Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on the occasion of International Women’s Day

Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on the occasion of International Women’s Day

Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on the occasion of International Women’s Day, © Xander Heinl/photothek.net

07.03.2019 - Speech

Two years ago, I was asked in an interview whether I was a feminist. It had been noted that, during my tenure as Minister of Justice, I had introduced a “strikingly large number” of laws seeking to strengthen women’s rights. Moreover, during my time at the Ministry of Justice, I had, or so it was claimed, made decisions regarding personnel that significantly improved women’s standing and the representation of women at all levels, including at the top of the Ministry and in the federal courts. I still didn’t answer the question in the affirmative, and that was for a number of reasons. For one thing, I have found recently that there are ever more people out there, particularly men, who call themselves feminists. And in many cases, I asked myself why this was so.

I also found it a bit cheap to appropriate the label of the many activists who work in all areas of society – on a frequent and often voluntary basis – to advance the cause of gender equality. And actually I always considered it to be a matter of course to use the instruments that I have at my disposal at any given time to modernise this country and our society and to promote gender equality. And because I firmly believe that gender equality is, in essence, a question of justice and that you don’t become feminist through claiming to be one, but by engaging in concrete action.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a question of representation, participation, equal opportunities and equal rights. At the end of the day, this is about nothing less than the core of our coexistence. To put it in a nutshell, there can be no genuine democracy without the concept and practical realisation of gender equality.

That is why anyone who calls themselves a true democrat should, without any ifs or buts, work to promote women’s rights and equality.

If that means being a feminist, then we would need 82 million feminists in Germany today.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The UN Secretary-General stated last week in the UN Human Rights Council that it would take another 200 years for full gender equality to be achieved worldwide, as Ms Böhm has already pointed out – provided, that is, that we stick to the current pace. This fact and statistic are shocking enough.

But what is even more bitter is that we cannot, in some cases, be sure whether we will be able to maintain the current pace at all. A cursory glance at our parliaments is enough to establish this, ladies and gentlemen. If today fewer women are Members of the German Bundestag than was the case 20 years ago, then something is going wrong.

And certain international developments unfortunately suggest that steps are being taken backwards rather than forwards. The populist call for strong leaders such as Erdoğan, Orban, Putin and Bolsonaro also gives me cause for concern.

For if privileged men consider the disadvantaged position of women to be a biological consequence, if a progressive policy with respect to equality is decried as gender obsession, then this turns the clock back, not forwards.

Granting women equal opportunities is simply a matter of common sense. After all, a policy that disregards the needs and abilities of half of the human race is not only undemocratic in its nature, but is also antisocial and unproductive.

This fact is borne out by numerous studies that show that societies in which women and men are equal are more stable, peaceful and successful, and ultimately probably also happier. This is the conclusion reached at any rate by the World Happiness Report, in which Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland were the four happiest countries.

For us as the Federal Foreign Office, this can only mean one thing, namely that we need a foreign policy for women.

• It is with this in mind that we, as a member of the UN Security Council, are committed to the equal participation of women in all phases, and I mean in all phases, of conflict and crisis management. After all, women are an important anchor of stability following conflicts, and they are indispensable when it comes to overcoming crises.

The International Peace Institute has found that a stable peace is more than a third more likely if women are involved in the process. However, in reality only eight in 100 chairs in peace negotiations are occupied by women.

We can no longer stand by and accept this. This is why we are promoting the involvement of women in the peace process in Syria, for example.

In the Security Council, we put the situation of women in the Middle East on the agenda back in January. And we will continue to work systematically to ensure that representatives of civil society have their say in the Security Council – and to a greater extent than has been the case to date, not only on issues that directly affect women, such as the debate on protection against sexualised violence in conflicts during our Security Council Presidency in April, which will take place there. We also need women’s input on all issues that the Security Council addresses. That’s my definition of mainstreaming.

• A foreign policy for women must also consider women to be equal actors. That’s why I always endeavour to focus on the situation of women and women’s rights during the trips we undertake, and to organise meetings at which women from these countries‚ who know best what the legal situation is for them, are also held.

This was also the case last week in Sierra Leone, where four female activists told me about their impressive fight against sexual violence. And this was in a country in which the President declared a national emergency just a few weeks ago because of the escalating sexual violence faced by women. This was inconceivable in Sierra Leone until recently, because the issue was a completely taboo subject.

By the way, these women were members of a network that we established together with the African Union and UN WOMEN.

The African Women Leaders Network helps women to shape social change in Africa as stakeholders, and as anchors of stability in their region. And their work is urgently needed.

The conclusion reached by the three women I spoke to in Sierra Leone was quite clear, namely that a network such as this offers women a necessary, and above all overdue, opportunity to change their countries for the better. Incidentally, not only when it comes to the situation of women’s rights.

