Remarks by Ertharin Cousin at the 2013 International Women's Day

Delivered on: 08 March 2013


Thank you very much. First of all, I am going to welcome you all here to WFP. Happy Women’s Day to everyone!

Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

This is not WFP celebrating International Women’s Day. This is all of us in the Rome community celebrating Women’s Day, and WFP is proud to host you here today. Many of you were here in this room three years ago, when we as a community for the first time celebrated Women’s Day. And some of us looked at each other and said, “We must do this every year.” And the representative from FAO said, “And we will host next year”. So, FAO has now hosted, IFAD hosted last year, and now we have come full circle, and WFP is again proud to host International Women’s Day.

I asked IDLO to join us because they too are part of the Rome-based inter-Agency community, and of course their Executive Director, Irene Khan, and you will hear from her later on this morning, was very eager to say, “Yes, IDLO very much wants to be a part of this celebration.” So, as we go forward, we will have the Rome-based Agencies, including IDLO, celebrating Women’s Day on March 8th.

Before I begin my remarks, I would like to take a moment to recognize the Italian dignitaries who are here with us today.  They include film star and WFP Ambassador Against Hunger Maria Grazia Cucinotta and the President of the Women’s Universe Association Valeria Mangani as well as Italian Under Secretaries of State Staffan de Mistura and Marta Dassú.

Let me tell you all a little secret that women hate for you to tell. But I am going to do it anyway. This is not only a special day for women around the world – it’s Marta’s birthday.

Marta, I’d like to welcome you to the stage to present you with a birthday bouquet from your Rome community family.  I would like all of us to sing Happy Birthday. (Audience joins and sings Happy Birthday.)

It’s Women’s Day, but there are a lot of special men, who make our lives what they are, good and bad. And there is a very special man, who’s been lifting up women for a very long time. We have a special gift for him also.  And that man is Staffan de Mistura.  For 40 years, Staffan was part of the UN family – including FAO and WFP – so you have a special place in all of our hearts.  Today, I’d like to present you with a very a special photo of you together with a very special woman.

I am sure this brings memories to Staffan’s mind of a unique fall day in 1986 in Sudan, when he was working under Operation Rainbow and had a very special guest join him as part of that mission. And what better person to have in memory as part of today’s celebration than Mother Theresa, with all the work that she performed not just for the people of India but for the women around the world.

At this point, it’s important that we also say a special word of gratitude to the Government of Iceland for the financial support that they provided to help make today’s event possible.  I also want to thank all our member states represented here today for your commitment to meeting the challenges of food security, economic empowerment and equal opportunity for women and girls around the world.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is “Women, Violence and Food Security.”

Food, as you know, is the great equalizer. It is a great opportunity to make change in the lives of those we serve.

Today, we wear the yellow mimosa flowers.  I learned this morning that after World War II women in Italy who had so very little, when they came together to celebrate this day on March 8th, to celebrate women and their freedom and their abilities to now feed their families again, they wanted a symbol of being together.  And so they chose the mimosa flower because that was a poor flower, as is the food that so many of the women who we work with and support every day, the food that they eat is not the food of the wealthy. It is the food that is common in their communities. These flowers were just that to the women of Italy. This common flower brought them all together, as food brings together so many women around the world.

Today, we rededicate ourselves through this dialogue to preventing and eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls; we take a common idea, whether it’s the flower or food, and we use these tools to overcome the impediments that women face, tools which will help unleash their power and their potential.  So many women and girls have the power inside to act as positive social agents for economic and political change.

Ending violence against women and girls is not only a basic human right; it is also a means to combat hunger and food insecurity.
Our efforts to drive the intergenerational cycle of poverty into inexistence must be driven from the roots of women.  Because when women have food, we all know that children will eat.  When women grow more food, entire communities eat and live better.  As the President of Niger said to me, “Food security for the people of Niger is security for the people of Niger.”

At the World Food Programme, we see the correlation between food security and the status of women all the time.  We know that discrimination and violence against women, and girls, and others perpetuates hunger and poverty in the countries where we work.

As we talk about those countries where we work and serve, we must take a moment to remember all the people of Venezuela, who we know are in prayer now, because they have lost their leader.  I see the Ambassador from Venezuela. We’re all with you and with your people today.  Because no country suffers alone, no people must suffer alone.

We think about what is driving the food insecurity, the violence, the powerlessness that so many women feel.  We all know that in reality the basis of food insecurity, the basis of hunger is poverty in most and many of the communities we serve.  Because poverty is hunger.  Poverty is lack of shelter, poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor, poverty in too many homes, in far too many communities drives violence, and too often that violence is against women and children.  Because poverty is powerlessness.  And as we think about the issues of women who are powerless, I think of a story that a man told in Zambia.  He said, “In my community, women are like livestock.  They can be bought and sold as cattle, and they are in most cases a pretty productive asset, just as cattle are.” He believed women were extremely important, because his cattle was certainly extremely important.  But they had the status of a commodity.  So, what is violence against a commodity?  Why not violence against a commodity?

In Lesotho, an old adage says, “A woman is the child of her father, the child of her husband and the child of her son.”  The Constitution of Lesotho still today, unfortunately, treats women as minors, incapable of making decisions within the law, within their households.  Households that do not have a permanent male in them do not exist, and this makes women even more vulnerable, more powerless. But the reality is, every day, in countries and communities around the world, women and girls face persistent constraints that deny them women’s rights and human rights.  And it holds back the best efforts to improve their lives and the lives of others around them.

When I was in South Sudan, I was told that a 15-year old girl is more likely to die in child birth than she is to have the ability to read. That is the powerlessness that too many of the women in the world face today. These are a few examples of the powerlessness of women around the world. Unfortunately, not unique as every country has stories of the powerlessness of women. But we know that no single institution, no single actor alone can make the change that is necessary to move women to a position of power, to eliminate the violence in so many of the communities where we work and serve. It requires coordinated action across organizations; each of us leveraging our collective collaborative advantages and unique expertise for the benefit of the women and girls we aim to serve.

Because, the good news is, that working together we are making progress.  But we know that food security is not enough, and, as IDLO has expressed, rights for women are also not enough.  We need both.

Gender-based violence blocks opportunities for communities to thrive, just as the absence of opportunities for women and girls breeds hunger, inequity and more violence.

Understanding the engines driving this negative dynamic is our first step toward stopping this dynamic for good.

We need legal and social protection services by organizations like IDLO and UN Women working to turn back the seas of fear, and partners like UNICEF, UNESCO and the Rome-based UN agencies, all of us, each of us, our governments, our institutions, working together to cultivate the seeds of hope, to drive the required change.

Because we need both groups and all of us working together, to create the wings helping to lift women and girls, their countries, their communities, on a path to a better future.  Because the opportunity to achieve a better future is now.

And shame on us if we don’t seize it!

Thank you for all the work you do to bring power to women, to bring security to women yesterday, today and tomorrow.