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UN chief calls for global action to defend women’s rights

The UN on Monday, March 11, 2024, highlighted the need to defend women’s rights which were under threat, citing a reversal in hard-won progress, increasing violence against women and a growing digital gender divide.

António Guterres
UN Secretary-General, António Guterres

UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, said this at the opening of the 68th session of Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), at the UN Headquarters, in New York.

CSW is a forum dedicated to promoting and safeguarding the rights of women and girls worldwide.

The 68th session of CSW has the theme, “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.”

The UN chief, however, stressed the disproportionate impact of wars on women.

“In conflict zones around the globe, women and girls are suffering most from wars waged by men,” he said, urging immediate ceasefires and humanitarian aid.

Guterres emphasised the appalling situation in Gaza, where over two-thirds of those killed and injured during Israel’s offensive are reportedly women and girls.

He also noted shocking testimonies of sexual violence against Palestinian women in detention settings, house raids and checkpoints in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

In Israel, he added, last week’s report released by UN Special Representative, Pramila Patten, highlighted sexual violence against women and girls and indications of sexualised torture during the terror attacks launched by Hamas and other armed groups on Oct. 7, 2023.

Guterres also voiced concern over the situation faced by women in other countries, including Afghanistan and Sudan.

“In Afghanistan, the Taliban has issued more than 50 edicts suppressing women’s and girls’ rights. In Sudan, scores of women have reportedly been subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence in the ongoing conflict,” he said.

Guterres also stressed that despite evidence that women’s full participation made peacebuilding much more effective, the number of women in decision-making roles was falling.

“The facts are clear: Women lead to peace,” he said, calling for more funding and new policies to boost women’s participation and investment in women peacebuilders.

The UN chief also emphasised a growing digital gender divide, noting the dominance of men in digital technologies, particularly in Artificial Intelligence.

He warned that male-dominated algorithms could perpetuate inequalities into various aspects of life, noting that women’s needs, bodies and fundamental rights are often overlooked in the design of systems by male leaders and technologists.

“It’s time for governments, civil society and the Silicon Valleys of the world to join a massive effort to bridge the digital gender divide and ensure women have decision-making roles in digital technology at all levels,” he urged.

Guterres also drew attention to the pressing need for women to hold leadership roles, particularly in financial institutions.

He highlighted the stark gender disparity in finance, with over eight of ten finance ministers and more than nine out of ten central bank governors being men.

The secretary-general emphasised that dismantling structural barriers was necessary to achieve gender parity in leadership roles.

“Overwhelmingly male-dominated financial institutions need to dismantle the structural barriers that are blocking women from leadership roles,” he said.

Drawing parallels with the UN’s successful achievement of full gender parity among senior management and leaders worldwide, he urged governments, banks and businesses to replicate these efforts, emphasising that change does not happen by accident.

The secretary-general concluded his address by urging the international community to unite in the fight for gender equality, adding that the CSW serves as a catalyst for transformative change.

He called for collaborative efforts to end poverty in all its dimensions.

“Let’s do it by investing in women and girls, betting on women and girls, and pushing for peace and dignity for women and girls everywhere,” Guterres said.

Also speaking, the President of the General Assembly, Dennis Francis, continued the call to action, highlighting the need to intensify efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

With the world currently lagging in attaining the Goals, particularly the Goal to eradicate extreme poverty (SDG1), Francis revealed a stark reality:

“Currently, one in every 10 women lives in extreme poverty – I repeat – one in every ten women,” he said.

Underscoring the need for a multidimensional approach, he called for equal access to resources, gender-responsive social protection policies, and measures to end gender-based discrimination inhibiting women’s leadership and decision-making roles.

CSW, which holds annually, is the largest global gathering of civil society representatives, government officials, policy makers and experts.

It takes stock of progress on gender equality, discusses pressing issues and agrees on actions to transform the lives of women and girls everywhere.

It consists of a wide range of meetings, panel discussions, interactive dialogues, ministerial round tables, intergovernmental negotiations and more.

The session, which opened Monday ends March 22.

By Cecilia Ologunagba

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