Pandemic Reveals Extent of Gender Inequality in World’s Political, Social, Economic Systems, Says Secretary-General, as Women’s Commission Opens Session
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 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.
In the afternoon, the Commission held two ministerial-level round-table sessions on the theme “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”.
At the meeting’s outset, the Commission adopted an annotated provisional agenda for its sixty-fifth session (document E/CN.6/2021/1) and an addendum (document E/CN/6/2021/1/Add.1) containing its organization of work. It agreed on a set of hybrid working arrangements, including both in-person and virtual sessions, to be applied as a temporary measure amid the extraordinary circumstances imposed by the pandemic.
The Commission elected Shilpa Pullela (Australia) to serve as Vice-Chair of the session, completing the remaining term of Jo Feldman (Australia) who had completed her tour of duty. Ms. Pullela will also serve as the session’s rapporteur. In addition, the body appointed South Africa and Saudi Arabia to serve as members of the Working Group on Communications at its sixty-fifth session.
The Commission on the Status of Women will reconvene at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, 16 March, to hold a series of virtual ministerial-level round-table sessions.
Round Table I
The Commission on the Status of Women held a round table videoconference discussion on the theme “Getting to parity: Good practices towards achieving women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life”.
Chair JULIE-ANN GUIVARRA, Ambassador for Gender Equality of Australia, opened the discussion, saying that achieving the goals set out in the 2030 Agenda hinge on accelerating women’s participation. When women are not consulted on decisions affecting their lives, outcomes will likely be damaging to them. In the same vein, responses to COVID-19 must include women in decision-making in order to truly build back better. Indeed, the pandemic represents an opportunity to include women, who are already leading critical efforts to tackle the coronavirus and its many effects.
AMINA J. MOHAMMED, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, said in a video message, that the pandemic has forced the world to review how societies and economies work. This session of the Commission is a chance to collectively address challenges and advance women’s rights. The world is a long way away from gender parity. Changing this requires concrete action, increased political will and more financing, with the first order of business implementing temporary measures such as quotas to foster equality. The United Nations is implementing its own measures to work towards gender parity. The Secretary-General, “our feminist-in-chief”, has fast-tracked efforts. True parity is vital for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, she said, adding that “together, let’s pursue transformative change for gender equality and the world”.
Ministers and other high-level Member State representatives shared national achievements and explained the challenges they face in their efforts to advancing gender parity. Some called for galvanized action to achieve parity and speed up progress, which is lagging.
MARTA LUCÍA RAMÍREZ, Vice-President of Colombia, said that gender parity will only be achieved in several decades unless action quickens the current slow pace. In Colombia, only 12 per cent of municipalities and 6 per cent of the governates are led by women. However, gender equality is gaining momentum, she said, citing several national public and private sector initiatives. With the Government taking steps in various areas, she said, this century can become the one where gender parity is achieved for the benefit of all.
ISAIA TAAPE, Minister for Health, Social Welfare and Gender Affairs of Tuvalu, speaking on behalf of the Pacific Islands Forum, underlined the importance of ensuring that women and girls are part of decision-making and leadership towards an equal, inclusive and just future. The Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration of 2012 is the demonstration of a collective commitment to gender equality that has further translated to sectoral national and regional frameworks which integrate gender commitments. Citing several examples, he said all members have developed national sustainable development plans aligned to the 2030 Agenda and track and report on goals and targets, including Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality. The Pacific has a high ratification rate of the key human rights treaties, and in 2020, Samoa hosted the eighty-fourth Extraordinary Outreach Session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the first time any of the United Nations human rights treaty body committees formally met outside its Geneva and New York headquarters. Increased engagement between national women’s structures and Government agencies mandated for climate change, disaster risk responses and management in the region aim at ensuring that women are part of the decision-making in climate change action. Efforts to pass and implement temporary special measures have had mixed success. In Samoa, a 10 per cent quota for women in Parliament has worked well, and Vanuatu has measures that reserve one seat for women in local governments. In 2014, the Solomon Islands passed the Political Parties Integrity Act that requires parties to reserve 10 per cent of candidatures for women. In Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, work is ongoing to ensure marketplaces in rural and urban areas are safe, inclusive and non-discriminatory, promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment. Most Governments have enacted laws and policies providing compulsory education at both primary and secondary levels resulting in most countries achieving gender parity in primary enrolment, while secondary enrolment shows girls outnumbering boys. Several States have introduced laws and policies to ensure that education is accessible to all, with the adoption of new, rights-based initiatives gaining traction to provide a supportive environment for girls to pursue their education. In addition, several Pacific countries have ended the practice of expelling girls who become pregnant while at school and are supporting their re‑entry to school following childbirth. In 2019, the Regional Working Group on the Implementation of Domestic Violence Legislation was established as a platform to unite the lead coordinating ministries that had passed related laws.
