While Exacerbating Structural Gender Inequalities, COVID-19 Is Creating Opportunities to Boost Women’s Involvement in Politics, Public Life, Speakers Tell Commission
While COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated structural inequalities disproportionately affecting females, new approaches are turning the pandemic into an opportunity to boost their involvement in politics and public life, ministers told the Commission on the Status of Women today, as it continued its sixty-fifth session with a morning-long general discussion.
Ministers and representatives exchanged examples of how they have handled the pandemic’s uneven impact on women. Some cited increased recognition of how critical women’s participation is in all areas of life, from pandemic response plans to Parliament, and emphasized the need to do more to ensure universal gender equality.
“COVID-19 has made clear just how interconnected health, economic and social issues are in our society,” said Jan Tinetti, Minister for Women of New Zealand. For its part, New Zealand has closed the gender leadership gap amid a rising level of women’s leadership and participation in public life. Steps included a 2020 amendment to the Equal Pay Act, making it easier for those in female‑dominated professions to be paid fairly for the work they do.
Filson Abdulahi, Minister for Women, Children and Youth of Ethiopia, said the Government has addressed a pandemic-triggered rise in cases of child marriage and gender-based violence with initiatives aimed at bringing perpetrators to justice and providing support services to victims. Ethiopia, the only African State led by a woman, is also at the forefront of enhancing gender representation in public life, with women comprising 38 per cent of parliamentarians. However, more must be done, she stressed, noting that only 21 countries have a female Head of State and low levels of representation persist among parliamentarians worldwide.
Vatau Hui, Minister for Internal Affairs of Tonga, said that, to develop strategies to support women in forthcoming parliamentary elections, a national survey is now determining the current perspectives of women in decision-making and political leadership. Highlighting increased engagement between the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Women’s and Gender Equality Division, he said their efforts recognize the importance of including their voices, skills and experience in climate change action, disaster risk preparedness and response efforts. Going forward, an equal commitment must be made to transform political culture, social norms and practices at regional and national levels.
Ramona Petraviča, Minister for Welfare of Latvia, said gender equality should be advanced through both legislation and policies. In 2020, the Government adopted its first National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, she said, adding that the World Bank recognized Latvia as one of the 10 economies worldwide granting equal legal rights to women and men. Women make up 27 per cent of parliamentarians in Latvia, which enjoys the highest share of females in leadership positions in Europe, at 46 per cent. Agreeing with other speakers that men and boys have an important role and responsibility to play in advancing gender equality, she said Latvia has introduced measures to strengthen the role of fathers through paternity and parental leave programmes.
Hala Bint Mohamed Jaber al-Ansari, Minister for Women’s Affairs and Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for Women of Bahrain, said the Government has successfully implemented 64 per cent of all Sustainable Development Goal indicators directly related to women. As for its national efforts to combat COVID-19, she outlined a range of preventive, therapeutic, economic and social support programmes focused on aspects of social protection and family care, which, in return, curbed any escalation of domestic violence cases. In addition, the pathways for Bahraini women to participate in national development processes are accelerating and diversifying, including critical tools such as the Supreme Council for Women and the Programme for Women’s Participation in Decision-Making Positions.
Amal Nashwan, Minister for Women’s Affairs of the State of Palestine, outlining several achievements, said a quota system has been established at the Ministry to enhance women’s participation. However, women’s rights continue to be violated, he said. Investigations are under way regarding violations against women committed by the occupying Power, he said, renewing a call on the international community to continue its support, especially during the pandemic. Examining best practices and lessons learned are also ongoing activities undertaken to better shape response efforts and address women’s empowerment.
During the discussion, Elizabeth Broderick, Chair of the Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls, presented a report on recent activities and findings, which demonstrated that pandemic response plans are more effective when women were involved. Gender equality cannot be achieved unless women and girls are included, she said, presenting recommendations for Government action to end structural barriers. Advancing gender equality depends on building alliances and including women and girls in decision making and leadership at all levels, she said.
Also delivering statements were Ministers of Andorra, Zambia, Estonia, Lithuania, Japan, Mozambique, Austria, Hungary, United Arab Emirates, Liechtenstein, Germany, Jordan, Denmark, Senegal, Bahamas, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Trinidad and Tobago, Italy, Rwanda, Kenya, Brazil, Nigeria, Qatar, Malawi, Côte d’Ivoire, Ireland, Morocco, Chile, Liberia, Namibia, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Ghana, Antigua and Barbuda, India, Nauru, Tunisia, Fiji and Costa Rica.
The Commission on the Status of Women will meet again at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, 23 March, for an interactive dialogue on the theme “Women’s empowerment and the link to sustainable development”.
