Gender Equality as an Essential Element in Securing Peace and Prosperity

March 3, 2022

Noeleen Heyzer, the United Nations Special Envoy on Myanmar, discusses gender equality as an essential element in securing peace and prosperity on International Horizons.

What role has the United Nations played in advancing a women’s rights agenda, especially for those from the Global South? What is the legacy of the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women? How can bureaucracies be converted into communities of mutual aid?

Noeleen Heyzer, the United Nations Special Envoy on Myanmar and former director of UNIFEM, talks with Ralph Bunche Institute Senior Fellow Ellen Chesler about what was to be a woman in leadership, the constraints of advancing an agenda for women, and how UN’s principles of peace and human rights are not enough in preventing violence, corruption and exclusion.

International Horizons is part of the New Books Network of academic podcasts. Subscribe to the RSS feed or find it on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited transcript follows below.


Ellen Chesler  00:15

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is Ellen Chesler, and I’m currently a senior fellow at RBI.

Ellen Chesler  00:34

Today we are marking International Women’s Day coming up on March 8, an annual celebration formalized by the United Nations in 1975 to call attention to the importance of gender equality, not only as a fundamental moral and legal matter for women, but as an essential element in securing peace, prosperity, and a sustainable future for all.

Ellen Chesler  00:58

I can’t think of a more important day in history to be doing this podcast. We are sadly recording, as Russian troops are invading the cities of Ukraine and we want to share our concern and our deep resolve for the people of independent Ukraine.

Ellen Chesler  01:23

We are fortunate to have with us today, Noeleen Heyzer from Singapore, author of a New Memoir Beyond Storms and Stars, published last year by Penguin Random House. The book, always thoughtful, inspiring and elegantly written, tells Noeleen’s poignant personal story and also describes the important work of the UN in advancing rights and opportunities for for women around the world. This is an enterprise in which women from the Global South like Noeleen have assumed a very powerful leadership role. This women’s agenda was hardly a Western project as so many of its critics and opponents would have us believe.

Ellen Chesler  02:08

Dr. Heyzer launched her career as an executive and as a diplomat at the UN in the 1990s. She was the first executive director from the Global South to lead the UN’s Development Fund for Women known as UNIFEM. Then, she is widely recognized in this in that role for having placed the institution on a sound financial and programmatic footing, and for assisting the Security Council in the formulation and implementation of the landmark Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which we will discuss in further detail later.

Ellen Chesler  02:45

From 2007 to 2014, Dr. Heyzer served as Undersecretary General of the UN and as such was the highest ranking Singaporean in the institution during her term. In this capacity, she returned to Asia as Executive Secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asian Pacific, known as ESCAP. Currently, Dr. Heyzer serves as the UN Special Envoy for Myanmar, where she is working day and night to help resolve the crisis brought on there by the recent military seizure of power (a topic we will only have time to cover briefly today although it’s surely worthy of an entire episode of its own if Noeleen would ever have the time to come back).

Ellen Chesler  03:29

Dr. Heyzer holds a BA with honors and a master’s degree from Singapore University, PhD from the University of Cambridge. She has received numerous awards for leadership and has pretty much made herself indispensable to the UN system. Thank you, Noeleen, for taking the time to join us today. We really appreciate it.

Ellen Chesler  03:51

Let’s start with the lovely title of your memoir, Beyond Storms and Stars, the meaning of which you explain on the very last page. I also love that Hannah Arendt quote that opens your book: “If we do not know our own history, we are doomed to live it as though it were our private fate”. The two references at the beginning, which one is personal and at the end looking to larger historical circumstances, seem intertwined. Tell us about “beyond storms and stars”.

Noeleen Heyzer  04:25

Oh, Ellen, thank you so much. You know, it’s such a privilege and a delight to speak with you, especially as we approach International Women’s Day. Actually, many people have asked me why the title. I mean, they can understand Beyond the Storms, but “beyond the stars”? So perhaps let me just share the word of the 17th century English poet, Edward Young, and he best captures the meaning of “beyond the stars”. Let me quote him “too low they build, who build beneath the stars.” This within some pivotal moments in history when we are asked to find the courage, the courage to reimagine our world beyond the stars of destiny, to shape the forces that have impacted and destroyed far too many lives.

