Sixty-eighth Session,
9th Meeting* (PM)

Youth Delegate Calls Education Critical Tool to Challenging Discriminatory Norms, Harmful Gender Stereotypes, as Commission on Status of Women Continues Session

Young women and non-binary people want to live on a planet that prioritizes social protection and inclusion and not a world built for heterosexual men, youth delegates told the Commission on the Status of Women, as it continued its sixty-eighth session.

The Organization’s largest annual gathering on women’s empowerment, the Commission brings together experts, activists and Government representatives.  This year’s session runs from 11 to 22 March.  The interactive youth dialogue held this afternoon focused on the priority theme for this session:  “Accelerating the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls by addressing poverty and strengthening institutions and financing with a gender perspective”. (For background, see Press Release WOM/2231.)

The dialogue began with a panel discussion, featuring:  Harshita Umesh, doctor at Victoria Hospital in Bangalore, India, and youth policy champion for sexual and reproductive health and rights; Anzhelika Bielova, founder of Voice of Romni; Yassine Jrad, junior researcher and multidisciplinary activist, working with the Youth Peer Education Network (Y-PEER) initiative; Melike Bal, disability rights activist and member of the Association of Women with Disabilities and the European Network on Independent Living; and Samara Vatxun Crendo, communicator for the National Articulation of Indigenous Women Warriors of Ancestry; as well as lead discussant Felipe Paullier, Assistant Secretary-General for Youth Affairs at the United Nations Youth Office.

“We live in a world designed by and for the heterosexual male,” Ms. Umesh said, adding that she has lost count of the number of men who told her she was not marriage material because they would prefer a wife who would stay at home, cook, clean and raise children.  But she became a doctor, she said, citing Hippocrates, because “wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity.”  Working in one of south India’s biggest Government hospitals, she witnessed how social protection schemes were failing her patients.  Sharing some of their stories, she talked of the illiterate mother who was unable to secure a microloan and could not send her child to school and the non-binary individuals who were living on streets and forced into sex work.

Social protection schemes are key, she said, to combat poverty and ensure dignity; however, those very same schemes are often rooted in discriminatory gender norms.  Community engagement and education are key, she said, adding that most women and girls are unaware of the social protection schemes available to them.  Stressing that economic empowerment initiatives can have transformative impacts, she called for recognition to unpaid and informal workers, most of whom are women, as well as gender-responsive health systems that meet the needs of women, girls and non-binary individuals.  Today, the world has more young people than at any time in history, she pointed out, calling on delegates to review the Global Youth and Adolescents Recommendations.

Ms. Bielova reported that the Roma community in Ukraine numbers some 450,000 people.  Since the Russian Federation’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, about one third of them have become refugees and internally displaced persons (mostly from the southern and eastern regions), fleeing constant shelling of their hometowns.  The Voice of Romni study identified the community’s biggest needs as humanitarian aid, employment assistance and access to education — problems exacerbated by the existing discrimination against Roma in all spheres.  She recalled a Roma living in a collective shelter who tried to find a job and was refused, being told:  “We do not hire Roma.”  She outlined proposals to overcome poverty and achieve gender equality, including working with the Roma leaders towards needs identification and gaps in service provision, citing the “Roma Strategy until 2030”.  However, it lacks funding for implementation.

While there are positive steps towards localization in some regions with the support of UN agencies and non-governmental organizations, she called for a more unified approach.  Policymakers should help promote gender equality and a gender lens in all policies and strategies, supporting women’s movements in Ukraine; however, Roma women’s organizations are not sufficiently integrated into the general feminist movement.  Roma women are subject to systemic gender-based discrimination, with almost 70 per cent of respondents — both women and men — testifying that they’ve experienced cases of gender-based violence.  On solutions, she cited the story of an internally displaced Roma woman from Donetsk who received humanitarian aid and cash assistance involving the Mercy Corps in one of the offices of Voice of Romni.  She further noted that her group’s advocacy work resulted in the joint UN mission to the Zakarpattia region.

Mr. JRAD said that decolonization was the path towards gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in his country.  Highlighting its progressive legislation aimed at eradicating violence against women, he noted the establishment of institutions dedicated to gender equality, such as the Ministry of Family, Women, Children and Seniors, along with the Research Center on Women studies (CREDIF) and the National Observatory.  The Government is working on the implementation of gender-sensitive budgeting, he said.

