Opening Address at a Research Conference

State Secretary Laila Bokhari's opening address at The Research Council of Norway's, Norad's and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' conference on gender perspective on demography and conflicts.

Ladies and gentlemen,

These are challenging times for gender equality, development and peace. Conflicts, discrimination and displacement are hampering development and slowing down efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. There is growing opposition in certain areas, as witnessed by the recent failure to reach consensus on reproductive rights in the Commission on Population and Development.

But there are also encouraging signs. With the appointment of Antonio Guterres, the UN has a champion for gender equality and women's rights at its helm. Civil society organisations are standing up for human rights and development. And many political leaders, including our own Prime Minister, are taking on a leading role in the area of women's and girl's rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights.

The extent to which we succeed in reaching the billion people left in the margins of society will determine how successful we are in fulfilling the 2030 Agenda.

While it took hundreds of thousands of years for the world population to grow to 1 billion, it has grown sevenfold over the last 200 years. The global population reached 7 billion in 2011, and today it stands at about 7.5 billion.

Women and young people are the two largest demographic groups facing inequalities in the world. Too many women, children, and young people are illiterate, out of school, unemployed, or without effective legal protection against abuse and exploitation.

Take Malawi as an example. While it may not be a country in conflict, many of its women and girls face abuse, early marriage, child pregnancy, HIV, maternal death and unsafe abortions. Only 25 % of Malawian girls complete elementary education and only a handful complete secondary school and start university. Leaving no one behind in a country like Malawi means investing in girls.

Two top priorities

The same is true in many of our other partner countries, and this is the reason why we have made education and health the two top priorities in our development cooperation, with a special focus on girls and women.

Women's inclusion and influence are crucial for peace and sustainable development. Men should be as aware of this and as active in promoting gender equality as women are. Only then will we reach our goals. The He for she campaign is crucial – both in times of war and in times of peace. Because it benefits women, and it benefits men.

Norway's new action plan for women's rights and gender equality in our foreign and development policy, Freedom, Empowerment and Opportunities, describes our ambitions for gender equality, and sets out education for girls and women's sexual and reproductive health and rights as two of five priorities.

We cannot afford any setbacks.

Ideally, countries themselves should provide access to sexual and reproductive health services. However this is often not the case. Until recently, the US provided important support for these services for several years. The recent reintroduction of the 'global gag rule' by the US administration has given cause for concern, as this is likely to result in large cuts in funding for sexual and reproductive health services.

Neglecting these rights entrenches inequalities, weakens the prospects of achieving sustainable development, and makes it harder to balance population and development dynamics with the planet's resources. That is one of the reasons why Norway is a strong supporter of women's sexual and reproductive health and rights, including the right to safe and legal abortions. And it is one of the reasons why we support She Decides, a Dutch initiative to mobilise additional political and financial support for efforts in this area.

Let me turn to the other theme we are discussing today. Norway has long been a global leader in the field of women, peace and security - and we still are. But today, there are many others who are also championing the cause. This is very good news, and reflects an increasing sense of ownership internationally of the women, peace and security agenda.

Norway wants to make a difference

Norway is constantly looking for opportunities to make a difference. We are proud to have provided the first female commander of a UN peacekeeping operation and the first NATO special representative for women, peace and security.

More recently, we are proud to have launched the Nordic Women Mediators Network, inspired by a similar South African initiative. We have also been promoting women's participation and the gender perspective in the prevention and countering of violent extremism. Norway will be a driving force in the Peacebuilding Commission, and we are working to ensure that our humanitarian efforts are gender-responsive and involve women as effectively as possible.

Norway has played – and continues to play – a key role in a number of peace processes. There is little we can do without the parties' ownership of the women peace and security agenda. They need to recognise that women's participation is paramount for the legitimacy, credibility, effectiveness and sustainability of the process. Civil society also has a crucial role to play. But Norway can and does play a role - and we see results.

In the Colombia process, women have been extensively involved and civil society organisations have been systematically consulted. Real attempts have been made to include a broad range of actors. Challenges remain, but I believe the Colombia process has helped raise the bar for us all.

We'll probably still have to insist on women's participation, explain why it matters and ensure that women are not only present, but also able to influence the process. But at least on these questions will be asked: Are women included? Is the gender perspective being taken into account? Is civil society being consulted? How is this reflected in the final agreement?

And turning to the Syrian process: In spite of all its shortcomings, we have made headway in one important respect. Formal mechanisms are in place to ensure that both women and civil society are taking part and able to exert an influence.

Norway has gained a reputation for mediation, and our efforts are documented and discussed.

We are learning from practitioners and researchers alike. We truly appreciate the importance of a conference such as this, and are proud of the important research that Norway has contributed to in this field.

We know that inclusive processes and gender-responsive programming are keys to building resilient communities, lasting peace, and sustainable development. That is why we need to be on top of this game, with the latest knowledge and insights.

I greatly appreciate your work and look forward very much to hearing about the results. Only through facts, evidence and research, can we make real progress in our efforts to promote gender equality, development and peace.