Excellencies, dear Minister Christodoulides,

Distinguished fellow speakers,

Ladies and gentlemen,


It gives me great pleasure to join you for today’s event on women in diplomacy.

Thank you, Nikos – and thank you, most importantly, for organising this event and keeping gender equality high on the political agenda in Cyprus.

As a woman and as a politician, I – like you - believe it is essential that women have an equal voice in society, and that that voice is heard.

This is a fundamental democratic right.

I want to focus my speech on three themes.

First, why society needs women in politics and diplomacy.

Second, how we enable it.

And third, what the EU is doing to support this process.


The great predisposition of women to diplomacy is not something new. In 400 BC, Aristophanes wrote Lysistrate, a comedy about women living in three different cities who, frustrated by the men’s lack of success, organise themselves to end the Peloponnesian war. Aristophanes used the metaphor of weaving, to portray women of exceptional diplomatic ability, who pull together the strands of society to negotiate peace and “weave the fabrics of nations”.

Almost two and a half thousand years later, the role of women in democracy and peacekeeping is increasingly seen as indispensable. This may sound almost as a truism in the western world, and it is not something we need evidence to prove.

But examples abound everywhere around us.

When Madeleine Albright was interviewed about her time as the first female US Secretary of State, one of the first points she made was that, “societies are better off when women are politically and economically empowered” .

I could not agree more. It ensures their views are heard, and their perspective is accounted for. One of her defining moments was in March 2001 when three soldiers were convicted at an international war crimes tribunal of rape and sexual enslavement.

It defined rape for the first time as a crime against humanity and marked a major step forward for women’s rights.

Women’s groups – and a group of female foreign Ministers representing their countries at the United Nations at the time, including Madeleine Albright – were instrumental in achieving this.

According to UN statistics, when women participate in the peace-making process, the resulting agreement is 35% more likely to last 15 years . Women clearly play an essential role in maintaining stable and secure democracies.

However, despite this, they are still significantly underrepresented in political life. Women account for only a quarter of all national parliamentarians and a fifth of government ministers worldwide .

Even the EU, which is generally considered a global leader in this area, was reported in the 2019 Gender Equality Index as “moving at a snail’s pace” . In 15 years, its overall score has improved by only 5 points – to reach 67 out of possible 100.

The index for political power is particularly worrying – it averaged 55 for the EU, but with some very wide variations.

Sweden scored 95.1 out of 100.

But closer to home, Cyprus has a long way to go as it is still very low in these rankings.

Less than 20% of the Cypriot parliament is female  - and we have no women in the European Parliament.


This brings me to my second point: how do we enable women’s participation in politics?

When Halla Tómasdóttir campaigned in the 2016 Icelandic Presidential election, she identified three key differences between her campaign and those of the three men running against her: “muscle, media and money” .

Men, historically, have had the political muscle behind them in ways that women have not.

More often than not, men continue to be the “gatekeepers” to positions of political power. Then there’s the question of money.

80% of respondents in a survey done by UN Women in 2013 identified access to financing as one of the biggest barriers to entering politics .

Parties need to ensure female candidates have equal access to campaign funding – but women also need to invest in, and be supported in building networks and connections.

Governments, and parliaments, should  put in place the measures and structures that allow the sometimes antisocial hours of political careers to exist alongside family life. Family obligations have to be shared so that women are not only able to work, but also able to participate in policymaking, from younger ages.

This is in everyone’s interests – men and women.

And finally, there is the media – and in particular, online abuse.

Prejudices against women in decision-making positions, and stereotypes based on gender roles and men’s and women’s leaderships abilities remain fairly universal.

During the 2016 Democratic primaries in the United States, Hillary Clinton received almost twice as many abusive tweets as Bernie Sanders .

A study of the Council of Europe and the Inter-Parliamentary Union reported that around 85% of female parliamentarians have suffered psychological violence during their term in office.

There is a clear need to make politics, and the media that surrounds it, more female-friendly.

My final theme is the EU’s commitment to gender equality.

Equality is a founding principle of the EU and an integral part of our Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Today, I am proud to be part of the first team of European Commissioners led by a woman, in the most gender balanced Commission College we have ever had: 12 women and 15 men.

President von der Leyen has called for a “Union of Equality” – based on the principle of equality for all, and equality in everything.

For the first time, there is stand-alone portfolio on equality –led by my colleague, Helena Dalli.

41% of the European Commission’s managers are women – and President von der Leyen is committed to achieving gender parity at all levels of the Commission’s management by 2024.

At the beginning of March – before International Women’s Day – the Commission will adopt a new Gender Equality Strategy for 2020-2024.

This will address a number of critical issues that currently undermine equality, opportunity, and potential in society and particularly impact on women -including work- life balance, pay transparency and the gender pay gap, violence against women and gender balance in decision making.


Gender mainstreaming is also being reinforced across other EU policies.

In the area of health – which is my responsibility – we are committed to gender equality and anti-discrimination in all our actions and policies.

Women and men experience “health” differently – and this needs to be reflected in health policies.

The participation of women and men in clinical trials is followed by the European Medicines Agency and the Commission to ensure adequate participation of men and women.

This is essential to ensure their different physiological needs – and the different ways they respond to drugs and therapies - are accounted for.

The EU’s Beating Cancer Plan, which I will present later this year, will include various aspects to account for gender specific needs at all stages of the disease.

The health example is a showcase of the importance of women’s participation in decision making - because that leads to vital gender parity decisions with important policy consequences.  

Ladies and gentlemen,

I have been lucky.

I have never felt limited in what I can do because I am a woman.

But I acknowledge how different my life could have been without the networks I have had in place.

I am the daughter of a generation in which a woman's place was primarily in the home.

Luckily for me, I had supportive parents, and a supportive husband.

But many women in the world are not so fortunate – and it is for these women that we must speak up and act.

Gender equality is possible where there is political will and a clear political vision to progress.

On 8th March, as the world reflects on 25 years of progress since the Beijing Platform for Action was launched, we should also reflect on the fact that this will also be the 109th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

Women have been calling for more gender equality for over a century. To achieve the best for society, we need the best people in office. And often the best man for the job is a woman.

We need every person to play to their strengths, and be able to do so, regardless of their gender.

We need to attract politicians and diplomats from all walks of life to ensure all voices are represented.

We need people like you, and events like this, to keep women’s issues, challenges and rights high on the political agenda.

By getting more women in politics, and ensuring all of society is represented in all levels of decision-making, we will move faster towards equality, inclusive development and peace.

Thank you.