Statement for International Women’s Day 2019 by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women

“At a time when innovation is dominant, shaping and changing the way people live in every part of the world, we have to be intentional about its use to positively impact the lives of women and girls. That means making sure they are not only consumers of innovation, but take their place as innovators. With their engagement, both design and execution of solutions can address the unique needs of women and girls, from the creation of decent work to delivery of products, services and infrastructure for women in all walks of life. This year’s theme for International Women’s Day, “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change” puts innovation at the centre of efforts to reflect the needs and viewpoints of women and girls and to resolve barriers to public services and opportunities.

Remoteness need no longer be an exclusion issue when mobile money technology and digital payments can deliver social benefits to even the most remote households. Lack of roads need not prevent life-saving medication from reaching patients, with smart inventions like 15-year old Nigerian Eno Ekanem’s drone to make drops to rural areas, controlled by SMS messaging.

Lack of electric light did not stop Midwife Lorina Karway from delivering babies at night in remote parts of Liberia; she improvised using her phone light. Now however, simple, low-cost solar lamps made by women have brought a creative, sustainable solution to Lorina, and to multiple health centres and individual homes that previously lacked access to energy infrastructure. This important invention that jumpstarts access to modern renewable energy can be further developed to be even easier to handle and use. 

Women’s fresh, relevant thinking also brings transformative change to large-scale infrastructure, both virtual and physical. Our Buy from Women Enterprise Platform uses mobile technology to connect women farmers and cooperatives to information, finance and markets, optimizing the supply chain for women. The large ‘Senergy’ solar-power project in Dakar, Senegal drew on women’s views in development, bringing shared benefits such as upgrades to the local school, the funding of a microcredit association to promote women’s businesses in the local area, and premises for a maternity unit. Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni’s award-winning vision for the redevelopment of the razed district of Baba Amr, Homs, includes ways to restore cooperation, social cohesion, and a sense of identity after the devastation of war.

Innovation and technology reflect their designers and makers. Knowing that algorithms increasingly determine selection and response, we need to react to the growing evidence that women have been routinely left out of the data on which decisions are made. “Big data’ is only a reliable support for decision-making if it draws on a pool of unbiased information.

Groups that are under-represented and marginalized based on their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or socio-economic status also need to have the opportunity to create and to provide feedback on what is created by others. This might be urban planning that designs for commuter or pedestrian safety with simple measures like better lighting and walkways that reflect crowdsourced data on hotspot attack or harassment zones. Or it could be toilet constructions that support women’s period management needs. Or the use of biometrics as ID to replace formal registration documents that many women may not have or control. In any of these scenarios, innovation and technology with a gender perspective are crucial to remove barriers and accelerate progress for gender equality.

Our Global Innovation Coalition for Change brings representatives from the private sector, academia, and non-profit institutions to develop the innovation market so as to work better for women and to accelerate the achievement of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Women and girls must have opportunities to contribute to making real change, and help shape the policies, services and infrastructure that impact their lives. As we have seen from recent marches for climate action in Europe and elsewhere—they are ready to do so.

When we put the focus on those who are least heard, and least visible—whether individuals, or those hundreds of millions of informal sector workers who currently have little or no  presence in official planning, or financial protection that will sustain them in ill-heath, child care or older age—we are tackling some of the deepest-reaching social problems and can make the progress we want to see.”