VICTOR FILLOY FRANCO, Minister for Social Affairs, Housing and Youth of Andorra, cited national achievements and approaches, including an equal-pay campaign that is part of broader efforts to address years-long inequality. Legislation is being discussed to bring about a more democratic society and ensure that public authorities hold up the equal representation of women and men. Such progress must go hand in hand in the personal domain, he said, citing initiatives to combat domestic violence.
Human rights violations in the private domain must also be addressed, he stressed, noting that Governments and international organizations are working with civil society to tackle these and related issues. Andorra has passed laws to eradicate violence against women. Support services must be made available at the community level. Breaking the silence over gender-based violence is key, he said, adding that support services enhance wider change in society. Cooperation with women’s organizations is essential to reach the entire population.
HALA BINT MOHAMED JABER AL-ANSARI, Minister for Women’s Affairs and Secretary‑General of the Supreme Council for Women of Bahrain, said the pathways for Bahraini women to participate in national development processes are accelerating and diversifying. Spotlighting the Supreme Council for Women and the Programme for Women’s Participation in Decision-making Positions as critical tools, she added that the National Gender Balance Model uses concrete indicators to measure gaps and analyse their causes while providing solutions to address them.
To date, she said, Bahrain has successfully implemented 64 per cent of all Sustainable Development Goals indicators directly related to women. As for its national efforts to combat COVID-19, she outlined a range of preventive, therapeutic, economic and social support programmes aimed at maintaining the stability and safety of every family, individual, citizen and resident. The results of those comprehensive policies were reflected in progress accessing essential services, as well as a reduction strains on women’s participation in the workforce. Those initiatives also focused on aspects of social protection and family care, which, in return, curbed any escalation of domestic violence cases, she said.
ELIZABETH PHIRI, Minister for Gender of Zambia, underscored the importance of women’s participation in public life and decision-making, pointing out that countries which uphold such equal participation develop more quickly and are more stable than others because gender equality fosters development. She drew attention to Zambia’s appointment of women as Supreme Court judges, and the election of a woman as Vice-President and the first Deputy Speaker of National Assembly. However, progress has been slow due to gender-based violence and negative cultural perceptions of women’s leadership, among other factors.
But, “not all hope is lost”, she assured. Zambia will intensify implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the Sustainable Development Goals, the African Union Agenda 2063 and the African Union strategy on gender equality and women’s empowerment, among other instruments. At the local level, Zambia will continue to implement programmes to foster girls’ education, women’s empowerment and livelihood, and end child marriage, she said.
SIGNE RIISALO, Minister for Social Protection of Estonia, associating herself with the European Union, said 2020 will be remembered as the year COVID-19 hit the world, putting all aspects of life under significant pressure. The consequences have been especially severe for human rights and gender equality, with global lockdowns exacerbating women’s already unequal burden of unpaid care work and increasing gender-based violence. While women leaders’ effective response to the first wave of the pandemic was praised in the first half of 2020, motivating calls to include more women at the highest levels, fewer than 1 in 10 of the world’s Heads of Government are women a year later.
“Empowering women, promoting gender equality, ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and debunking gender stereotypes has proven critical in preventing violence against women and girls,” she continued, adding that the latter’s full participation in public life and political discourse is crucial for adequately translating their needs, interests and knowledge into regulations and institutions. Estonia is currently the world’s only country with both a female President and Prime Minister. “Our work is still not done, as we are yet to ensure that women leaders become the new norm,” she stressed, outlining Estonia’s own responses to the strains put on women by the pandemic and to the rise in gender-based domestic violence.
MONIKA NAVICKIENE, Minister for Social Security and Labour of Lithuania, said women are on the front lines of the pandemic, and gender equality has never been so high on political agendas, strengthening its significance in building back better. Women’s leadership continues to be critical in response and recovery plans. Achieving gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls in law and in practice requires a comprehensive approach involving national institutions, municipalities and non-governmental organizations to promote work-life balance, strive for equal sharing of family responsibilities, care and domestic work between women and men, and strengthen national policies and access to affordable social and care services. Sexual and gender-based violence continues to be a major barrier for their equal participation, given that 1 in 3 women experience physical or sexual violence.
In Lithuania, the number of cases of domestic violence has increased at least 20 per cent, she said, adding that the Government will implement measures to improve the protection of victims and to strengthen cooperation mechanisms at national and local levels. Changing negative attitudes and gender stereotypes through awareness-raising is also very important. In addition, involving women in decision-making at all levels and in all sectors is highly relevant in the context of building back better towards a sustainable and green recovery, she said, highlighting that 6 out of 8 Baltic and Nordic countries’ Governments are headed by women. Lithuania is proud to have women serve as Prime Minister, Speaker of the Parliament and 40 per cent of Government members, she said, adding that: “We have to empower women as key drivers of our economic recovery by striving to remove legal and social barriers to their full participation.”
