Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq Ms. Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert Remarks on the occasion of International Women’s Day
5 March 2023
I am glad to be here.
And, I mean that.
It is a real honour to address you all, on the occasion of 8 March, the day I would say in our calendar year, when we reflect on achievements and recommit to the further advancement of women. And, of course, I am proud to be among you - so many of you have used your voice to champion women’s causes and I am truly proud of that.
So, let us use this opportunity to reflect indeed. Where do things stand when it comes to women in Iraq today?
Those who know me are most likely aware of the fact that I’d like to think in terms of the glass being half full.
So, let me start with the October 2021 elections. Women took the opportunity presented by these elections – and they ran with it. They mobilized for their districts, surging past the 25% minimum quota to make up the highest number of women in Iraq’s parliament to date.
This was not an easy feat, as it is widely recognized that women face significant challenges when they seek to exercise their political and electoral rights. From, for instance, the escalation of harassment; intimidation; sexual, psychological and physical violence, to gender-biased scrutiny from the public and media. Unfortunately, this is the case in too many countries and regions across the world. Also in Iraq.
So yes, to all those women out there, I would say a job well done. At the same time, it is crystal clear that a lot of work lies ahead of us.
Not only to ensure the elimination of existing barriers to the realization by women of their political and electoral rights, but also to achieve a better gender balance in decision-making positions. I mean, nobody will deny that very few women end up as mayor or governor, let alone as head of state or government.
Meanwhile, the Government of Iraq has taken some steps to increase much-needed protection for women in vulnerable positions, including those belonging to minority communities. I am glad to see movement in the area of retroactive compensation to Yazidi women under the 2021 Yazidi Survivors Law.
That said, also here, more – much more – work lies ahead. For instance, there are still too many gaps, in terms of both legislation and its enforcement, which women can slip through. The draft Anti-Domestic Violence Law not only needs passing, it also needs the budgetary and legal clout to make the difference.
Moreover, the harsh reality is that violence against women takes many subtle forms. Yes, certainly all kinds of overt and explicit threats, but also implicit threats of social exclusion and rejection.
All of this with the intention to degrade, demoralize or shame the women in question. It can happen at home, in the community, in public and online. And there is no denying it: threats - implicit or explicit - often precede physical or sexual violence.
The good news is that the October 2022 Government Program espouses a commitment to the empowerment, support and protection of women. And, of course, commitments are good. They are the first step. But what comes after is the part that really matters. That is where we – all of us in this room – need to be vigilant. We need to keep asking when and how this commitment will bring about action.
Speaking of action, women – in particular, young women I have to say– are taking it. Across this country, they are coming up with innovative community-driven solutions for some of the biggest existential crises facing Iraqi society. For example, I have met some of the amazing women working at shelters for survivors of violence here in Baghdad. Iraqi women continue to be involved in reconstructing areas liberated from DA’ESH, raising awareness of the risks posed by improvised explosive devices and rebuilding their communities.
Just last week I heard about a women-led project converting organic waste into fertilizer, thereby reducing pollution, generating revenue and contributing to Iraq’s agricultural sector.
That’s just great! And, it inspires so many people – including myself.
Nevertheless, there is always a but, as you could hear from the examples I used earlier on. In other words: further progress requires hard work. Even if one likes to think in terms of the glass being half full – like me, our optimism can only go so far, before it fades.
Distinguished guests, dear friends,
The building blocks are down; that is good.
But a solid structure is – as of yet – lacking.
And to state the obvious: its construction requires more. A lot more.
It requires more resources. And I hope we see some tangible allocations in Iraq’s new budget.
It requires more mobilization and advocacy. Within this context, let me mention the lessons learned during the 2021 elections and the importance of applying these lessons to any future elections.
It requires more partnerships. Hearing directly from everyday Iraqi women is the best way to keep our finger on the pulse; to know what is really happening across the country.
It requires more representation. While I was glad to see the appointment of three women cabinet ministers (some of them here today), we are eagerly awaiting a further increase of women in decision-making positions.
It requires more political will, which will be needed in pushing through, for instance, the long-awaited draft Anti- Domestic Violence Law. I mention this law again because it is so important, and not only for women but also for the elderly and children – male or female – and anyone else who is at risk of experiencing violence within the family.
And lastly, all of this requires courage. Because – frankly – it is not always easy to talk about or to act on women’s empowerment today.
Having said this: we, women, are backed by a strong case.
I’m not only talking about the moral one. I mean, I don’t think many men would disagree that safeguarding the rights and freedoms of half the population is, simply, the right thing to do.
There is also a legal case. And here I am, of course, referring to Iraq’s 2005 Constitution – passed by popular referendum – enshrining the equal rights of women and men. not to mention the many national, regional and international laws and treaties.
And, there is a practical case – one that is getting harder to argue against. Research continues to demonstrate that having more women in decision-making positions is good, not just for women, but for everyone.
Studies show that society as a whole becomes more secure, more prosperous, as gender equality improves. And, as Iraq continues to advance its own program of economic growth, I will also cite the World Bank, which has concluded that, on average, long-term value added to the economy per person would be almost 20% higher if gender employment gaps were closed.
Now, as we are not here to discuss politics or argue over affiliation, I am pretty sure that all of us will share, value and/or appreciate the calls for respecting local contexts, cultures and traditions. At the same time, both the data and our lived experience, tell us that the world cannot face the many challenges that are looming without harnessing the potential of women. It is as simple as that. And, leveraging the enormous potential of women starts with protecting their rights and freedoms.
The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, who visited Iraq few days ago, has delivered this message time and again. And, it is the reason he has prioritized placing women and girls at the centre of “Our Common Agenda” – it is a sweeping initiative to tackle the biggest issues of our time. To be clear: our common agenda is an initiative called for by all UN Member States, including Iraq.
Now dear friends, I look around today, at a room of accomplished, illustrious women.
I know that some, in particular some men, would accuse us of “preaching to the choir”, as the saying goes.
And, yes, let’s face it – to see real change…we must convince, we must enlist…those who are not in the room. At the same time, I also think we need spaces like this one; to draw strength from our common efforts…to share lessons and experiences…to strategize on the way forward – on reaching those not already part of our “choir”.
When I was little girl, my mother told me time and again: if you can dream it, you can do it. And she was right. So yes, let us do it collectively.
Distinguished guests, dear friends,
Tonight’s theme reflects on the role of women in Mesopotamia. These women built entire cities; they marked history with their words; they led civilizations.
And we do not need to look far to see such examples in modern times. I’ll mention the late Zaha Hadid, a globally distinguished architect; the late Zakia Haqqi, the first female judge in Iraq and the Arab region; and Alia Saleh Khalaf, also known as Umm Qusay, who put herself at great risk to save the lives of Iraqi soldiers from Da’esh and continues to inspire many.
These are just some of the countless women who stand up and call for change…who push for legislation…who speak truth to power, making the case for the advancement and empowerment of women in Iraq and beyond.
In conclusion, dear friends, and to once again pay tribute to tonight’s theme, let me emphasize: every woman in Iraq is a queen. And not only that, she is also quite often the mother of a queen.
And, frankly, I am yet to meet the man who could say the very same thing.
 World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report (2017), as cited by European Partnership for Democracy