minister in Scotland – one of the things that really moved me at the time was the number of girls and women who contacted me to say how much it meant to them to see a woman in the most senior political role in the country.

And that underlined for me the importance of two things: firstly, the importance of making sure we have role models for girls to look to; but secondly, underlining the importance to me, for women in positions of influence, to genuinely lead by example. So I'm determined to try to do just that – to lead by example and use my time as First Minister to improve opportunities for women.

So, at home, the government I lead is committed to tackling violence against women, to closing the gender pay gap, and to ensure that more women work in careers that have traditionally been seen as careers for men. Along the way, of course, we'd like to encourage some men to work in careers that have been traditionally seen as careers for women.

I'm also determined to lead by example in the appointments that I make. So when I became First Minister, I appointed a cabinet that was, and remains to this day, gender-balanced. Now, at the time, I think we learned from the UN that we were one of only three gender-balanced cabinets in the developed world. And I learned today that there are now five. So in two and a half years we've gone from three to five. I suppose we should celebrate all progress, but that really does tell us how much work we still have to do.

But that commitment to gender equality at home is also one that I hope that we can extend to Scotland's work overseas.

A good example of that is our work on climate justice – Scotland has very much been influenced in that regard by the work of Mary Robinson. And of course, so many of our climate justice projects – we were the first country in the world to establish a climate justice fund – helped to empower women. And that's one of the outcomes that we specifically ask all of our partner organisations to measure.

We all know that the worst impacts of climate change are often disproportionately felt by women – women are more likely to be subsistence farmers or to be affected when crops fail. Women are usually the people who get water and have to walk further in areas of drought. It's girls that are more likely to stop going to school when tough times force families to work harder.

And of course, the basic logic of that applies beyond the context of climate change. Women's rights have to be the concern of everybody – not just women. But in order to advance women's rights, we need to make sure that women are in key areas and key positions of influence.

And that brings me, of course, to Security Council Resolution 1325, because that principle applies, I think, very directly and very powerfully to conflict resolution.

Conflicts that target civilians – as so many civil wars do – again, like climate change, often have a disproportionate effect on women. Yet women are too often excluded from having a voice or a say in resolving conflict.

That needs to change. And the new Secretary General of the UN himself has set a very powerful example in how he intends to progress that. And last year, Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, invited the Scottish Government to fund a project to train women to be involved in the Syrian peace process. And I was delighted to accept Staffan's invitation.

We had at that stage already committed to accept refugees from Syria. And at present, Scotland is home to almost a quarter of all of the Syrian refugees that have come to the United Kingdom under the resettlement programme.

So we were delighted to help with a project which, hopefully one day, will play a part in establishing peace, rather than simply coping with the consequences of war. And I am really grateful to the UN for giving us the opportunity to do this, to the Mediation Support Unit for helping with it, and of course to Beyond Borders who organised the training programme itself.

The first ten participants in that programme were all from the Syrian Women's Advisory Board. The programme, of course, is helping to ensure that the voices of women are heard in the ongoing Syrian peace process. And of course we've seen, just in the last two days, in the horrific events in Syria, just how urgent it is to make sure that we progress the Syrian peace process.

But we then took the decision to broaden that programme out. And in total, last year, we trained 50 women – from Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Syria, Turkey and Yemen.

The programme, I think, is widely regarded as a success. Scotland is able to provide the women who were participating with a safe space – somewhere where they were able to discuss issues freely and securely, away from the peace process itself.

They attended an event at the Scottish Parliament, and by sheer coincidence, one of the events at the Scottish Parliament took place the morning after our own elections last year. So they had the opportunity to engage with sleep-deprived Members of Parliament, but Members of Parliament who had just taken part in a rigorous, robust election campaign, who had immediately come together to accept the outcome of the democratic process. There's also cross-party support for this in Scotland – every party leader was represented at that event, again sending a message about the support that exists for it.

And the determination of these women was incredible – the determination to make a difference in circumstances that it is often very difficult for others to fully appreciate or comprehend.

So I'm really delighted that we're in a position today to confirm that we will train 50 more fellows every year from now through until 2021. And in giving that commitment, we're also making the commitment to extend the remit of the programme to include South Asia, South and Central America and sub-Saharan Africa as well.

And all of this really is in line with the determination we have in Scotland to be a good global citizen. We were one of the first countries to sign up to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals – in doing that, we want to be a model of fair sustainable development at home, and also to promote prosperity, equality and peace overseas.

We want to put rights – including, increasingly, economic and social rights as well as human rights – at the heart of all of our policymaking. And in doing that, of course, we find the framework that the UN provides so very helpful.

We contribute in a range of ways to the work of the UN, but part of the reason for being so delighted to be here today is that I want us to explore ways in which the Scottish Government can further support the work that the UN, in its various different forms, is doing.

One of my great heroes, which I'm sure I have in common with many people in this room, and across the United Nations, was Eleanor Roosevelt, and she, of course, was very clear that 'alone, none of us can keep peace in the world, but if we cooperate together, then we can achieve that longed-for security'.

So my message today really, to all of you doing vital work across the world, is that Scotland wants to play our part. We are a relatively small country, but a country that potentially can have a big, positive and powerful voice. And in the work we're doing in peacekeeping and reconciliation, hopefully we can demonstrate that.

So thank you again, for giving me the opportunity to be here today to talk about the work that we're doing and the work that we hope we can do with you in the years ahead. Thank you very much indeed.


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