TAMAYO MARUKAWA, Minister of State for Gender Equality and Minister in charge of Women’s Empowerment of Japan, said the pandemic’s negative impact on women reaffirms the need to strongly and steadily implement measures to overcome current difficulties and foster reform. For its part, Japan has adopted a new plan to accelerate progress towards gender equality and establish new targets, including measures to increase the proportion of women in leadership positions to 30 per cent. It is also working to enhance support for victims of gender-based violence. Expressing support for the Secretary-General’s message that women and girls should be at the centre of COVID-19 recovery plans, she said Japan’s Basic Policies for COVID-19 clearly state the need to consider women’s employment and to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault. Initiatives include new counselling services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault and expanding one‑stop support centres.
In terms of preventing of gender-based violence and measures against COVID‑19, Japan supports women in developing countries worldwide. Contributions include $4.5 million to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women); $13.7 million to both the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict and UN‑Women; and €2 million to the Global Fund for Survivors of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. Gender equality is crucial across all fields, she said, adding that it contributes to creating an inclusive society where diverse people with different backgrounds can thrive and achieve their full potential.
FRANZISKA GIFFEY, Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth of Germany, associating herself with the European Union, echoed concern about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women around the globe. Women comprise more than two thirds of staff in social professions, and therefore face higher risk of infection. They are more often affected by poverty and poor health care, and are now even less likely to receive a proper education and live a self‑determined life. “However, in the pandemic, we have also seen that it is most often women who keep our systems running — as doctors, nurses, caregivers or cashiers in supermarkets,” she said. Countries led by women have often fared exceptionally well against the coronavirus, facing lower infection and death rates.
Underscoring the world’s collective responsibility to ensure that women are able to do anything and everything, she said sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls is the most common violation of human rights. Worldwide, 1 out of 3 women is being beaten, sexually assaulted or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Germany has set up a national funding programme for more and better shelters for women and their children, and it launched a campaign called “stronger than violence” to provide support to any woman who needs to free herself from a violent relationship. Germany also made gender equality and the elimination of sexual and gender-based violence a priority during its presidency of the Council of the European Union, and will continue to support those efforts at the United Nations, she said.
RAMONA PETRAVIČA, Minister for Welfare of Latvia, said gender equality should be advanced through both legislation and policies. Gender equality and empowerment of women are Latvia’s long‑standing priorities in international organizations and its development cooperation. Underlining the country’s commitment to supporting partners in Central Asia, in particular, she recalled that in 2020 Latvia adopted its first National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. “We are also proud that the World Bank has recognised that Latvia is one of the ten economies worldwide that grants women and men equal legal rights,” she said.
Pointing out that 27 per cent of the country’s members of Parliament are currently women, she said it enjoys the highest share of women in positions of leadership in Europe, at 46 per cent. Latvian women have also proven their professional excellence in the highest posts in international organizations. Spotlighting the outstanding challenge of a gender pay gap between men and women, she said assumptions, gender stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes continue to drive that discrepancy, and outlined several important national initiatives aimed at reversing them. Agreeing with other speakers that men and boys have an important role and responsibility to play in advancing gender equality, she said Latvia has introduced measures to strengthen the role of fathers through paternity and parental leave programmes.
FRANKIE ALFRED CAMPBELL, Member of Parliament and Minister for Social Services and Urban Development of the Bahamas, described a range of advancements for women and girls in his country, which were achieved notwithstanding the challenges posed by Hurricane Dorian and the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s Disaster Reconstruction Authority, Sustainable Development Goals Unit and Intergovernmental Climate Change Panel are all led by women, and women hold the posts of Deputy Commissioner of Police, President of the Senate and Chair of the National Feeding Task Force.
Noting with regret that significant gaps remain in mitigating structural inequalities, he said 20 women have been appointed to the National Women’s Advisory Council — including women with disabilities, women from rural communities and the media, migrant and young women — while efforts are also under way to promote favourable work conditions, paid domestic work and universal social protections for women. Among other recent initiatives, he cited transformational women leadership trainings; strengthened collaboration with non-governmental organizations and civil society groups; and women’s leadership at all stages of the COVID-19 pandemic response. Since March 2020, funds have been allocated from the national budget for income replacement and unemployment benefits, food, medical and rental assistance, tax deferrals and business grants, enabling thousands of women to stay economically stable.
