The most important day of the widely anticipated United Nations-backed Generation Equality Forum’s second session ended Wednesday night in Paris. But before the dozens of speeches were heard, a gulf emerged among people who at heart all want to make the world a better, safer place for women and girls.
On one side of the gap were government leaders and the older establishment generally, who bemoaned how little has been gained, or been reversed, in the 26 years since the 1995 Beijing conference on women’s rights. On the other side was more anger, with younger women vocalizing that they wanted to move past the history to demand action now, but that they lacked the power to do so. They asked why all the commitments made by 189 countries in Beijing were still just commitments. They called for accountability.
Yet the spirit to instill an equal world for all women and girls permeated the first day of the forum, which was sponsored by France and Mexico. The original session, held virtually in Mexico City in March, acted like a warm-up to the one in Paris, which was presented in a hybrid format. The two were delayed a year because of the pandemic.
Vice President Kamala Harris represented the United States at the forum, which hopes to collect both financial and political commitments from governments before it ends on July 2 (a current list of the commitments says $40 billion has been pledged so far). Speaking by videoconference to the audience in Paris, Harris announced that the US would make several commitments, providing no details.
In her remarks, she said that in meetings with world leaders over recent months, “we have discussed some of the most pressing issues of our time.”
“And in these meetings,” she added, “I have often made it a point to raise the importance of equal participation of women and girls, because I believe, as you all do, that addressing gender equity and equality is essential to addressing every other challenge we face, which is certainly true in light of the current threats to democracy.
“Around the world, democracy is in peril. Strongmen have become stronger. Human rights abuses have multiplied. Corruption is undermining progress as misinformation is undermining public confidence. And who gets hurt when democracies fall, when democracies falter? Who gets hurt when democracies fail to live up to their promise? Well, women and girls are among those who suffer.”
Among the heads of government who listed specific political commitments was President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya. Speaking from a pile of note cards, he outlined institutional reforms he would take to improve the status of women and girls in his country, including ending female genital mutilation by the end of his term next year.
Kenyatta said that the rising cases of gender-based violence in Africa “had reached global emergency levels” and called for urgent corrective action by the international community.
“[The] Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation and turned gender based violence into a global emergency,” he said. “Emerging data indicates a surge of at least 25 percent in violence against women around the world.”
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador inaugurated the first session of the Generation Equality Forum, joined by civil society representatives and others in March in Mexico City. The event was overshadowed by the president’s narrow views of gender equality and feminism in a country ravaged by violence against women. The night before the forum began, feminists projected lights onto the facade of the Presidential Palace, reading, “Mexico, murderer of women: host of the UN Generation Equality Forum.”
March was not only a difficult time for Mexico’s Covid-19 caseload but also the most violent month for Mexican women in six years: 359 murders, of which 92 were considered femicides — or the intentional killing of a woman. Since the last decade, at least 10 women have been killed every day in the country. Amid the carnage, 97 percent of femicides fail to be convicted.
The administration of the Mexican president, known as Amlo, inherited this reality from its predecessors. Femicides have been a huge concern for rights activists in Mexico — and throughout Latin America — since the early aughts. Yet the president’s response to the scourge is considered astounding, especially since he portrays himself as a leftist while denying femicide exists.
“A characteristic of our government, unlike others, is that before there was authoritarianism,” he said during the inauguration of the Generation Equality Forum. “These acts were committed frequently, and there was also impunity. Not now. Human rights are respected, and there is zero impunity. Those responsible are always punished.”
Back in France, on the forum’s first day, a 17-year-old Chilean, Julieta Martínez, acting as a bridge among generations, was one of several young people to speak on center stage. She was introduced by Hillary Clinton, a hero among women at the Beijing conference for her outspokenness and who was warmly greeted by the Paris audience. She noted that the forum was about “generational equality.”
Julieta, a youth leader on climate change problems in Latin America, wanted to know in her spirited remarks where was the Beijing pledge of “accountability and responsibility?”
Yet the young people who spoke had support in high places at the forum.
One of the most visible was President Emmanuel Macron of France, the host of the session, which was held in a gallery of the Louvre.
Macron tore into the laggards: “Patriarchal forces want to challenge the gains made,” he said, noting that 500 million of the world’s women and girls are still illiterate. He railed against those men who escape responsibility by claiming cultural or religious exception.
“Feminism is humanism,” he said.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres was also a supporter in high places. He reiterated his criticisms of “patriarchy,” as he has done in the past in remarks on gender equality.
At the Louvre, he said that stopping violence against women and girls “is an absolutely central issue. . . . ,” adding, “I have to tell you that the most difficult thing I had [to deal with] when I was Prime Minister in Portugal was to convince Portuguese society that there was a serious problem of domestic violence and [that it was necessary] to take the necessary measures to combat this violence.”
“We must absolutely fight this logic of negation,” he said. “The fight against violence against women and girls must be made a central element of all policies and all of our objectives.
“I trust the new generations. I believe that intergenerational dialogue is essential for gender equality. But it must be recognized that in our societies, there are not yet effective institutional mechanisms for young people to intervene [effectively] at the level of political decisions and at the level of essential economic and social decisions. So, we have to have the imagination, in this new [digital] society, to have the imagination to allow young people to have a much more effective role in our decision-making mechanisms. This is, in my opinion, another fundamental instrument for gender equality.”
While smaller panels that are planned through July 2 will continue to focus on crucial matters for women and girls, some topics didn’t make the agenda. Trafficking in women will get little to no attention, some activists said.
Claire Guiraud, the Geneva representative of the Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution International, a partner of the New York-based Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, wrote in an email to PassBlue:
“While 94% of the victims of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation are women and girls, and while the debates on the best ways to eliminate the phenomenon are meeting a very positive dynamic by increasingly focusing on the demand side, the Generation Equality Forum sounds like a missed opportunity.
“Sex trafficking, especially in the pandemic years, when women and their families were desperate for their basic economic survival, remains a major obstacle to gender equality and to the realization of fundamental rights of women and girls, specifically the most marginalized, and it must end.”
Some movement has gone in a positive direction, Guiraud acknowledged, saying, “Thanks to the very strong CEDAW general recommendation adopted last November on trafficking in women and girls and to the leadership of nations such as France, Sweden and Iceland that co-sponsored our side event last week parallel to the Human Rights Council and in cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.”
On top of the many commitments announced at the forum, Melinda French Gates said the Gates Foundation would direct $2.1 billion in new money to strengthening gender equality. More than half would go to sexual health and reproductive rights, and $100 million would be spent on helping women get into positions of power in government and the workplace.
She opened her remarks by saying that it was better to be a girl born today than 26 years ago but quickly dived into what women need now.
“Women should not only have a seat at the table, they should be in every single room where policy and decisions are being made,” Gates said.
Maurizio Guerrero contributed reporting to this article.
The article was updated on July 1 to include the commitments made so far to the Generation Equality Forum.
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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.