Noeleen Heyzer  05:17

So Ellen, I turned 74 years this year. So I invite you and our audience to cast our minds back 75 years ago to a pivotal moment in history: the end of the of colonialism, the birth of new nations after the Second World War, was a transformational turning point. The workings and the intertwining of two major historical forces that discrimination and inequality, colonialism and feudal patriarchy, with them might, brought tragic results in terms of human life and physical destruction, and compelled nations and women to find better ways of being. So my childhood and young adulthood was shaped by that historical period.

Noeleen Heyzer  06:10

So let me start with the women in the community that had a huge influence in the way I live my life and the way my understanding evolved. In the book, I mentioned that my mom died when I was six years old. So my life was very much influenced by my grandmother: her wisdom, her resilience, her rebelliousness. In fact, she said to me, “marriage is not a way out for you. So you have to develop strong brains”. My grandmother embodied the palpable spirit of women who surrounded me in my neighborhood, growing up: strength, kind of resourcefulness. They were not victims of fate; many of them have had to define very difficult and unjust circumstances. They were born in: from child marriages, from the way they were undervalued in their life and in their work, but they took life into their own hands. And they created life almost out of nothing. They built social networks, sisterhoods that provided mutual aid to each other, when they migrated to run away from patriarchal structures. They weave a social fabric for themselves where life could try. And they had no expectation that the outside world would help them. And they made their own rules.

Noeleen Heyzer  07:41

My father, as in the book, on the other hand, was made vulnerable by the historical circumstances of the time. And after the war, his skills as a traditional medical practitioner were not recognized, and he lost his livelihood. And he allowed himself to be destroyed by the circumstances. But but he was not just one of the male figures in my life. I also had a very good male figure: my uncle who invested in my education. And through him, I developed the joy of gardening and appreciation of beauty, and most important of all, the love of learning.

Noeleen Heyzer  08:20

I knew and I experienced injustice, but I also experienced solidarity and organizing. So my first and most fundamental understanding of an institution was not a bureaucracy, but community organizing, mutual aid societies, networks of support among workers in in Chinatown, one of the slum areas that I spent six years of my life in, which was also a hotbed of radicalism. And this is where I observed and I invite the world of human action. And this is where I realized the power of organization and organizing, I honestly believe that we should all try to create our institutions not as rigid bureaucracies, but as organic ecosystems that help us realize and then act or collective vision, hope and humanity.

Ellen Chesler  09:15

Noeleen, I could listen to you talk all day. What you’ve just said is so beautiful, because it really does explain how the roots of your passion for justice, but also your respect for institutions and your uncanny ability to work within their constraints. And obviously, there are many constraints to working within the UN bureaucracy. But this balance you’ve achieved between rebellion, looking for justice, but also comportment using and being able to maneuver the institutions that we have to help us was so beautifully just explained. I once wrote a biography and so I really I just am overwhelmed by how beautifully you can speak about your life and how moving it is to meet here.

Ellen Chesler  10:02

Let’s move on in your life you began as a student political activist, and then worked as an academic researcher. Let’s talk about the circumstances in this period from your education, both in high school and in college and in graduate school that shaped your later work as a diplomat, especially your move from development studies, or theoretical concerns about development, to the harder slog of practice and policy. I think that’s a trajectory of great interest to the audience for this podcast.

Noeleen Heyzer  10:35

Well, actually, I have to say that one of the big influences, or a major influence in my life happened to be my husband, actually. He was an irrepressible spirit. And he had a profound influence on me. And he kept bringing me back to the world of social change. So let me explain. When I first met him at age of 20, and this was when I was a student leader, and I was asked, I was actually on a trip to learn the third way, because we were caught in the cold war between capitalism, communism, and there was a third way of trying to find a middle road. So when I met him, when I was on this journey,

Ellen Chesler  10:47

Tell us about him a little bit. Tell us his name and where is he from.

