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Soroptimist International Governors’ Meeting focusing on the African Woman in the 21st Century
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Keynote address Mrs. Anna K. Tibaijuka, Executive Director of UN-HABITAT

Distinguished delegates, colleagues, friends

I feel greatly honored by your invitation to join you here today, on the African Woman’s Day at the Soroptimist International Pan African Meeting here in Nairobi. I am deeply touched and encouraged by your commitment to the empowerment of women.

I stand before you as a metaphor for the African woman in decision making. Making decisions is an every day activity for women globally. Our decisions range from household and family to community work, and from community work to global agendas. By our mere presence and by our own decisions, we change the world around us. And it is indeed a world of change we live in. Rural-to-urban migration has washed over the planet like a flood, beginning with the industrial revolution in the North and cresting now, 200 years later, in the South. Two hundred years ago, cities contained less than five percent of the world’s population. Today that proportion is fifty percent and growing. Today’s rapidly urbanised world provides challenges for women different from those of the village. But, just as our memories embrace both the rural and the urban, so do the challenges for women in decision-making in the 21st century. We find women at all levels of society, but do women also take part in decision-making on all levels of society?

Decision-making for the African women in the 21st century is about making choices about our bodies, personal development, and families. We make choices about our immediate and mediate environment, our communities, cities and towns, and making choices that echo on the global arena. It is decision-making to which we have the right, but that we sometimes still lack power for to access.

It is not news to anyone that women constitute over half of the population on the continent. Yet we do not see women taking half of the seats in public decision making. Today, in Sub-Saharan Africa, women hold 13,6% of seats in national parliaments. This is a step forwards when compared to the 9,2% of seats in parliaments that women held five years ago in the same region. Still, women are underrepresented in national parliaments.

At the level of local authorities and municipalities, the situation is slightly better, but women still remain under-represented. The result is women's issues not being adequately reflected in the development agenda of our towns and cities. I am convinced that having more women leaders will make local authorities and neighborhoods work better.

Because of their important responsibilities of caring for the well being of their families, women often take the lead in starting local initiatives. In Latin America, mothers started the “glass of milk” campaign to help improve the nutrition of children in very poor families. Mothers fought against urban cholera epidemics through improved sanitation, and started mothers associations that led to getting women into local leadership. In Africa, women’s groups continue to undertake house and neighborhood improvements. Thus women around the world have been struggling to transform urban governance from the bottom up.

It is crucial for local authorities and national governments to learn from, build upon and support such grassroots initiatives, and to build the energies and knowledge of women into local decision-making structures. It is at the local level where the decisions are made that really affect peoples' lives, and indeed where most resources are managed. Where women are absent from such decision-making, issues that affect them and their children are usually overlooked.

As the flood of migrants streams from its rural sources to its new urban dwellings, new physical and cultural environments are created. Many newly arrived city migrants are not able to find decent shelter or sufficient livelihood. Their hopes for a better life are not realised as they are trapped in a vicious circle of urban poverty, social exclusion and deprivation. The majority has to accept squalid living conditions in unplanned settlement without basic services, such as water and sanitation, leaving them without dignity and without good health. This is a place where opportunistic diseases that attack people with HIV/AIDS breed and spread rapidly. A woman’s right to decide over her own body, to decide on her sex partners, to decide to bring yet another child to this world, or decide not to – where in the many dark back alleys of the slums in our own Nairobi do we find those rights?

If women did have the power to decide over their own bodies, then perhaps we would not have HIV rates as high as 58 percent. If the young African woman had the power to decide on her sex partners, then perhaps the HIV rate among girls aged 15 to 18 would not be six times higher than the same rate among boys of the same age. Perhaps.

The quest for empowering women to decide over their own bodies is a quest for a whole society to survive. The new cultural environment of urbanisation has become infected by the culture of HIV/AIDS. In the deep tracks left wherever HIV/AIDS goes, children find themselves without parents, mothers find themselves without sons and people find them selves without hope. So, the flood of migrants who came looking for hope, find themselves at the cultural back alleys of a society in crisis.

But, we believe that the city of premature urbanisation, with all its insecurity and insufficiency, can change into a better place still retaining its character as an expanding and exploring urban environment. Just as we believe that, so we must also believe that the cultural environment of the African town and city can change to give women access the decision-making arena while keeping the African identity.

Culture is dynamic, and what we have to learn in dealing with HIV/AIDS, is to open a dialogue with those who guard the gates to culture, be it the clan leader, the community leaders or the local or national government. Bringing women into the decision-making process will, and of this I am sure, place these strategic issues on the agenda. The woman’s perspective is necessary in opening this dialogue and addressing these issues that so desperately need to be properly addressed.

So, we must ask ourselves where is the source of power for women to take part in decision-making? Where do we start? Starting at the very beginning of life, we must support girls’ right to education so that they might one day become the decision-makers in their own lives, decision makers in their communities an decision makers in the global arena. It is from that very beginning we must work.

Keeping these prospective decision-makers in school, when they are eagerly needed by their mothers to help with the household, is not only a question of supporting the young girls, it is a question of empowering women at all levels, so that the girls no longer are asked to stay at home instead of gaining education for a better future.

We must promote participation in politics and decision-making by women, so that women can contribute more efficiently to the democratic process, incorporate a gender perspective into debates and introduce critical gender equality issues into the political agenda.

There is a need for recognition of women’s rights at the household and community levels. Women's rights to participate in the economic, social and cultural life of the city. Women's right to actively participate in the political life of their cities. And women’s right to secure tenure of both home and neighborhood.

To further this, we have launched two global campaigns on Security of Tenure and Urban Governance, respectively. Through these campaigns, which are very much inter-related, we promote inclusiveness in cities as well as global norms of good governance. The campaigns also serve to ensure that women's initiatives, such as the ones we have just seen, are recognized, supported and brought into mainstream city agendas and policy.

We must promote and support women’s rights to their bodies, their rights to property – their physical as well as their intellectual properties -- and their right to education. I, myself, have been active in the women's movement in my country, Tanzania, where I have been involved in advocating for women's right to land, inheritance and social services, as well as in promoting high standards of education amongst girls in Tanzania and throughout Africa. Being able to continue with this commitment to women's advancement at a global level through the United Nations, and working together with groups of other committed women like yourselves, is a great opportunity to make a change.

Distinguished delegates, friends and colleagues, in closing, I wish to thank you once more for your support for the work of UN-HABITAT. I believe that women worldwide are giving a new meaning to the word solidarity and I thank you for being a part of that solidarity.

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