CAMEROON – U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on International Women’s Day that the COVID-19 pandemic has seen “a rollback in hard-won advances in women’s rights” even as calls for women's empowerment echoed around the globe, from Myanmar and Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The U.N. chief paid tribute to women leaders whose countries have suffered fewer deaths during the pandemic, to the 70% of frontline health and care workers who are women — “many from racially and ethnically marginalized groups" — and to women’s organizations that have provided local services and information on COVID-19.
The pandemic, however, has shown that “this is still a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture,” Guterres said in a video message on Monday. “But it has also forced a reckoning with global inequalities, fragilities and entrenched gender discrimination.’’
All those issues, as well as the increase in violence against women are certain to be on the agenda at two major upcoming events that are part of the delayed 25th anniversary of the 1995 Beijing women’s conference that adopted a 150-page road map to achieve gender equality.
The events, centered on civil society and meant “to catapult” gender equality, will kick off with a virtual global gathering in Mexico City March 29 to 31.
That will be followed by a meeting in Paris from June 30-July 2, announced on Monday, called the Generation Equality Forum.
“We stand at a crossroads as we ponder the recovery from a pandemic that has had a disproportionate impact on women and girls, ” said UN Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the U.N. observance of International Women’s Day.
She said the world faces the challenge of the underrepresentation of women in institutions, some that are critical for the recovery from COVID-19, noting that just 12% of parliaments are gender balanced, 119 countries have never had a female leader and just 13 Cabinets in the world have gender equality.
Mlambo-Ngcuka called the exclusion of women from decisions affecting their lives “bad corporate governance” and said the Generation Equality Forum will help take steps toward recovery.
Around the world, there were expressions of concern at the state of women’s rights.
In Afghanistan, Sima Samar, who has been fighting for women’s rights for 40 years, said much has been gained in the two decades since the Taliban were ousted, with schools for girls open and women now in the workforce, politics and working as judges. They are even at the negotiating table where the Taliban and the Afghan government are struggling to find a way to end war, she said.
But Samar said in an Associated Press interview that the gains are fragile, violence is on the rise, warlords have gained prominence and the U.S. is mulling a departure from Afghanistan in May.
According to Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, 65 women were killed and 95 wounded in targeted attacks in 2020.
Afghanistan is second only to Yemen as the worst place in the world to be a woman, according to a 2019 Index compiled by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security in Washington and the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. The illiteracy rate among Afghan women is 82% and most of the women in Afghan prisons are jailed for so-called “moral” crimes like seeking a divorce.
In Myanmar, five umbrella women’s rights organizations said in a joint letter that the number of women in mass protests against the Feb. 1 military coup is estimated at 60%, at least six women and girls have been killed, and many others have been detained and are “at high risks of violence, harassment, and sexual assault with limited to no legal protections.”
They urged “globally prominent women leaders” to issue a joint statement urging the U.N. Security Council and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to “take immediate action against the military coup and in support of the protection of civilians by all possible means.” They also called for a global arms embargo, a cutoff of revenue to the military, and an immediate stop to “the assaults, harassment and abusive tactics against women protesters and release (of) all those arbitrarily detained.”
The Georgetown Institute said it was asked to disseminate their letter to global women leaders.
In Europe, 158 parliamentarians from the European Union and the United Kingdom signed a joint statement urging authorities in Saudi Arabia to end discrimination against women and “fully dismantle the male guardianship system,” which was loosened in 2019 to allow women to travel freely without a man’s consent. Still in place, however, are rules that require male consent for a woman to leave prison, exit a domestic abuse shelter or marry.
The parliamentarians also urged Saudi authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release all women human rights defenders detained for their peaceful human rights advocacy, and drop the charges against them.”
In Kosovo, hundreds of women marked International Women’s Day with a demonstration to protest domestic violence and demand more respect for their rights.
At U.N. headquarters, Ireland’s U.N. Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason co-chaired an informal Security Council meeting on the participation of women in U.N.-led peace processes and said their representation in peace negotiations “remains unacceptably low.”
“Women are not asking permission to be at the table,” she said. “We are demanding to be at the table. Participation is our right. Tokenism will not satisfy that right: We need direct, substantive inclusion of diverse women so that they can influence the course and outcome of negotiations.”
In the United States, President Joe Biden signed executive orders establishing a White House Gender Policy Council to advance gender equity and equal rights and opportunity for women and girls, and ordering the Department of Education to review regulations and policies to ensure they “guarantee education free from sexual violence.”
U.S, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the council meeting that the United States is joining the U.N. Group of Friends for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls and announced that Vice President Kamala Harris will deliver the U.S. statement at the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women on March 16.
“The United States and the Biden-Harris administration care deeply about gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls around the world," she said. “We all believe and understand that women do better, countries do better, communities do better, and families do better. Not just women, but everyone."
Kathy Gannon contributed to this report from Islamabad, Pakistan