Noeleen Heyzer  11:26

His name is Fan Yew Teng, and he’s from Malaysia. And I first met him at the age of 20 and he was 26. And but he was already the Acting Secretary General of the largest opposition party in Malaysia, the youngest and the most vocal Member of Parliament. And he was Acting Secretary General because the Secretary General was under political detention. But before he entered politics, he had been a leader of the Malaysian teachers union, and had co-organised a nationwide strike to demand fairer rights for teachers, including -and this was in 1967- including equal pay for women teachers, and housing, medical and pension benefits for all teachers in Malaysia.

Noeleen Heyzer  12:13

I don’t think he knew the word feminism, he just did it because it was right, the right thing to do. And he wanted the right kind of social change. I also during my time, you know, in education, I develop wonderful women’s friendships in Cambridge, and that lasted throughout my life, and they brought different aspects from different parts of the world to enrich me. I also, when I worked at the Institute of Development Studies,

Ellen Chesler  12:40

That’s in Cambridge?

Noeleen Heyzer  12:40

No, that’s in Sussex where Richard Jolly was the Director at that time, Professor Richard Jolly. But that time exposed me to a network of professional academic women. And they were truly outstanding. And they also -I was so really taken up so much -because they published my research. And at that time, I was working very much on migrant workers on decent work on the plantation workers, on women in precarious employment. And many of them, you know, it was a way of linking the academic world to the UN. So many of the women were also working at the World Employment Programme of the ILO, and obviously, you know, they found my work interesting. And so suddenly, from being a political activist working at the grassroots, suddenly I found myself actually part of this larger global movement of professional academic women.

Noeleen Heyzer  12:55

But at that time, I also became a mother, Ellen. And so it was not very easy to find life-work balance, but it helped because many times life and work float in the same space, especially during my 10 years at the Asia Pacific Development Center in Kuala Lumpur. And I must say that this center, actually, came to Kuala Lumpur only because it was shut down by the Islamic Revolution in 1979 in Tehran. It was actually established at the First World Conference on Women in Mexico, and Elizabeth Reid was the first Co-Director, but I took it over when it was integrated into the Asia Pacific Development Center.

Noeleen Heyzer  14:47

Now, during this time, I was working very closely with grassroots women activists from all over Asia and the Pacific, and many of them became very, very close friends. And so it was not like when I worked with them, there was work and then I had my life. We all shared work life in the most interesting, integrated way. Life was work and work was life because, you know, we were agents of change in the most interesting way, and we had fantastic friendship. So I just wanted to stress that period, it was not so difficult.

Noeleen Heyzer  15:20

But I also had my aunt, who was like a grandmother to my daughters, so whenever I travelled, she would help me to look after them. But she herself was very deeply immersed in community work. She was, in fact, the first Asian Mother Provincial of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in Malaysia, and was later very involved with the theology of liberation. So I learned a lot from her and her team as well: a team of wonderful women who were educators. But the way they educated and brought leadership from the ground up, especially in the in the communities that were so marginalized, and when nobody would want to even look at them, many of them were actually stateless persons in the country.

Noeleen Heyzer  16:08

But however, during this period, because of the nature of my husband’s political commitment, he was often targeted politically. So I had to find a way of separating his realm of work and mine, to protect my inter-governmental work from political interference. And to be honest, that was the hardest thing that I had to do, because it was so hard divide out what we were doing, and to try to also keep a hold

Ellen Chesler  16:37

You became important to the family’s livelihood, because of your earnings, I gather, and also, your work drove you apart geographically, so you had to live apart. So you really were living as a single mother. I mean, it’s astonishing story to those who might be encouraged by the book and read the book, beautifully told that also because of your temperament, and as you say, the many, I think, with your good fortune and having so many people to help you, both in your family and in your professional family. You were able to balance this and continue the marriage and be so successful in your career.

