Opening of Commission on Status of Women 65th session

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15-Mar-2021 01:33:37
Pandemic reveals extent of gender inequality in world’s political, social, economic systems, says Secretary-General, as women’s commission opens session.

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Already rampant around the globe, gender inequality has only worsened amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with women hard hit by job losses, school closures, rising poverty and spiking rates of domestic violence, speakers told the opening session of the Commission on the Status of Women today, describing equal representation as the “game-changer we need” in addressing the world’s toughest challenges.

“COVID-19 is a crisis with a woman’s face,” said Secretary-General António Guterres in his opening remarks. Noting that the Commission’s sixty-fifth session is the second to be impacted by the pandemic — which forced the body to scale back its activities in March 2020 as the world first came to understand the scale of virus — he said the fallout in the months that followed revealed how deeply gender inequality remains embedded in the world’s political, social and economic systems. Women make up 70 per cent of the world’s health-care workforce and occupy most of the jobs in the hardest‑hit economic sectors, and that they are 24 per cent more likely to lose their jobs. Amid pandemic lockdowns, women’s and girls’ unpaid care work has risen dramatically due to stay-at-home orders, the closure of schools and childcare facilities, and increased elder care responsibilities.

Meanwhile, he said, the pandemic sparked a “shadow epidemic” of violence against women, accelerating harmful practices from child marriage to sexual abuse. In that context, the theme of the Commission’s 2021 session — “women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls” — is more relevant than ever. Women’s participation in decision‑making has been proven over decades to enhance economic results, prompt greater investment in social protection and lead to more sustainable peace and climate action. COVID-19 has also revealed the power of women’s leadership, he said, as countries run by women have largely managed to keep virus transmission rates low and put countries on track for recovery.

Noting that the United Nations has placed women at the centre of its own pandemic response and recovery, pushing for stimulus packages that support the informal economy, invest in the care economy and target women entrepreneurs, he said what is needed is not more training for women — as is too often suggested — but training for those in power on how to build inclusive institutions. “We need to move beyond fixing women, and instead fix our systems,” he stressed. In that vein, he called on leaders to fully realize women’s equal rights, including by repealing discriminatory laws; ensure equal representation using special measures and quotas; advance women’s economic inclusion through equal pay, targeted credit, job protection and social protection schemes; enact emergency response plans to address violence against women and girls; and give space to the intergenerational transition that is already under way.

Mher Margaryan (Armenia), Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women, also delivered opening remarks, recalling that it was the first of the United Nations bodies to be impacted by COVID-19. Unfortunately, in 2021, the pandemic’s impacts continue to restrict travel and the ability of representatives to gather. However, he said, the Commission has restructured its sixty-fifth session and continues to strive for a meaningful and tangible outcome. Throughout the two‑week session, interactive discussions and side events will continue to examine timely themes, while voluntary presentations by Member States will help explore lessons learned through a national lens.

Echoing the Secretary-General’s concern that women remain underrepresented in all aspects of decision-making, he said the political declaration adopted by the Commission in 2020 on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action highlights gender balance in decision‑making as a key element for achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. He also called for more international collaboration to end violence against women, which remains pervasive, as well as attention to the economic shocks being felt disproportionately by females. Against that backdrop, he said the Commission’s session provides a chance to devise strong, action-oriented policy responses to help the world build back better in a more resilient, equal and sustainable way.

Also sounding an alarm about the serious and persistent obstacles to women’s empowerment — from pandemics to climate change — was Munir Akram (Pakistan), President of the Economic and Social Council. He agreed that the international community must take bold steps to overcome those challenges and fully implement the 2030 Agenda. While gender parity has been achieved at the United Nations, more must be done, he said, proposing a new global compact for women’s empowerment that draws on the concrete recommendations of the Commission’s sixty-fifth session.

Volkan Bozkır (Turkey), President of the General Assembly, outlined steps his office has taken to address the issue of women’s empowerment, saying that: “We can only achieve women’s equality if they are involved in decision-making processes.” Highlighting threats against their full participation, from politics to decision-making in critical areas both on‑ and offline, he said no solution has yet been found. Real change hinges on moving beyond rhetoric, he said, calling on all Member States to commit to ending violence against women and for journalists to end gender stereotypes. No woman should be under threat, underpaid or underestimated. “We will not achieve the 2030 Agenda goals without including women. Here, in this room, we have the power to make a better world for all,” he said, urging States to be bold and to make possible what may seem impossible.