ELENA BONETTI, Minister for Equal Opportunities and Family of Italy, said women’s empowerment is at the core of discussions, from education to employment. As chair of the Group of 20, Italy will call a ministerial conference which will, for the first time, be dedicated exclusively to women’s empowerment. Highlighting several national plans, she said efforts are under way to strengthen measures to increase the percentage of women in all sectors of employment and to adopt a gender equality strategy through an open, participatory process. Targeted interventions can also help women’s participation in public life, she said, pointing at legislation introduced a decade ago on equal access to management and supervisory bodies of companies. The domestic legislative framework also promotes gender equality in national and regional political representation alongside quotas in electoral lists, she said, noting that, to date, women comprise 36 per cent of Parliament.
MARGARET KOBIA, Cabinet Secretary at the Ministry of Public Service and Gender of Kenya, summarized a range of best practices, including the Constitution, which guarantees gender equality. The Government has, among other things, drafted a national strategy to support women for elective politics, institutionalized a leaders training programme and launched the Democracy Fund. An affirmative action programme has seen a steady rise in women’s representation, including increases among cabinet secretaries to 33.3 per cent from 18.8 per cent since 2012. Women now represent 22 per cent of elected members and 18 per cent of nominated National Assembly positions and 27 per cent of elected and 86 per cent of the nominated Senate positions. They constitute 40 per cent of the judges, and near gender parity has been achieved at the level of magistrate. Women also lead six key constitutional commissions. Other steps include measures to increase and track women’s representation in public sector institutions, with a newly established National Gender and Equality Commission acting as an oversight body.
RODERIC O’GORMAN, Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth of Ireland, highlighted progress in implementing a National Strategy for Women and Girls, including public and private sector targets. Women now represent 43 per cent of the top civil service management grades. The private-sector-led Balance for Better Business Review Group has set leadership targets, the Central Statistics Office now publishes gender statistics, and women’s representation among company directors has increased to 27.4 per cent in 2020 from 18.1 per cent in 2018. Concerted actions have seen their representation on State boards rise to 40 per cent from 34 per cent in 2011. Efforts in higher education and research include investing in the Senior Academic Leadership Initiative, creating additional posts to accelerate gender balance. In 2015, 81 per cent of professorial positions were held by men, but, by 2019, this dropped to 74 per cent. However, some progress remains to be made in politics. A gender quota established in 2012 for political party candidates in general elections was set at 30 per cent for 2016 and 2020 elections and will rise to 40 per cent in 2023 alongside incentives to political parties and civil society organizations to raise awareness and train potential women candidates, including from underrepresented communities.
TAMAYO MARUKAWA, Minister of State for Gender Equality and Minister in charge of Women’s Empowerment of Japan, said it is extremely important to increase the proportion of women in leadership positions in all fields to enhance diversity and revitalize society for the steady development of the Japanese economy and to provide both women and men with truly equal opportunities. With this in mind, the Government drafted in 2020 the new Basic Plan for Gender Equality. Gender equality in the political domain is particularly essential in order to incorporate public opinion into political decisions. The 2018 Act on Promotion of Gender Equality in the Political Field provides for the need to make the number of female and male candidates for political leadership positions as even as possible. The Government has urged political parties to increase the proportion of female candidates running in national elections, prevent harassment, foster human resource development and help female members of the Diet to conduct activities with greater comfort. Efforts in the public administration sector include fostering measures to employ and promote more women and to help female employees improve their work-life balance. In the judicial sector, requests to relevant authorities aim at increasing the proportion of female judges, including justices of the Supreme Court. Based on the new Basic Plan, Japan will thus continue to strongly promote women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life.
Also participating were ministers and other high-level representatives from the United Arab Emirates, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand, Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, Senegal, Iceland, Belgium, Egypt, Mexico and Georgia. An observer for the State of Palestine also participated.
Round Table II
Also this afternoon, the Commission held a second interactive virtual round table on the theme “Creating an enabling environment for women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life”. Presided over by Mher Margaryan (Armenia), it featured statements by a range of Government ministers and other senior officials.