Ellen Chesler  16:43

I am so admiring of how you write in the book about how this work with grassroots communities, we shaped some of your theoretical ideas about development, that also really educated what you did when you were rewarded for your work in Asia with the grassroots by being plucked, to come to New York, and take on an executive role.

Ellen Chesler  17:54

We have only limited time, so let’s rush through a very impactful and very interesting life. There’s 10 questions, I could ask about what you just said, but I’m going to move on into the 1980s and 90s. As you said, in the 80s, you were first a young staff member wioth ESCAP in Bangkok, working with grassroots communities, learning about the relationship between civil society and public diplomacy, and financing from United Nations agencies. But you are then later plucked in the early 1990s to come to the United States and be the first woman from the Global South to run UNIFEM, the development agency that had begun to help women in the developing world. You are largely credited for having put it on sound financial and programmatic footing.

Ellen Chesler  18:59

Tell us a little bit more about the lessons you brought to the executive chamber from these early experiences. I mean, how was your worldview shaped and and did it differ from what UNIFEM was doing in the past? I mean, we had wonderful women from the West who started it. You know, women whose names are largely unknown now but I think we should all do better to make certain that this history is well told and what you do in the book so that these extraordinary agents of change are not forgotten. Women tend to not do as good a job in my view at writing their own histories and kind of spinning their own tales and we need to do we need to help there. Tell us what it was like to come to New York suddenly from Asia. But I gather you lived on Roosevelt Island. I loved your story about how you met Kofi Annan, and then when he became Secretary General, because you took the, I don’t know if it was the train or the tram.

Noeleen Heyzer  20:14

It was the tram. It was one of the cable cars that goes across the waters, but, Ellen, I must say that I built from the foundation that the first two executive directors of UNIFEM did. They laid very strong foundations for me and we were friends. In fact, they both of them, Peg Snyder and Sharon Capeling, supported me when I was working in the Asia Pacific Development Center, so I have my highest respect for them. And we became very close friends as well.

Noeleen Heyzer  20:50

But obviously, I am as the first woman from outside North America to become the Executive Director of UNIFEM, my first priority was to bring the perspectives of women from the developing world to shape multilateralism and global governance frameworks of human security, human development, and human rights. So it was indeed, the most wonderful opportunity to connect the aspirations of local people to global institutions and international community. And I made sure that the UN and its bureaucracy open new opportunities to connect community conversations to global dialogues.

Noeleen Heyzer  21:35

So, as Executive Director of the Women’s Fund, I always believed that good social policies can only be designed if decision makers engage with real people on the ground, listen to their concerns and aspirations and bring women’s perspectives directly into policymaking. And this is essential to ensure that women would no longer be undervalued, undereducated, overworked, underpaid, as nations search for new pathways of development, because this is from the developing world. That was indeed what they were doing.

Noeleen Heyzer  22:11

So I began to change the narrative of gender mainstreaming and how change happens and convince donors where to contribute. So I developed a women’s development agenda for the 21st century: linked analysis with practice for the type of change that we would like to see. I linked it to the UNIFEM’s programs, which focused on women’s economic empowerment in the globalizing world, women’s political empowerment for accountable governance, realizing women’s human rights, ending violence against women, and women’s role in sustaining peace. This was also the time of when it was the end of the Cold War and globalization was very much a part of the agenda.

Noeleen Heyzer  22:55

In fact, for UNIFEM’s program, I made sure that there was no -that we understood that there was no -transformation without women’s empowerment, because women -the ones that I worked with, the ones I grew up with -I knew that they were they transform the context of their lives by becoming agents of change. In other words, they were not victims, but they were people who understood, they captured an intricate understanding of what needs to change.