Virisila Buadromo of the civil society group Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights Asia and the Pacific, in a pre-recorded video statement, highlighted challenges facing women in the region, which contains among the highest levels of violence against them and the lowest female parliamentarian representation. Women must battle with the existential crisis of climate change, including such issues as safe spaces and access to education. Women’s choices are impacted after a disaster, but the tragedy is that the local women who are able to mitigate and address climate crises do not have a place in decision-making. Most disaster‑related funds flowing in do not reach local women and non-binary persons leading the grassroots groups that can help. Until that power shifts, change will take longer.

Meanwhile, Renata Koch Alvarenga, Director of EmpoderaClima and co-lead of the Women and Gender Working Group of the Youth Constituency of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said in a video statement that the ongoing shift in climate finance and adaptation still has a long way to go to fully including women. Young women have already made meaningful change, but more needs to be done. Youth remain powerful stakeholders in fostering change and must be included in decision-making, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic lays bare disparities affecting many vulnerable groups. Together, we can work to guarantee women’s full participation and equal footing. At the current pace, it will take 250 years until women earn equal pay, so radical steps are needed to advance change on this and other critical areas of women’s empowerment. Action is needed now, she said, urging Member States to support these goals.

Also delivering opening remarks was Phumzile Mlambo-Ncguka, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women), who emphasized that COVID-19 has proven to be “the most discriminatory crisis we have ever experienced”. Fifty-nine per cent of females surveyed reported shouldering more unpaid care work than before the pandemic, while 47 million women around the globe are likely to be pushed into living on less than $1.90 per day in 2021. “Young women are under siege from gender‑based violence,” she added, noting that legions of women and girls are now being created who will live with trauma for a lifetime. At the same time, women’s underrepresentation remains a major constraint in addressing all the challenges facing them.

“That is why this session is a defining moment for gender equality,” she stressed, adding that its outcomes can help move the entire agenda forward by ensuring that women are at the table during the elaboration of pandemic recovery policies. Women’s participation will also be crucial at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in November, she said, stressing that they must be represented in all delegations at that critical meeting and calling for more acceleration in the private sector, where the situation for women’s decision‑making is even worse. Within the United Nations itself, the Secretary‑General has used his executive power to ensure gender parity, and women now hold 50 per cent of the most senior positions. Citing progress in boosting the share of women’s leadership in countries from Lithuania to Rwanda to the United States, she said it has been proven again and again that “change is possible”.

Gladys Acosta Vargas (Peru), Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, known as the CEDAW Committee, outlined some of the most severe elements of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on women and girls around the world. The closure of education facilities has meant that many women can do little else other than domestic work, and the implementation of remote learning has made education inaccessible to anyone lacking Internet access. Education on sexual and reproductive health, as well as access to sexual and reproductive care, have been greatly diminished. Also voicing concern over the impact of budgetary cuts, border closures and reductions in development aid on women and girls in countries which lack the capacity for their own social protection systems, she pointed out that climate change impacts are, at the same time, becoming real threats to women and girls around the globe.

In that context, she agreed with other speakers on the need to include women — especially rural, indigenous and poor women — in the creation of local, national and international policies, including COVID-19 recovery plans. Stronger legal policies providing women with access to restraining orders and rehabilitation services are needed amid rising gender-based violence. Noting that the CEDAW Committee continued to push forward with its crucial work despite the many challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, she recalled that it recently issued guidance on human trafficking in the context of global migration, worked with regional bodies on the elimination of violence against women, and with national human rights organizations to gather information for its periodic reports.

Dubravka Šimonović (Croatia), Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, highlighted her work since 2015, from shaping human‑rights-based approaches to addressing online violence. All thematic reports have been shared with the Commission, but not all steps have been taken to address chronic challenges. Summarizing several reports, she highlighted such problematic areas as violence against women in politics and infanticide. Prevention of rape is the theme of her next and final report to the Human Rights Council, with 206 submissions identifying shortcomings, including legal provisions that fail to recognize marital rape. Urging States to abolish all statutes of limitations on rape, she also outlined efforts to develop mechanisms, joint statements and strategies to push back against the recent trend of rising numbers of violations against women’s rights. Going forward, she recommended, among other things, that the Commission create a standing agenda item on violence against women.

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