MAITE NKOANA-MASHABANE, Minister for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities of South Africa, agreed with other speakers that COVID-19 has reversed many gains made by women around the world. Commending Member States for creating social safety nets and stimulus packages to mitigate the pandemic’s negative socioeconomic impacts, especially on women and girls, she welcomed the recent appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which comes as Africa is working to implement its Continental Free Trade Agreement. “Women’s leadership and participation in this process is critical for their financial inclusion and economic empowerment,” she stressed.
Calling for the acceleration of women’s representation and participation at all levels of decision-making, she said South Africa’s commitment to that principle is demonstrated by its achievement of 50-50 gender parity at the executive level. It also has achieved 46 per cent women’s representation in the national legislature; 41 per cent in local government; 38 per cent of judges; and 49 per cent of magistrates. South Africa also remains committed to combating and eradicating violence against women, eliminating discriminatory laws and negative social norms, and is currently implementing a National Strategic Plan for Gender‑Based Violence and Femicide, she said.
VATAU HUI, Minister for Internal Affairs of Tonga, noting the timely theme for this session, said a national survey is now determining the current perspectives of women in decision-making and political leadership with a view to developing strategies to support them in parliamentary elections to be held in November. This and other national achievements reflect a will for ensuring gender equality in Tonga to address gender-based violence, end all forms of violence against women and girls and empower them, including such laws and policies as the 2013 Family Protection Act and a counselling framework for domestic violence victims. Noting that Tonga is free of COVID-19, he said there is increasing engagement between the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Women’s and Gender Equality Division that recognizes the importance of including their voices, skills and experience in climate change action, disaster risk preparedness and response efforts.
Combating inequality and ending domestic violence requires a collective response, he said, adding that: “We must become champions and advocates of attitudinal change, to change the current narrative.” Despite achievements, efforts must focus on such areas as closing the gap between men and women’s participation in leadership, decision-making, economics and in most aspects of life. Fulfilling commitments to the Beijing Platform for Action remains a challenge, and resources for integrating gender equality priorities and implementation remain limited. Despite modest increases in Government budget allocations in some countries, there is still a need for adequate and sustained financing. As such, an increased commitment must transform these political culture, social norms and practices at regional and national levels, he said, calling on the international community and development partners for their continued support.
FILSON ABDULAHI, Minister for Women, Children and Youth of Ethiopia, said the pandemic has laid bare gender inequalities, highlighting the need for inclusive recovery plans. Ethiopian women are at the forefront of health care and other fields in combating the pandemic and have also taken a lead in the pandemic response, from local communities to the Government. In a country of more than 100 million people, women are taking on leading roles. However, only 21 countries have a female Head of State and low levels of representation persist among parliamentarians.
Ethiopia is the only female-headed African State, she said, highlighting gender representation in various fields. Women hold a range of decision-making positions and comprise 38 per cent of parliamentarians. Yet, challenges remain, as the pandemic revealed a rise in domestic violence cases, due in part to crucial services that were not easily available and accessible. In addition, Ethiopia saw an increase in cases of violence against women and of child marriages, caused in part by school closures. Pledging the Government’s commitment to address these and other related problems, she said perpetrators will be brought to justice and ongoing efforts will continue.
JEANNETTE BAYISENGE, Minister for Gender and Family Protection of Rwanda, said her country has been promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment since its liberation 27 years ago. Gender equality was set as a cross-cutting national priority in its Vision 2020, and later Vision 2050, as well as in the National Strategy Transformation (2017-2024). “These documents envision further increase of women’s access to socioeconomic opportunities through mainstreaming of gender equality in all productive sectors, and also through elimination of any kind of violence and discrimination,” she said, adding that they emphasize women’s access to finance, decent jobs, scaling up early childhood development programmes at the village level, and fighting gender-based violence and human trafficking.
Today, she said, Rwanda is a global leader in women’s participation in decision-making, with women comprising 61 per cent of its members of Parliament. Rwanda ranks ninth globally in closing gender gaps according to the 2020 edition of the Global Gender Gap Report, and 53 per cent of its Cabinet members are women. Its efforts to combat gender-based violence include the establishment of one-stop, multisectoral, holistic centres that provide medical, legal and psychosocial support to the victims, as well as the improved collection of data disaggregated by sex and gender. In light of the impacts of COVID-19, she said mechanisms for gender equality and women’s empowerment must be reconsidered and incorporated into pandemic response and recovery measures.