Noeleen Heyzer  23:30

So I also understood that for those who want to create change within a system as complex as the UN, must also engage leadership at multiple levels, linking realities on the ground to high levels of decision making. So I placed a lot of emphasis on collaborative leadership. And I provided the platform for cooperation with changemakers, not just from the grassroots, but also from governments, civil society, and private sector, connecting with one another to find innovative solutions to very concrete problems, and also to forge collaborative friendships and also the type of relationships that I saw as extremely valuable. And also because many of them were donors, so I was able to then find the financial resources for implementation as well.

Noeleen Heyzer  24:34

So what did I learn from all this work? I have learned that women leaders, especially if you have joined an institution, cannot wait to get our male dominated institutions right before we act. And our collective action for global governance start by creating issue specific coalitions that can come together locally and globally to develop collaborative solutions to transnational problems through politically smart strategizing from both non state and state actors. And that was what I did.

Ellen Chesler  25:12

Well, you’ve kind of anticipated my next question, which was to say that you’ve talked about how there was an empowering framework after the end of the Cold War to realize the vision of the United Nations after so many years of neglect. You know, the Cold War had kind of hijacked the UN. But suddenly, it was just a contest between -we may be back there -with Russia and the United States. But suddenly, there was an opening for the kind of social and economic rights and bold thinking that are at the foundation of the institution’s mission going back to the earliest days. Eleanor Roosevelt and so many women and men from the newly independent countries, who dreamed big at the beginning,

Ellen Chesler  26:03

But what you haven’t talked about but you do in the book, and you do it so beautifully, that I was going to ask you to go into it a little more, although it’s difficult in a short time, is that while these aspirations grew bold, again, we are living through a time of neoliberalism in terms of economic policies, the huge burden of structural adjustment policies on the developing world’s nations. So there were never the resources developed to realize rights. I mean, not to speak of unforeseen circumstances, wars, the AIDS crisis, other public health and refugee crises that we never even thought about when you and I both -you were there in a leadership role, I was just there with an NGO -were at Beijing, thinking big in 1995.

Ellen Chesler  27:02

So give us a little bit more concrete examples of how you dealt with the resource problems. You got to UNIFEM there was no money, you found that there was a budget crisis, you somehow didn’t want to become a vassal of the UN Development Program (as good as Mark Malloch Brown may have been as a leader of that program. He’s a friend and a person I admire greatly). But I can certainly understand that you wanted to find your own resources. Tell us just where you found them, just a few concrete examples.

Noeleen Heyzer  27:33

Oh, actually, I have to actually say that having feminist women in the system of their development cooperation made a big difference. They were able to help me mobilize. Having a history of partnerships with women leaders, especially those on the ground from student days that became Ministers, that was extremely helpful. Being able to harness, I learned how to harness relationships. And I must say that one of the best relationships I had was actually with the Dutch feminist leaders. A very close friend (she became a very close friend. I didn’t know her before that) but we worked together, you know, for example, on the issue of international migration, and she just passed away. But she was an amazing friend.

Ellen Chesler  28:44

And these women had access to resources from the development agencies of the Scandinavian countries. And they we began to invest because, explaining to our audience, UNIFEM, like many of the agencies of the United Nations doesn’t necessarily have a budget, you have to go out and raise your budget. Countries are not assessed to give a certain amount. You raise your budget from willing countries and you were able to build these relationships working inside the system. I just want to get more of the nitty gritty for our audience here.

Noeleen Heyzer  29:20

Yes. You know, it was I must say that when I first came in, I was in such a state of shock, because firstly, I thought I was coming in for the Fourth World Conference on women. And I thought I was heading the Women’s Fund that had quite a large percentage of the resources. And I found that Peg Snyder, the first Executive Director, had only $ 1 million and she got that out of the some of the resources that were left over. So it started off as a voluntary fund that was left over from the First World Conference on Women, and Peg Snyder was good enough to say, “you know what, it has to be a development fund”.

