“Gender inequality is the overwhelming injustice of our age and the biggest human rights challenge we face,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said. Last week, in his address at the virtual meeting of world leaders at the General Assembly, he said the COVID-19 pandemic has hit women and girls the hardest.
“Unless we act now,” he said, “gender equality could be set back by decades.”
Ahead of Thursday’s high-level meeting to commemorate the landmark 1995 U.N. women’s conference in Beijing, the head of the U.N. agency charged with promoting gender equality lamented the “slow, terribly uneven” progress, “pushback” and even regression in reaching the goals in the 150-page platform adopted by the 189 nations that met in China’s capital.
While there has been progress since Beijing, U.N. Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka told The Associated Press on Tuesday that gains have been modest. What’s more, she says, “there is also sometimes an exaggeration and an illusion of much bigger progress than there has been.”
She pointed to the number of women in parliaments, which moved from about 11% in 1995 to a global average of 25% today. Now, women hold just 23% of managerial positions in the private sector. And among the 193 U.N. member nations, there are 21 female presidents and prime ministers worldwide, about twice as many as in 1995.
This means that men still hold about 75 percent of the power positions in the world, Mlambo-Ngcuka said. They “make decisions for us all, and that is what we have to crack.”
Guterres has stressed the uphill struggle, which he attributes to “centuries of discrimination, deep-rooted patriarchy and misogyny.”
The landmark Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing was crucial because it adopted a road map to gender equality. It was the largest-ever formal gathering of women, though hundreds of men were among the 17,000 participants at the official meeting that adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Some 30,000 people, the vast majority women, attended a parallel NGO forum outside the capital.
“The Beijing Declaration is still the equivalent of the United Nations Charter for women,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said. “It’s the one thing we have that was adopted by the largest number of member states.”
The platform called for bold action in 12 areas for women and girls, including combating poverty and gender-based violence, ensuring all girls get an education and putting women at top levels of business and government, as well as at peacemaking tables.
It also said, for the first time in a U.N. document, that women’s human rights include the right to control and decide “on matters relating to their sexuality, including their sexual and reproductive health, free of discrimination, coercion and violence.”
Mlambo-Ngcuka said there has been significant “pushback” on reproductive rights, explaining that groups once on the fringes are now in the mainstream, and developed countries from the “global north are also being part of pushback,” including the United States.
“When the U.S. regresses, it is a big deal, not just for the U.S. but for many people who are influenced by trends in the U.S.,” she said.
She expressed deep concern at the possible replacement of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “who was the pillar of the feminist agenda,” with a conservative jurist like Trump administration nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
In the European Union, Mlambo-Ngcuka said, there are countries that want to pull out of The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women or are refusing to ratify it. “You would not have expected that to happen within the EU,” she said. And in Africa and Asia, she said, there are governments “that have not felt any pressure” to move forward.
“So our energy has had to go to stop this pushback, not to work for the advancement of women,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said. “And then came COVID, and that has made the situation worse.”
She said Thursday’s meeting is important to generate fresh support from world leaders for the Beijing platform and for the U.N. goal to achieve gender equality by 2030, and “to reaffirm multilateralism as indispensable.”
At the meeting, 170 nations are expected to speak including over 50 world leaders, among them French President Emmanuel Macron and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who had been scheduled to host “Generation Equality” forums this year for thousands of civil society representatives and activists. Those were postponed until 2021 because of the pandemic.
The summit will not be adopting any document. That happened in March when the Commission on the Status of Women, the main U.N. body promoting women’s rights, reaffirmed the 1995 Beijing declaration and platform and pledged to step up implementation.
Mlambo-Ngcuka did point to some advances in the last 10 years including 131 countries that enacted legislation to advance gender equality. The U.N. has also helped change and amend 25 constitutions in 25 years to entrench gender equality and “that is a big deal,” she said.
At the 1995 Beijing conference, then U.S. first lady Hillary Clinton galvanized participants with a rousing speech featuring words that have become a mantra for the global women’s movement: “Human rights are women’s rights — and women’s rights are human rights.”
“I think we have a lot of work to do,” Clinton said in a virtual discussion on the 25th anniversary of the Beijing conference at the Georgetown Institute For Women, Peace and Security.
“Am I discouraged? No. I’m disappointed we haven’t gone even farther in 25 years. I’m worried about the pushback and the backlash that we see from authoritarian leaders, in particular, who are trying to turn the clock back,” she said.
“But that just energizes me more to speak out, to work with others, to defend those who are on the front lines,” Clinton said. “”My thinking has also evolved. I’m certainly going to continue to call for women’s rights. But more important to me now is enabling women to have the power to claim their rights.”
Edith M. Lederer, chief U.N. correspondent for The Associated Press, has been reporting internationally for nearly a half century, including at the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EdithLedererAP
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