Opening the session, Mr. MARGARYAN described achieving gender equality as a collective responsibility of men and women, and called on them to transform both institutions and systems. However, he said, women’s full participation is limited by higher poverty levels, insufficient financing, disproportionate care duties and exclusionary institutional rules, which are historically designed by men. Meanwhile, enduring social norms about gender roles and discrimination negatively shape public perceptions about women’s role in public life. Most critically, violence against women in public life, including online abuse and cyberbullying, threatens women’s rights to participation and decision-making. Against that backdrop, he urged participants in the current session to focus on demonstrable solutions and lessons learned.
Among other things, participants shared their national experiences with affirmative action and quota programmes aimed at bolstering women’s participation in Government, as well as the positive impact of social services, such as free childcare. Many speakers stressed that women must be at the centre of building back better, greener and more resiliently after the pandemic, and spotlighted the need to think proactively in order to anticipate and tackle new barriers to women serving in leadership roles.
MARIANA VIEIRA DA SILVA, Minister for State of the Presidency of Portugal, was among those speakers who underlined the need to make women around the globe more visible in policy responses and take the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on their lives into account. Citing serious difficulties being experienced by women in maintaining work-life balance, she called for policies that support employment and job creation, ensure access to childcare and encourage a fair division of unpaid work by helping more men take family leave. Also critical are efforts to address gender pay gaps, she said, drawing attention to the new challenges being brought to light by the shift towards more remote work.
PETER HUMMELGAARD THOMSEN, Minister for Gender Equality of Denmark, said Danish women are largely able to participate in the workforce thanks to his country’s universal, affordable day-care facilities and other social services. However, there remains a pay gap between men and women workers, as well as continued instances of bias, sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace. He outlined national efforts to address those challenges through prevention, awareness‑raising and monitoring. Among other things, he said, the Government established a tripartite dialogue group with civil society and other partners, aiming to share ways to change workplace culture and institute sanctions on those who violate harassment rules. It is also creating a new national whistle‑blower channel to help report those who breach such rules, he said.
BINTANG PUSPAYOGA, Minister for Women Empowerment and Child Protection of Indonesia, said affirmative action policies in her country now provide for a 30 per cent electoral quota for women. The House of Representatives is also currently woman-led, with 20 per cent women members. However, figures at the subnational level remains low. In response, Indonesia is prioritizing efforts to draft a “grand design” ensuring women’s participation, particularly in the legislature, by 2030, and to increase women’s leadership in rural and subdistrict level.
ZEHRA ZÜMRÜT SELÇUK, Minister for Family, Labour and Social Services of Turkey, said women in her country were granted social, economic and social rights much earlier than in many other nations. Policies were enacted prohibiting discriminatory practices, and efforts to create a more enabling environment for women to realize their full potential were incorporated into Constitutional amendments. Citing a high percentage of female Government officials, she said that, today, in Turkey, 63 per cent of social workers are women, 56 per cent of health‑care workers are women and 25 per cent of Government ambassadors are women.
MARYAM MONSEF, Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development of Canada, spotlighted ways her country is supporting women’s full participation in public life and decision-making. Those include the appointment of gender-balanced federal Cabinets and the creation of Canada’s first department solely dedicated to the advancement of women and gender equality. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also called for an action plan to increase the representation of women, Black and racialized people, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and LGBTQ+ individuals in hiring, and established a $100 million feminist response and recovery fund for a strong and inclusive economic recovery, she added.
JAMILA MOUSSALI, Minister for Solidarity, Social Development, Equality and Family of Morocco, shared her Government’s experience enacting laws that promote gender equality and women’s issues. Noting that women’s participation in Parliament has increased by 37 per cent in recent years, she said Morocco also launched a new programme to promote women’s rights with support from UN-Women. It also adopted gender-responsive budget practices and the number of women in the country’s highest private sector positions is increasing.
VINDHYA PERSAUD, Minister for Human Services and Social Security of Guyana, said her country is working to eradicate barriers to women’s participation in public life, as well as harmful social norms. Emphasizing that tangible action must accompany discussions such as the one taking place today, she said entrenched patriarchal resistance to women in leadership roles exists around the globe and can sometimes turn into smear campaigns and even violence. Fear for their reputation and safety, and those of their families, hinders many women seeking to take positions in public life. In Guyana, new participation quotas have led to women occupying 30 per cent of key Government seats. There is also greater awareness of the avenues available to women seeking to serve in public life, she said.
Also participating were ministers and other high-level representatives from Hungary, Argentina, Finland, Bahrain, Slovenia, Liechtenstein, Antigua and Barbuda, Brazil, Romania, Eritrea and Cuba.