It is also for this reason that we have decided to establish a similar network in the coming months also between Latin America, the Caribbean and Germany. I believe this to be empowerment in the very best sense of the word.

• Speaking of empowerment, a further tool of a foreign policy for women is our project work. Strengthening and protecting women is a leitmotiv of many of our projects, such as in the Congo, where we are working to promote women’s access to justice. Or in Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon, where we are supporting female human rights defenders.

However‚ we must‚ beyond such targeted projects‚ take the situation of women and girls into account much more often than has been the case to date – in humanitarian assistance, for example‚ where, since last year, we have systematically assessed our aid projects according to whether and how they promote inclusivity.

I believe this to be the right approach, and this is one that we intend to continue to pursue with all due resolve.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I believe that it is clear that a foreign policy for women can only be a foreign policy by and with women. And this is why our foreign policy, yes even our foreign policy, must become more geared to women.

This is a question of credibility at the end of the day. Credibility is the be-all and end-all of successful policy, especially international policy, and this is something that I have experienced most intensively in recent months. Unfortunately, a great deal of trust and reliability has fallen by the wayside in the course of the things that are happening in the world. And this is why we want to press ahead with projects that set an example when we successfully promote gender equality and also the right to self-determination for all women and girls around the world.

So let’s talk about the Federal Foreign Office.

There’s no denying that women continue to be under-represented in leading management positions in our Foreign Service, especially at our missions abroad. We are all aware of the causes here. Twenty years ago, the proportion of women taking up new positions in the higher service stood at just 10 to 20 percent.

The women who were not hired back then are sorely missed today. After all, we know that mixed teams work better – this is what any occupational researcher will tell you, and this is also something I have found from my own personal experience.

This is why we are changing tack in this area:

• The proportion of women in the newly selected 74th attaché crew stands at 54 percent. That is a record for the Federal Foreign Office and, incidentally, only the second time that more than half of a crew has been female.

• Last year, we were able to fill four of seven Director-General positions with women. We have the first female chief inspector in the history of the Federal Foreign Office.

This means that the proportion of women at the second-highest management level at the Federal Foreign Office has increased from 27 to 45 percent.

• What is more, I can already tell you today that the second female State Secretary in the history of the Federal Foreign Office will be joining us very soon.

I believe these to be important steps, and also steps in the right direction. It is important for these steps to be implemented correctly. The benchmark here should be for equality to lead to an improved German foreign policy; it can make a contribution to this, not in isolation, but it can make a contribution nonetheless. Then there will also be the acceptance that we need for successful gender equality work, if we promote this at the political level.

And we must, and indeed we will, take into account the fact that equality is not only an issue that applies to those in the upper wage brackets. That would also be too short-sighted.

Equality is about more than this:

• The Federal Foreign Office as a whole must become more diverse and inclusive so that we are able to visibly represent the Germany of today and tomorrow in all of its facets, also abroad.

• We must make progress with respect to the challenge of balancing work and family life; this is in the interests of all of our employees, and not only women. Only then will we be able to recruit the best minds for the Federal Foreign Office in the first place.

• And we need a culture at the Federal Foreign Office in which it goes without saying that good work and a fulfilled private life, also before 8 p.m., aren’t contradictions in terms, but rather depend on each other. I can tell from the smiles on a number of faces here that this isn’t something that we can simply decree from above.

This requires nothing less than a change of attitude. And this, ladies and gentlemen, esteemed colleagues, is what we are trying to do, and what we must all try to do step by step. So there’s still quite a bit of work to be done in this area. But we’re facing up to these tasks, and I’m certain, and this is the way I see things, that everyone we need for this will become involved in the work that lies ahead of us.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not an order that can only come from above, but is a task that affects us all. And while this may sound banal, it is anything but. I would like to appeal to all of you to support us in this endeavour.

Just as you have done, Ms Böhm.

You have given today’s event the title “International Women’s Day – A reason to celebrate?” This choice of title in the form of a question is not entirely unjustified. And I don’t want to pre-empt any of the responses that will be offered by the various panels. However, it is perceptible and discernible at any rate that we at the Federal Foreign Office have decided to tread a path that will ultimately mean that our foreign policy is not only conducted with and by more and more women, but that we intend to continue to develop our foreign policy in perpetuity.

And there is, to my mind, at least one genuine reason to celebrate International Women’s Day. It encourages us – and this is, by the way, what we are seeing if we follow some of the debates in the newspapers right now – to engage in a societal debate, and one that we need. We cannot only discuss this behind the doors of companies or public offices, but we need a minimum level of support in society for this, and I am certain that this support will also be forthcoming. This day and the debate that accompanies it raises public awareness and it also, to a certain extent, helps to bring about a change in attitude.

And in so doing it not only strengthens women’s rights, but ultimately also strengthens our democracy – and by extension also our country.

Thank you very much.


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