Citing Caroline Criado Perez, the author of Invisible Women, he drew attention to gender blindness and how it affects the daily experiences of women in the workplace, media and other spheres.  It is necessary to integrate gender analysis and gender data to develop policies and reallocate resources through progressive taxation and gender-responsive budgeting, he said.  Advocating for “a care society” that builds fiscal, social and cultural compacts, he proposed a new social configuration with care as a backbone.  Education — particularly comprehensive sexuality education — is a key tool to challenge the discriminatory norms and harmful gender stereotypes, he added.

Ms. Bal said that ableism is a value system that considers certain typical characteristics of body and mind essential to living a life of value.  Ableist ways of thinking consider the disability experience as a misfortune that leads to suffering and disadvantages and invariably devalues human life.  According to UN data, disabled people make up 16 per cent of the global population.  “We are the largest minority group in the world and we deserve to be recognized,” she asserted, noting that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will not be achieved by 2030 if disabled people, especially disabled women and girls, are left behind.

“Disabled women are problem solvers, change-makers and innovators,” she declared, adding that they are valued members of their communities and they deserve access to inclusive education, anti-ableist employment and funding opportunities.  Education is the only way for many people, especially women and girls with disabilities, to overcome poverty.  “If we want to create fair and inclusive finance systems, we must have disabled women at the table contributing to those decisions that will directly impact them,” she said, urging Member States to think about what percentage of the national budget they are allocating to accessibility and if they are inviting disabled people, especially disabled women, share their perspectives.

Ms. Crendo said she represents the Xokleng people of the Laklanô Indigenous land located in the southern region of Brazil, who have been suffering since the beginning of the invasion of that land. “Our lands have been torn apart and the peoples who lived there were kicked out” and almost made extinct by murderers who were financed by the State, she said.  The community has been segregated, a dam was built on their land that destroyed its fertility and their villages were isolated, she said, describing this as physical and psychological violence.  As a result, young people in her community are losing hope about the future, she said, adding that the economic, cultural and familial destruction is compounded by the racism at universities and workplaces.

Highlighting in particular the problems perpetrated by landgrabbers and loggers, she condemned the illegal deforestation of Brazil’s Indigenous lands as “things that make my heart hurt”.  Paying tribute to two young land activists who died recently, she stressed that Indigenous Peoples and especially their youth are more affected by climate change.  Nature is a heritage that belongs to all, she said, calling for acknowledgement of the first peoples of Brazil.  This is why public policies are crucial, she said, calling on the international community to work together to fight hunger, poverty and deforestation.  The youth of Brazil must resist this and must draw inspiration from the resistance of their peoples who have been fighting for centuries, she said.  “Look for your ancestors,” she said, adding that young people today have to fight against “the evil that we can see and the evil that we can’t see”.

Mr. Paullier affirmed that the Commission’s session should become the norm rather than the exception at all levels of intergovernmental decision-making, and must be accessible to young people — women, indigenous women, those with disabilities, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual plus community.  Progress is impossible without a gender-based perspective, he stressed, requiring an intersectional approach, as meaningful youth participation and inclusion are interrelated.  “The fact that this platform on gender aspects includes more voices from more diverse young women shows us how we can build bridges to have a beneficial and inclusive impact,” he stated.

Calling 2024 “one of the most crucial electoral moments of our age,” he emphasized that some 60 countries have elections under way, with youth representing a key voice — whether as candidates or participants in political campaigns.  The Commission’s results should have an impact on the way that Governments and the UN system address all challenges and topics, being connected to other critical processes including the Summit of the Future — a decisive opportunity for States to hear from young people with concrete actions focused on well-being and putting mental health “at the heart of what we do”.  He reiterated that the UN Youth Office “is an ally in promoting a gender-, youth- and disability-focused approach so that no young person is left behind”.

When the floor opened for an interactive dialogue, youth delegates from various countries as well as civil society called on the international community to change the world by investing in girls.  They highlighted a range of solutions, from education to free menstrual products.

The representative of the Philippines noted that while her country has achieved gender parity and free access for primary and secondary education, barriers such as family responsibilities and gender-based violence still deprive one in 10 girls of basic education.  She also stressed the importance of culturally appropriate and gender-responsive curriculum, designed by and with the community.

The youth of Libya have fought Da’esh alone, the youth delegate of that country said, calling for a funding mechanism that will unleash their power to bring about change.  It is crucial to provide education, upskilling opportunities and employment, he stressed.

