A meeting of the UN body promoting equality for women starts with 5 male speakers

The U.N.’s preeminent body promoting equality for women and girls has opened its annual meeting with five male speakers in a row

Edith M. Lederer
Tuesday 12 March 2024 01:32 GMT
United Nations Gender Equality Backlash
United Nations Gender Equality Backlash (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The U.N.’s preeminent body promoting equality for women and girls opened its annual meeting Monday with five male speakers in a row – a lineup that made some of the men uneasy and was somewhat baffling to the hundreds of women in the packed General Assembly chamber.

Achim Steiner, the head of the U.N. Development Program and the last of the male speakers, said when he stepped to the microphone: “I am very conscious of the fact that I am yet another man standing at this podium addressing you.”

He said he had two choices: “Don’t speak or stand up” and support gender equality.

Croatia’s U.N. Ambassador Ivan Šimonović, the third male speaker representing the U.N. Economic and Social Council, apologized for the absence of the council’s president, a woman, who had a family emergency. So, he said, “you are getting the male vice president, adding to the agenda disbalance of this opening.”

The first woman to speak was sixth in line, Chetna Gala Sinha, who represented civil society and was loudly cheered when she was called to the podium.

Sinha moved from Mumbai to a drought-prone village in India’s Maharashtra state three decades ago and helped local women start a bank. Now, she said, “our women want to go from microcredit to micro-enterprise” so “there has never been a better time to invest in women” — a theme of this year’s meeting of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, along with addressing poverty.

After a speech by a young woman from Malawi representing youth, the commission’s chair, Philippines U.N. Ambassador Antonio Lagdameo, invited the head of the U.N. agency promoting women’s rights and gender equality to take a seat on the podium.

Sima Bahous, the executive director of UN Women, began by saying: “It’s great to be here. I feel the energy in the room is getting better as we see more women coming to the stage.” The audience applauded loudly.

Almost every speaker — male and female — spoke of the plight of women and girls caught in conflict, especially in the Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza.

Lagdameo, the commission chair who opened the meeting, asked participants to express solidarity with all women and girls in conflict situations. “Our thoughts are with you as we strive for peace,” he said.

U.N., Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the second speaker, told the meeting that women and girls are suffering most “from wars waged by men,” singling out Gaza.

He noted Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that started Monday in Gaza, should be a time of compassion, but instead families are struggling to survive. He reiterated his call for a humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza and a silencing of guns in all conflicts including Sudan.

Last week Guterres said achieving legal gender equality could take 300 years, and on Monday he cited two worrying trends: Patriarchy is regaining ground as autocrats and populists attack women’s freedoms and their sexual and reproductive rights, and the domination of digital technologies and artificial intelligence by men is leaving women’s needs and rights ignored.

Bahous told the commission that a backlash against gender equality is rising “with a ferocity and anger that is unfamiliar to many of us,” she said. “Peace feels painfully distant, war painfully prevalent, suffering painfully ubiquitous.”

If spoken commitments to equality could be matched by funding in budgets, “more than 100 million women and girls could be lifted out of poverty," she said. She added that closing gender gaps in employment could boost gross domestic product per capita by 20%.

The U.N. Development Program’s Steiner told the commission: “We have to face a harsh truth, gender inequality and the poverty experienced by so many women and girls are not inevitable outcomes of the crisis we face, but rather a consequence of systemic failures."

Solving the problem of over 300 million women and girls living in extreme poverty can only be solved by making gender equality “a core value” at every stage of public financing, he said.

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