Opening remarks by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the opening of the 65th Commission on the status of Women

[As delivered]

On the 9th of March 2020, the 64th Commission on the Status of Women proactively took precautions and scaled down the session. Two days later, on the 11th of March, WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Our lives changed from then onwards. One year on, we know just how hard the COVID-19 effects have been on those who are already living in difficult situations. Its toll is sparking fears of a further mental health epidemic.

The pandemic has been especially hard on women and girls. This is the most discriminatory crisis we have ever experienced. It has hit hardest those who are least able to cope. It has posed a direct challenge to our work as the United Nations and the work of UN Women. The gains we have made in the past are at risk.

Emerging from this crisis we are facing more orphans and child-headed homes. Following school closures, there are 10 million more girls this decade anticipated to be at risk of child marriage, and girls permanently dropping out of school because of pregnancy – in the main from non-consensual sex. We are facing a burden of care that is mostly – and increasingly – borne by women, with 59 per cent of women reporting having to spend even more time on unpaid domestic work since the pandemic. We are facing job losses, with two-thirds of the jobs lost being women’s jobs. Those who are most affected are young women at the age where they are rearing young children. 47 million more women this year will be pushed into living on less than USD 1.90 a day, with younger women again bearing the brunt of lost income and lack of decent work. In addition, we face the digital gender gap that leaves women unprepared for the future.

Young women are under siege from gender-based violence. WHO’s latest report on gender-based violence shows the highest rates of intimate partner violence in the past 12 months being against young women aged between 15 and 24. Throughout 2020, UN Women has raised the alarm. We have provided policy recommendations on both the ‘shadow pandemic’ of reported increased violence at home during lockdowns and the disproportionate economic impacts on women that limit their options for recovery. This is creating legions of women and girls who live with trauma that can last a lifetime.

The Secretary-General’s report for this session underlines that violence against women in public life is a major deterrent to their political participation, and it affects women of all ages, all ranks, and in every part of the world. These are the women who shape policies and who can make decisions that positively change the lives of many. These are the women who can enable women in other sectors to thrive and access justice, and indeed to accelerate gender equality. Under-representation of women is a factor in the slow progress of all aspects of gender equality. That is why this session is a defining moment for gender equality.

At this session you can propose Agreed Conclusions that take us forward. Your conclusions on this year’s priority theme have the potential to stop regression, refocus priorities and move the whole agenda forward by making sure that women are at the high table.

It is inconceivable that we can address this situation that is faced in the main by women and solve the problems that women and girls face without the women themselves taking part in decision-making. 

We currently confront the two biggest challenges of our generation: the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, and the unfolding climate change crisis. In both, women are disproportionately affected. And in neither, are women appropriately represented as negotiators and policy makers. In a recent survey of COVID-19 task forces we found that less than 5 per cent of those task forces had gender parity in the composition of their membership. This gives men the self-imposed, impossible task of making the right decisions about women without the benefit of women’s insights. This needs to be set right without delay or we stand to lose. This year in November there is the UN Climate Change Conference. It is more important than ever that we get this right, starting with delegations that are going to be participating in that important gathering, some of which currently do not include women.

Other reports tell us that in key public sectors, including those where women dominate, such as in health, men continued to hold most of the leadership positions – as high as 70 per cent – marking no change over the previous year. In the private sector the situation is even worse. The stereotypes that men are more capable leaders persists and this we also need to change.Closely connected to this is the fact that women remain deeply under-represented in news media both as editors controlling content and perspective, and as subject matter experts. 

Excellencies, in this session you can make your impatience known. You can propel progress that will translate into greater benefits for women and girls.

We have encouragement for this from civil society and increasingly also from the private sector. Civil society has been working very hard for this progress.

We know that what needs to be done requires political will, and we know what needs to be done to promote women’s role in public life. The most important aspect is to institute special measures, like well-designed and effectively implemented gender quotas and targets. Leaders can set and meet parity targets for women to be represented in all spheres of life. We know that this can happen. There are currently 13 countries in which women hold 50 per cent or more of ministerial positions, which is down from 14 countries in 2020. This is something we can address because 13 is far too low.

Our own Secretary-General has decisively used his executive power to change the gender balance of leaders in the UN system. We currently see women in the UN holding 50 per cent of the most senior positions.

Neither the pandemic nor the financial crisis should be deterrents to making progress in the representation of women. In fact, quite the opposite, the pandemic shows us how much we need the change so that we can build back better. Representation of women in decision-making is the only way to build back in a gender-responsive manner, in an equitable manner and in a greener manner.

We know from our work with the Inter-Parliamentary Union that change is possible. We today celebrate gains made. In Estonia, both the Prime Minister and the President are women. In Lithuania, the share of women in government went up from 8 per cent to 43 per cent. Rwanda still leads the African regional charts with the largest share of women ministers at 54.8 per cent, and still leading also globally. In the United States, women in charge of ministerial portfolios rose from 17 per cent in 2020 to 46 per cent in 2021. In Nicaragua, 59 per cent of ministries are led by women. And Mongolia progressed from 6.7 per cent women ministers in 2020 to 18.8 per cent in 2021.

Excellencies, change is possible. Political will is critical in that respect.

The premise of this year’s priority theme is that it is not acceptable that institutions which are predominantly male-dominated should decide on matters that affect women’s lives and concern the lives of all of humanity. In another governance situation this would not be considered ethical for stakeholders to have little or no say in the decisions and policies that concern them.

This session of the Commission gives us the tool to stimulate game-changing, and much-needed concerted action to increase women’s representation through the Agreed Conclusions. And if we cannot achieve this in this year, where we face the challenge of our generation, I put it to you Excellencies, with respect, that we will have to ask ourselves a hard question: what is the purpose of this Commission?

The Commission is strong and its actions can be bold. Bold actions this year will strengthen the implementation of your 2020 Political Declaration, and it will also propel the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. 

Global leaders at the high-level meeting on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, in October last year at the General Assembly, made calls urging us to make progress. The President of Georgia urged us to do more for women in the informal economy as well as for women in vulnerable employment and to close the gender pay gap. The President of Ghana called on the development of programmes, plans, policies and laws to promote gender equality. The German Chancellor recognized that women play an integral part in the State decision-making yet they are not involved as equals when those decisions are made. The President of China stressed the need to work hard to build a world in which women are free from discrimination. The Prime Minister of Tuvalu acknowledged the impact of tradition and norms which hinder progress. The Prime Minister of Canada urged that women in all their diversity must be placed at the heart of decision-making. The bold steps of this august assembly can bring the wishes of these leaders into reality.

There is also added support from Generation Equality and its Action Coalitions, which complements our intergovernmental processes, such as this Commission, and the work set out in UN Women’s Strategic Plan. We have engaged more than 50 million people thus far. We have 90 Action Coalition leaders who are poised to make game-changing commitments that will be announced in Mexico City and Paris. Generation Equality will aim for the acceleration of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Beijing Platform for Action. We invite all of you to make commitments. 

I urge you to take action to include young women in decision-making, especially those who are affected by age barriers when it comes to entry into public office. We see them in the streets of the world, leading movements and facing lethal force. These are the leaders of today and tomorrow, their indisputable capacity to lead has been demonstrated. We must make space for them – and all women – so they can take their rightful places.

Let this be a defining session of our time and in a time of crisis. It is my heartfelt hope that in this year, which is also my last year at UN Women, we can witness bold and strong moves that will propel us in a much stronger way to gender equality and will end the discrimination against women and girls and empower all of us. It is in your hands. Thank you.