Noeleen Heyzer  30:06

And then she started raising resources. I am not sure what level she reached, but by the time it was Sharon’s turn, it was about $ 13 million, but she was supporting women’s organizing for all these conferences. And so the organization got into debt. And I just felt, I called it a crisis of demand. Other people, those in the system called it a crisis of existence, because we were in so much debt that we almost disappeared. But I decided, no, I this is a moment whereby we actually have to say that this fund is so critical, and that we know what is happening at the ground, we know how to move agendas, we know how to mobilize and we know that type of change, and we can actually deliver.

Noeleen Heyzer  30:52

And we also know how the UN will be working, because it was at a time of UN reform, how we will have to work in the system. So that it is not just us bringing the change, but we but we will make sure that the UN as a system, especially the UN at the ground level, will actually deliver on the Beijing Platform for Action. And I think because I was able to show that, and with confidence, and I got all my staff to show what we had as resources worth investing in. And so eventually, I must say that we started off, eventually addressing the debt issue, and towards the end, we were able, by the time I left, we had about $ 120 million a year to work.

Ellen Chesler  31:45

Extraordinary story in terms of mobilization of resources. And I think it’s important to point out to the audience that today, we take it for granted that the heads of development institutions -the World Bank, the IMF, all of the bilateral institutions -understand the importance of women’s rights as an element of securing peace, prosperity, and a sustainable future for all. I mean, Hillary Clinton made “women’s rights as human rights and human rights is the right of every woman” into a global mantra. But we’re old enough, sadly, to remember when the men kind of laughed at this.

Ellen Chesler  32:24

I mean, you know, development didn’t work for the first 25 years after World War Two, because in fact, the money went to a few male leaders of developing world countries and wasn’t inclusive. It didn’t worry about who was working; you know, societies where women did so much of the work in agriculture and elsewhere, were not getting development funds to help those sectors. They were getting development funds to build infrastructure that, you know, wound up not trickling down to, in fact, improving the lives of countries. And having somebody like you in charge with your grassroots experience helped change this understanding. And I think that’s what your book so beautifully explains, because, in fact, you have the ability to speak theoretically about all of this having been well educated in development, but also to relate your practical experience and how your theories were influenced by what you saw on the ground and how you were open to changing your ideas. And it’s what I really love about the book.

Ellen Chesler  33:38

Unfortunately, again, we have to rush through all this, but just because we’ve mentioned Beijing, which was of course fourth in a series of 20 years of UN focus on women, something I think, is probably the institution’s really one of its most significant achievements, which is not fully understood, particularly by its critics. Just can you speak a little bit about what you think the takeaways, the significant takeaways from Beijing have been? What have we achieved? Has there been progress? Where have we failed? Where are you disappointed? How has Beijing influenced the framework for development that now guides the UN, the Sustainable Development Goals?

Noeleen Heyzer  34:29

Well, the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, with the theme of equality, development and peace, provided the momentum for the world community -governments, civil society, men and women – to actually unite in solidarity, to reimagine and to reshape globalization. Through the eyes and experiences of women. Just we all these series of UN high conferences came about after the end of the Cold War obviously, and the beginning of the age of globalization.

Noeleen Heyzer  35:05

But that was another kind of globalization that was taking place. And this was a time when women’s global activism was at its heights, forming connections across deep divides, because of these UN conferences, to shape a global agenda. So, basically, for women, what was most significant was that they stressed that equality, development and peace, they are intertwined. And they were very clear that women wanted nothing less than the transformation of the 21st century to ensure that our daughters had the same opportunities as our sons: where women could realize their rights to quality education, employment and health care, equal inheritance, legal protection and citizenship and to be free from violent conflicts, harassment, and sexual violence. But they also knew that they must be the primary agent of this transformation. And hence the outcome that they sought.

Noeleen Heyzer  36:08

From the Fourth World Conference on Women, it was a global commitment for the empowerment of all women. And it came out as the Beijing Platform for Action. And this was an extremely important platform, It was one of the most powerful platforms because it was based so much on the mobilization of women. And also, it was one way women were able to seize the opportunity for changing women’s lives, but also to focus on the quest to achieve the transformation needed on a global scale, to sustain that change. So that, you know, we talked about change at the grassroots change at the national level. But this was a global transformation. And that was what is so special.

