Speech by Her Excellency, Ms. Hilde Haraldstad, Ambassador of Royal Norway to Sri Lanka and the Maldives at the inauguration of the international conference, Critical Women: Women as Agents of Change through Higher Education on Tuesday 6th March 2012 at the Cinnamon Grand, Colombo.

First of all, let me express how pleased I am to be here this morning at this important conference on Women as Agents of Change through Higher Education. I was honoured to be invited, as this is a topic of great importance, and also a topic close to my heart. Support to especially girls education, women empowerment and gender equality are also high priorities for my government- the government of Norway, in our foreign and development policy and domestically, and I will share with you some of the experiences that we have made in this field, and also a few general observations.

Higher education is a fundamental building block for development, by providing knowledge, professional qualifications, critical thinking and analysis, crucial for public policy formulation and a healthy society. Higher education is also essential to create a vibrant private sector. Education and higher education especially, gives people options, empowers them to be independent thinkers and agents of change.

Here in Sri Lanka education for girls and boys are given high priority, and it is indeed positive to note that Sri Lankan women enrolled in higher education has increased steadily, the same trend that we have experienced in my country Norway. I have been told that the percentage of women in total student enrolment in the Universities in Sri Lanka for the moment is more than 55%.

This is a very positive development, at the same time as we both in Norway and Sri Lanka and in most other countries I believe, experience an underrepresentation of women in higher academic and management leadership posts. When I was a student at the university of Oslo in the early 1990s, we had a very lively panel discussion I remember, about this topic, realizing that even if the number of women entering university was growing fast, the percentage of female professors and women in higher decision making positions didn’t follow and continued to be low. We have improved over the last years, but still the number of women in academic positions seem to decrease the higher you come in the academic hierarchy. Whereas in my country we are doing well on women in politics, still today maybe less than one out of four professors are women, whereas there is a higher percentage of female assistant professors, who hopefully will become professors in the future.

I believe there are a number of reasons for this, and some of them are structural. When the minister of education of Norway recently was asked why there were relatively few women in the top positions at the universities, she responded that the management must take its responsibility when it comes to promotions and that it is important to look at the incentive structure and the academic committees. She also mentioned the competitive culture and long working hours that can be difficult to combine with family commitments, and then emphasized concrete measures taken by the Government to address this challenge. To get a better gender balance at the top level all Universities and institutions of higher education have been requested by the Government to Adopt Action Plans with concrete steps and follow ups. The experience so far is that Action Plans make institutions more aware of gender equality and that it has an impact. Other measures have been to set aside financial resources to stimulate and strengthen the expertise of the leadership and granting gender equality awards to departments and institutions that do well.

I mentioned that over the years we have succeeded in getting many women into Governance and politics  in my country. For the moment about 40% of  parliamentarians are women and about half  of the government ministers are. It took political will and targeted policies to achieve this, but also an effectively organized women's movement, which to a large extent was responsible for the significant increase of women in politics some decades back. Since then successive governments have invested in gender equality. An important tool in the effort for gender equality and empowerment of women is of course the use of quotas.

While often seen as controversial in its initial phase, I believe that gender quota systems have proven to be effective to change the gender balance and break glass ceilings. Based on the very low number of women in the boards of the private sector companies, the Norwegian Government decided about ten years back that minimum 40% of each gender should be in the boards. It was a controversial decision when it was made, but it has turned out to be a success and the effect on gender equality has clearly been positive. Yesterday I read with interest in the newspaper that the head of IMF an former finance minister of France Christine Lagarde, who I understand was skeptical to gender quotas before, recently has expressed support to quotas, with the argument that  she likes to see more women be recognized for their competence.

Gender equality and inclusion of women is not only a matter of doing the right thing from a social or moral perspective. It is important in order to ensure sustainable economic growth and development. The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report shows that for 114 countries for which data is available, advances in gender equality correlate positively with higher GNP. This makes sense: as the World Bank has shown and Norway and other countries have experienced, increasing women’s labour force participation and earnings generates greater economic growth and produces additional benefits in terms of family health and education. As one of the Norwegian ministers put it; “Norway’s strong economy is not only built on oil. It is built on women”.  Norway was faced with huge social and economic challenges after the second world in the middle of last century. Today there is broad agreement that the gradual active participation of women in working life, politics and the economy made a significant difference, and was crucial for the development, peace and prosperity that we experienced. Providing kindergartens and parental leave also for fathers are other measures to support such development.

To be a good change agent, experience, knowledge, commitment and visions are important, and also self-confidence and perhaps a realistic perspective of the future. In order to develop the above characteristics, higher education can be crucial. Sri Lanka has some very strong and competent women who have been in the forefront when it comes to women in politics and in important positions, the world’s first female prime minister came from this country after all.  We also have impressive female role models in academia, in the civil service, media and civil society here in Sri Lanka, whom my embassy has found it very inspiring to work with over the many years that we have been involved in development cooperation and peace building in Sri Lanka.

In this context I find it relevant also to mention Security Council Resolution 1325 of year 2000, a landmark resolution, which recognizes the importance of women’s equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security in the world. For the first time in such an important setting, women were recognized as important change agents and actors for peace and security, not only as victims of war and conflict. I was pleased to read the speech by Sri Lanka’s UN Ambassador in New York about the importance of 1325 recently. I must also add that I was proud when the Nobel Peace prize was announced in Oslo late last year, and was given to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee from Liberia and Tawakkul Karman from Yemen, for their struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work. What the Nobel committee further announced was important, I think, namely that  we cannot achieve full democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society . I do believe that the decision to give the peace prize to these three women is a strong recognition of the important work done by women as change agents in society and in peace building, it is a recognition of the importance of gender equality, of protection and empowerment and inclusion of women, and it is also an incentive and inspiration to us all.

With those words I thank you very much for your attention, I wish you all a very fruitful conference about a topic of great importance to all, men and women alike. There is no doubt that education and higher education especially, gives women options, empowers them to be independent thinkers and agents of change. I would like to complement the Association of Commonwealth Universities and not least the University of Kelaniya for arranging such an important conference, and again thank you for having invited me to be with you today.  Thank you very much.