The European Union, in its capacity as observer, was represented by two youth delegates.  The first speaker drew attention to questions that men never have to ask themselves, such as “Will I save on period products if I buy myself period underwear or a menstrual cup?” and “Why are these so expensive?”  The second speaker said access to free hygiene products is a basic human right.  Without such access, women miss out on education and work opportunities, she said, adding that period products should be part of social health care.  Investing in women’s hygiene is an investment in women’s well-being, she stressed.

Mongolia’s delegate highlighted the power of social media, noting that it has been a channel for young people to reconnect with each other and rediscover their love for curiosity.  The Internet is the timeliest and trendiest tool, she said, adding that thousands of high school and university students in her country have found comfort in educational video contents about mental health.  Mali’s delegate drew attention to her country’s efforts to promote gender equality, especially in the field of information and communications technology (ICT).  Citing the creation of a national agency that implements programmes to reduce the gender gap, she also noted that the Government provides health services for young people.

Delegates also pointed to how gender equality intersects with other human rights, and conversely, how different forms of discrimination are entangled.  A representative of the International Disability and Development Consortium, who noted that she is from Ethiopia, pointed out that women with disabilities face multiple forms of exclusion which limit access to education, health, employment and participation in decision-making.  The United Nations must work with grassroot organizations led by young women with disabilities, she said, calling on the UN to ensure that “you do nothing about us without us”.

The youth representative of the Netherlands, who clarified that she was speaking, not on behalf of her Government but on behalf of the young people of her country, said that recently a feminist march in the Netherlands was cancelled by the organizers out of fear of violence against supporters of Palestinians.  This is a perfect illustration of how human rights are connected and need to be continuously fought for, she said.  There’s no country where gender equality has been achieved yet, she said, adding that it is crucial to tackle multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.

Responding to the youth delegates, Ms. Umesh said that creating a world where everyone in their diversity can thrive requires feminist trust-based multi-year flexible funding.  Social protection schemes must consider the risk women and girls face in their daily lives and the biological changes in their lifetime.  Currently, she noted, unmarried, divorced, widowed and trans women have limited access to sexual and reproductive health services, affordable menstrual products or safe abortion services.  Informal health workers play a key role but are inadequately compensated for their efforts and time, often seen as volunteers.

Ms. Bielova called on every State to systematically work with vulnerable groups and fund small grassroots organizations — as well as future leaders like her.  After joining the Roma movement as a student, she noted that her team in 2023 helped almost 44,000 people.  She called for the international community to invest in leaders and activists, as they will be agents of change.  “Engagement based on meaningful, active and full participation will be the difference between success and failure when it comes to promoting and sustaining peace and security,” she said.

Mr. Jrad said the international community has a responsibility to promote peace and reduce human suffering, especially in armed conflicts and natural disasters, to ensure that human rights are respected in any context.  He emphasized the intersectionality of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion and political beliefs in intensifying poverty.  As youth represent the biggest group in the world, and with the aging global population, it is crucial to invest in care and well-being services, and to create gender sensitive data for transparency.

Ms. Bal urged the European Union, the Council of Europe and UN agencies to consider which disability organizations they fund, because in many countries including Türkiye, many organizations led by medical professionals and non-disabled people and who see disability as a token to use and abuse, perpetuating harmful practices.  Such ableist practices “are awful”, she stressed, calling on the European Union and Canada to defund improper institutions. Additionally, she noted that in Türkiye, her organization cannot access enough funding because “we don’t have pretty enough PR”.

Ms. Crendo emphasized that youth are not only the future but the present, and it is important to listen and create more space for them.  Noting that those on the front lines of activism are “in distress”, she cited her own painful struggle with mental health.  “I’m here, I left my depression in the past,” she stated, adding:  “I would love for everyone to pay attention to Indigenous Peoples because we are the victims of racism on a daily basis.”

Also offering closing remarks was Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director for Normative Support, UN System Coordination and Programme Results of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women), who began by congratulating the Commission for including young people in its formal meeting process, so they didn’t have to go around knocking on doors just to be included.  This is a best practice that must be emulated in other intergovernmental processes, she said.

At the same time, she acknowledged, many young people could not be here even if they wanted to, due to various barriers, from conflict to poverty to family care responsibility.  Travel grants could be converted to technology grants to enable more youth delegates to participate, she proposed.  Conflict is violence against young people, she said, calling on everyone to put extra effort into working towards a humanitarian ceasefire in all the countries where conflict is happening.  The solutions put forward by young people today are not for the future, they are to be applied immediately, she underscored.


* Note:  Due to the financial liquidity crisis affecting the United Nations and the resulting constraints, the 7th & 8th Meetings were not covered.

For information media. Not an official record.