Ellen Chesler  36:59

For all that still needs to be done, there has been a revolution in girls’ education to a degree at the primary level and we’re making huge gains at the secondary level and in university education for women as well in the developing world. You know, there are more, very few people know that in the Middle East, there are more women graduating from college than men today.

Ellen Chesler  37:26

We’ve made extraordinary gains in reproductive health and in health, despite the setbacks and countries like our own, but let’s not even waste our time talking about the United States and reproductive health, but the rest of the world. We just saw major gains in Latin America this week, in countries like Mexico, and now Colombia.

Ellen Chesler  37:49

We have had a transformation and women’s leadership. I mean, you know, we still complain, and the United States is low in the rankings. But in countries like your own, and many others, there are many, many more women serving in Parliament shaping policy. And as I said, controlling resources and development agencies and so forth and so on. So for all the doom and gloom, the world looks very different from the one you and I -we’re the same age -came of age in and tried to change. And so I don’t think we we can rest on our laurels by any means.

Ellen Chesler  38:27

But I share your view that we have made some progress, and we need to now continue to build on the progress we’ve made. I think the hardest progress is in employment, but that’s because of circumstances much larger than gender. The world is, you know, experiencing vast inequalities of wealth, we haven’t been able to develop the kind of social safety network for people and raise wages. Labor is, you know, under attack, but we need to work on that. And I want to talk about two other things.

Ellen Chesler  39:10

However, before we have to conclude in about five minutes, you are very well known for having helped the Security Council shape UN Resolution 1325, another milestone in the history of human rights and of women’s rights. Why was it so important to move the agenda from the human rights and development framework overseen by the General Assembly into the realm of peace and security, governed by the all important UN Security Council, which we know is from this week, the ability to get consensus -because Russia vetoed -it’s a very difficult organization to work within, but you got to pass this extraordinarily important resolution. What progress have you seen in achieving 1325 and in transforming women’s role as peacemakers and countries’ understanding of the role that gender plays in peace, and particularly in violence too (I mean that the role gender plays in war through sexual violence). Where are your disappointments again? Can you give us a quick summary of where we are on 1325?

Noeleen Heyzer  40:29

You know, Ellen, the Women Peace and Security Agenda is a victory, is a huge victory for women’s leadership, and the mobilization to bring about transformation in the peace and security sector, which is a very well guarded traditional male bastion. So since my appointment, UNIFEM had provided assistance to women in conflict-affected countries, and supported their participation in local peace processes. But I have to tell you, our efforts were marginalized, and local women’s groups organizing and conflict affected countries were not taken seriously at all by the major UN entities involved with peace and security, not just in the Security Council.

Noeleen Heyzer  41:12

But in the aftermath of the genocide and in the pursuit of justice for women whose lives have been torn apart by it in Rwanda and in Bosnia at the heart of Europe, UNIFEM worked with many women leaders and organizations in Africa and beyond, to urgently build a global world movement to recognize rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war and genocide. And I was then requested to lead the effort in the UN, to establish an international legal framework to deal with rape as a war crime and to establish sets of legally binding norms and standards specifically on women and armed conflict.

Noeleen Heyzer  41:56

Now, we spent almost a year convincing the members of the Security Council that conflicts occur because of deeply fractured societies, extreme economic and social inequalities, and entrenched discrimination, and political systems that excluded people’s voices, fragile governance systems and rampant corruption. So if we want sustainable peace, we need to go beyond the military approaches to one that addresses the root of conflict, which are multi dimensional, involving the economic, the social and the political forces, and we spend months in discussion with Security Council members and supportive Member States. Our message was very clear, resolving conflicts, peace building and state building must be addressed within a holistic framework that integrates human security, human development and human rights to deal with the social fractures that feed conflicts.