JAN TINETTI, Minister for Women of New Zealand, associating herself with the Pacific Islands Forum, said the Commission’s 2021 theme has never been more important than it is now amid the global pandemic. “COVID-19 has made clear just how interconnected health, economic and social issues are in our society,” she said, adding that it has also highlighted and exacerbated structural inequalities that disproportionately affect women and girls. Women’s leadership and participation in public life have been on an upward trajectory in New Zealand, which closed its gender leadership gap. It is particularly encouraging that more Māori women are leading businesses across the country.
Outlining a range of initiatives aimed at reducing barriers to women’s and girls’ participation in public life, she spotlighted simple things — such as making menstruation products freely available in all schools — and more complex ones, including a 2020 amendment to the Equal Pay Act which makes it easier for those in female-dominated professions to be paid fairly for the work they do. The Government is also moving towards a more effective system to prevent and respond to family and sexual violence, having created a multi-agency joint business unit to lead that work, and it is working across the Pacific region to support survivors of gender-based violence in a number of countries.
DAMARES ALVES, Minister for Women, Family and Human Rights of Brazil, outlined her country’s support for its population amid the COVID-19 crisis. That includes the largest emergency aid transfer policy in its history, which has reached more than 100 million people — more than half the population. Families headed by women received double the amount of support, over $200 per month. Meanwhile, the growing participation of women in Brazilian politics “cannot be postponed”, she stressed, noting that, in 2020, the country launched an initiative known as “More Women in Politics” aimed at stimulating women’s equal participation in elected Government positions.
As a result of those efforts, she said, the total number of female candidates reached 33 per cent in Brazil’s 2020 municipal elections. Today, 16 per cent of city councillor positions, and 12 of mayoral posts, are held by women. She also described the launch of a new channel through which to file complaints of political violence against women and the tripling of funding for Brazil’s “Casas da Mulher Brasileira” — specialized care spaces for women survivors of violence — between 2019 and 2020.
RODERIC O’GORMAN, Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth of Ireland, associating himself with the European Union, reiterated his country’s commitment to realizing gender equality both at home and abroad. That goal is enshrined in its National Strategy for Women and Girls and its third National Action Plan, as well as its dedication to Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace and security. “Nothing less than transformative change will deliver gender equality and the goals of our 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” he said, recalling that Ireland embarked on its own period of transformative change on gender equality in recent decades. Women civil society leaders are currently driving change across the country, as they have all over the world.
Noting that the Commission’s virtual format in 2021 may increase the diversity of civil society voices present by reducing practical barriers to participation, he went on to describe the work of Ireland’s Citizen’s Assembly, which has been exploring ways to advance gender equality for several years. The Assembly’s report is eagerly anticipated, as the Government has committed to act on its recommendations. In that vein, he advocated for concrete interventions aimed at increasing women’s participation in public life. To date, gender balance targets have already contributed to increasing the representation of women on state boards and in the senior levels of the Irish Civil Service, and a national 30 per cent gender quota for electoral party candidates, in place since 2012, will increase to 40 per cent in 2023.
AMAL NASHWAN, Minister for Women’s Affairs of the State of Palestine, outlining several achievements, said a quota system has been established at the Ministry to enhance women’s participation. However, women’s rights continue to be violated, he said, welcoming the International Criminal Court’s recent announcement that it will begin an independent investigation regarding the situation in Palestine, which will cover grave crimes committed by the occupying Power in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since 13 June 2014.
In addition, investigations are under way regarding violations against women committed by the occupying Power, he said, renewing a call on the international community to continue its support, especially during the pandemic. Examining best practices and lessons learned are also ongoing activities undertaken to better shape response efforts and address women’s empowerment.
MARCELA GUERRERO CAMPOS, Minister for the Status of Women of Costa Rica, associated herself with the Group of Friends of Older Persons, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) Core Group, the Council of Ministers of Women's Affairs of Central America and the Group of Friends for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls. Outlining recent progress achieved in Costa Rica, she cited improvements in women’s political participation; strides in countering discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; legal recognition of the country as a multi—ethnic and multicultural State; and the extension of the statutory period for gender-based crimes committed against minors.
In addition, she reported that a woman was recently elected President of the Legislative Assembly for the first time in the country’s history, and efforts are under way to make domestic and care work more visible. The Government is also committed to including women’s voices in the country’s biodiversity protection programme, its climate change responses, its decarbonization scheme and efforts to protect its forests — including through the United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD+).
Also delivering statements were ministers and representatives of Mozambique, Austria, Hungary, United Arab Emirates, Liechtenstein, Jordan, Denmark, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Trinidad and Tobago, Italy, Kenya, Nigeria, Qatar, Malawi, Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, Chile, Liberia, Namibia, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Ghana, Antigua and Barbuda, India, Nauru, Tunisia and Fiji.