The 25th anniversary of the landmark global action plan that was adopted to expand the equality and rights of women and girls was jinxed from the start. The celebratory event, long scheduled for March, was hastily postponed as the Covid-19 virus spread. When the commemoration finally took place on Oct. 1, it was virtual, with prerecorded statements read by leaders from around the world played into an almost empty General Assembly Hall at the United Nations.
The messages were mixed and often sobering. Evidence suggests that the pandemic has worsened the lives of women everywhere.
Secretary-General António Guterres, speaking live in the ghostly Assembly Hall, set the somber tone for the full day in his opening address. While acknowledging gains over 25 years in areas such as reducing maternal deaths and more girls going to school, he said: “But we have not fulfilled the ambitious vision of the Beijing Declaration. One woman in three still experiences some form of violence in her lifetime. Every year, 12 million girls marry before the age of 18.
“In some parts of the world, levels of femicide — the killing of women — could be likened to a war zone,” Guterres, an outspoken critic of patriarchal thinking and male privilege, added.
“Women are still frequently excluded from peace negotiations, climate talks, and decision-making roles of all kinds,” he said. “Unless we act now, Covid-19 could wipe out a generation of fragile progress towards gender equality. The systems and structures of our world, based on millennia of male domination, are holding women back in all areas, with serious consequences for everyone.”
Among the speakers who followed — 58 percent of them women, according to Brenden Varma, the spokesperson for this year’s General Assembly president, Volkan Bozkir of Turkey — several noted that Sustainable Development Goal 5 was in serious trouble. That goal calls for, without excuses, the equality and empowerment of women.
Will a new generation do better?
That’s everybody’s challenge, said Bozkir in his opening remarks. “When will we reach full gender equality?” he asked. “In 2030? On the fiftieth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference for Women? On the centenary of the United Nations? Why wait? . . . It is up to all of us. We need the full buy-in from governments, civil society, the private sector, the United Nations and you at home. The power of multilateralism is fueled by individual actions, by decision-makers at all levels.”
During an event like the Oct. 1 special session to assess the progress of the world’s women, the General Assembly Hall would normally reverberate with the chatter of greetings as delegates gathered. On Thursday, however, an eerie silence prevailed. Cornered by the new coronavirus pandemic, the focus of the diplomats attending in person, one for each UN member state, was on the prerecorded messages from leaders projected on screens above the president’s dais.
Among the women in power, not only in governments but also from UN agencies and international organizations, young faces popped up, including Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, 43, of Denmark and Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir, 44, of Iceland. These leaders are part of a growing cohort of youthful women who have risen to the top of politics in their respective countries. They also include Prime Minister Sanna Marin, 34, of Finland and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, 40, of New Zealand.
Numerous vice presidents took to the screen, too, namely a cluster, one by one, from Latin America: Epsy Campbell Barr of Costa Rica, Beatriz Argimón of Uruguay, Marta Lucía Ramírez of Colombia and María Alejandra Muñoz of Ecuador. An array of government ministers, from Liechtenstein to Gambia, Chad to the Dominican Republic, spoke as well. These may also be women to watch if they aspire to higher office. Yet the countries led by strongmen, including Turkey, Egypt and China, did not use the opportunity to present women from their governments in their speeches, making their remarks feel out of place in the daylong procession.
The speech by the United States, originally meant to be read by Ambassador Kelly Craft, the envoy to the UN, was changed the day before to one read by Betsy DeVos, the education secretary. Since it was a last-minute rescheduling, the video was not screened by 7 p.m., when the event ended. In her video, DeVos castigated the conditions for women and girls in Venezuela, Iran and China. She even repeated the often-told lie by certain US administrations that the UN had supported forced abortions in China.
From the UN system, the office of the high commissioner for refugees, UNHCR, sent a recorded message from Nomzamo Mbatha, a 30-year-old South African actress and activist who is a new goodwill ambassador for the agency. Among other videos, a few government leaders introduced young women who will play active roles in Generation Equality forums that will follow the UN’s Beijing+25 event. Norway’s prime minister, Erna Solberg, for example, featured Celia Lima, a youth leader, in her video.
The Generation Equality movement, originating in 2019 and supported by UN Women and the governments of France and Mexico, are designed to give young representatives of civil society a chance to meet and discuss how to push equality ahead concretely. They will focus not only on how to deal with the lagging promises made in Beijing in 1995, but also how to work on related issues like action for climate justice and the use of technology and innovation for gender equality. Postponed in 2020, these meetings will be rescheduled for 2021.
The appearance of so many young people, men and women, in the videos suggest that they will carry the gender equality struggle forward. They could certainly share in the wisdom of the most politically powerful woman in democratic governance, Angela Merkel, who is stepping down as chancellor of Germany this year. Merkel’s career has spanned past and present political eras, from a childhood in communist East Germany through training as a scientist to tackling contemporary crises in the European Union.
In her brief video message to the General Assembly, in which she said that Germany fully backed the Generation Equality process, she spoke of how politics can evolve.
“Twenty-six years ago, the then Secretary of State for Education and Science in the UK said: No woman in my time will be prime minister,” Merkel said. “Five years later, she herself took up office. This thought by Margaret Thatcher also crossed my mind before I was elected Federal Chancellor in 2005.
“These days, the very states that are successful, economically and socially, as well as in terms of peaceful conflict resolution, are often those where women are among those shouldering responsibility.
“The Beijing Platform for Action and Declaration were instrumental in bringing about this progress. And what is more, they are and remain an important cornerstone for the implementation of women’s rights around the world. . . Can we afford to keep simply foregoing a large part of the skills that women can contribute in and for our society?”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.