Noeleen Heyzer  42:55

We shared how women leaders whom we supported, were working on the ground, building inclusive peace processes that are more likely to lead to lasting peace. And we had to convince Security Council members that in their own self interest, a more balanced group involved in peacemaking can better address these societal grievances that had escalated into conflict. So on the first day of this millennium, 24th of October 2000, half a century after the birth of the UN Charter, the Security Council finally adopted Security Council Resolution 1325, the Women Peace and Security Legal Framework, consisting of participation in prevention, protection, participation, peacebuilding and recovery. And it broke the silos between human rights, development, peace and security, and it address sexual violence as a war crime. It also supported women’s meaningful participation in peace and recovery and promoted women’s rights to inheritance, property and land as crucial; education, health care and employment as crucial for sustaining peace and in the rebuilding of societies. And I must say that the Security Council finally realized that women’s meaningful participation and leadership are important not only to ensure respect for women’s human rights, but fundamental for building a solid foundation for peaceful and just societies and that gender equality is a game changer in securing sustainable peace and development.

Ellen Chesler  44:42

It is so interesting to me. I mean, sadly, we don’t have enough time to talk about it. Obviously, since this work you have headed up ESCAP and, you know, worked on building more equity and prosperity and sustainable development in Asia. You are now representing the Secretary General in very delicate negotiations in Myanmar. You know, one can only hope, as we look at the conflicts in Europe. I mean, you know, I never did, I believe, having been born as you were in the shadow of World War Two and with a grandmother who had lost siblings in that war, sadly, so I, you know, I was aware of it from the time I was quite young.

Ellen Chesler  45:28

Never did, I believed that I would live to see another ground war in Ukraine, where my family has roots, but honestly, maybe out of this you don’t hear about the women of Ukraine. They’re being told to flee or guard their children. But they are such an important part of the development of Ukraine of the economy of Ukraine. It’s obviously controlling that economy that is motivating President Putin, he needs the economic energy and the spirit of Ukraine to infuse more opportunity in Russia. I mean, you know, although I don’t think he’s taking on more than he’s going to be able ever to, biting off more than he can chew, as they say, because these people don’t not seem like they’re going to be easily contained, even if they win militarily.

Ellen Chesler  46:26

But I hope that all of the theory that you have just so beautifully explained that women have added to international relations, the feminist aspect of foreign policy, will be part of the peace process, both in Myanmar as well as in Ukraine. I don’t know if you have two minutes more, we have about two minutes to speak about Myanmar, you can say anything, I think that again, maybe you can come back some other time to talk about that,

Noeleen Heyzer  46:56

Yes, I think I would just stick to the work of Security Council 1325, because you know what it taught me that although the UN was founded on principles of peace and human rights, principles are not enough in a world where the politics of hatred, division, violence, corruption, and exclusion permeates so many of our societies. Be it in Myanmar, and so on, right? But by working on many of these conflicts, I have learned that we must be attentive to the reality that many powerful actors hold values that go against those enshrined in the UN Charter. And that gender equality actually has become a battleground as well for our normative framework. I just want to end on one very strong note. And I just want to stress, Ellen, that the human drama is still unfolding. And history is within the power of women to shape.

Ellen Chesler  47:49

Well, amen to that. And I cannot thank you enough. I only wish that when during your time in New York, we had gotten to know each other even better. I was always aware of your work, but didn’t have the good fortune to actually get to know you. So I’m very grateful for this opportunity as I know our audience is and I wish you great good fortune in your very, very important role in Myanmar.

Ellen Chesler  48:16

Thank you, Noeleen. Everybody, please do get a copy of her book Beyond Storms and Starspublished by Random House Penguin. Her personal story is inspiring as are her policy insights. Remember everyone to rate and subscribe to International Horizons on SoundCloud, Spotify and Apple podcasts. Thanks to Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance today and to Duncan Mackay for sharing his song “International Horizons” as the theme music for our program. My name is Ellen Chesler again, and I thank you all for joining us and look forward to having you for future episodes of International Horizons.