Speech: ‘We can and must choose to end poverty for women and girls’

Opening remarks by UN Under-Secretary-General and UN Women Executive Director Sima Bahous at the opening of the 68th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, 11 March 2024, at UN headquarters

[As delivered.]

We meet at a time of great uncertainty. Peace feels painfully distant, war painfully prevalent, suffering painfully ubiquitous.

Backlash on gender equality is on the rise, with a ferocity and anger that is unfamiliar to many of us.

From the wars around the world, the violence online, the war we wage on our planet—women and girls continue to be the ones suffering the consequences of decisions not of their making.

UN Women Executive Director Sima Bahous delivers opening remarks at the opening of the 68th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, 11 March 2024, at UN headquarters. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown.

In the Middle East, Sudan, Myanmar, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, women and girls bear the brunt of conflicts and of wars they did not start.

In all conflicts, we unequivocally condemn all acts of gender-based violence, and all forms of violence, against any woman or girl anywhere in the world.

We need an urgent ceasefire in Gaza. We are witnessing a destruction and killing of civilians, UN personnel, humanitarians, and journalists at an unprecedented scale. More than 9000 women have been killed, and this number continues to rise at an unthinkable rate. Nothing can justify this.

In Israel, as we heard from the Secretary-General, the Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict Ms. Pramila Patten’s report has horrific accounts of sexual violence against women and girls in the October 7 attack. There are also harrowing testimonies of sexual violence by Israeli forces against Palestinian women in detention, house raids, and checkpoints. All such acts and forms of violence against women and girls are condemned.

We call on the immediate and safe delivery of humanitarian aid across Gaza, the release of all hostages, an end to occupation, and for a return to a path to peace, a peace that is just and comprehensive and that is inclusive of the crucial voices and leadership of women. This is our only hope for the future we want.

The struggle for gender equality is not new. Women have been fighting for their rights for centuries. History is replete with heroes, women as well as enlightened men, who laid out a path for us to follow, who exemplified sacrifice for our cause, and who modeled the courage and wisdom we need today more than ever.

We stand on their shoulders, and we owe it to them to keep the fight going until true equality, in social, economic, and political life, is attained. We aspire to leave a mark on history as they have done.

This Commission on the Status of Women is an expression of our understanding of the centrality of gender equality to the aspirations that we have as a family of nations. None can be achieved without equality between women and men. And this year’s priority theme focuses on accelerating progress on gender equality by addressing poverty and strengthening institutions and financing.

We can transform economies, if our professed commitments to equality are matched by our budgets, as they should be. This we must do with urgency. And the evidence is as stark as ever, more than 100 million women and girls could be lifted out of poverty if governments prioritized education, healthcare, fair and equal wages, and expanded social benefits.

Closing gender gaps in employment could boost Gross Domestic Product per capita by 20 per cent across all regions. The return on investment in gender equality is a guaranteed win for any society and economy.

Time is not on our side.

Across the world, poverty continues to have a woman’s face, with women experiencing higher rates of poverty than men, that is expected to persist beyond any of our lifetimes. More than 10 per cent of women globally live on less than USD 2.15 a day. If we want to say it right, they don’t really live, they barely survive.

Today, one in ten women live in extreme poverty. At the current rate of progress, as many as 342 million women will still be living in poverty in or by 2030. This makes a mockery of our 2030 Agenda.

Both poverty and women’s financial exclusion are fueled by discriminatory gender norms which are entrenched in our economic, political, and social systems.

Women spend nearly three hours more per day than men performing unpaid care and domestic work. This work forms the backbone of our homes, our communities, and our societies. It keeps economies running, enables growth, drives progress and development.

This work can be properly recognized and compensated, to the mutual benefit of women and economies, if we choose to do so.

No matter how limited the fiscal space may be, gender equality should always be a priority, always the smartest and wisest investment to make. There is no national development policy that will not benefit from gender equality.

There is no Sustainable Development Goal that can be attained without gender equality. With a mere six years to go, gender equality remains our best hope to get back on track to 2030.

This CSW68 sees record numbers of participants from civil society in attendance. To all those here representing civil society and young people, I warmly welcome you and thank you for your energy and insight.

The women’s movement has time and again been at the heart of every great step forward for equality.

You play a critical role in holding us accountable to and upholding our collective social contract, through your advocacy, your expertise, and the invaluable work many of you and your organizations do in crises. When things are at their most bleak, you step up. When help is desperately needed, you are there on the frontline, supporting, providing essential services, driving feminist change.

We must do more to invest in women’s rights organizations, especially feminist, grassroots, youth organizations and women’s collectives. These organizations must have flexible and predictable financing that matches the scale of need with the power of your movements and voice across the world.

The Secretary-General’s report on this CSW68 priority theme is clear. Policy choices are not beyond us; we can and must choose to end poverty for women and girls.

We must commit to using the levers of finance to invest in and build systems and social institutions that can tackle gender inequality, and that can address structural poverty. This year we must not just play the game better; we must change it altogether.

We must do so with boundless energy and unswerving resolution. We do so at this CSW, and when we meet later this year for the Summit of the Future, and again at the sixty-ninth session of this Commission when we will take stock of the 30 years since the Beijing Platform for Action. I urge all of us in this room to seize these opportunities as a chance to recommit, and to scale up our work and our investment in gender equality.

Let me highlight four concrete and achievable priorities as pathways to end women’s and girls’ poverty, for your deliberations:

One, we need inclusive, equitable fiscal pacts. These must address redistribution, progressive taxation, well-targeted investments, increased official development assistance, and properly financed national women’s machineries to lead on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Two, we need high-quality, accessible public services, appropriately tailored to the needs of everyone. This includes quality education for girls, and decent work for women.

Three, we need inclusive, gender-responsive social protection systems with full and equal access and benefits for women and girls living in poverty.

Four, we need to invest in the care economy as a strategy for reducing women’s and girls’ poverty and for building more robust care and green economies.

We can no longer dismiss a gender equality dividend that we need now more than ever.

We cannot cling to excuses that this is too difficult, too expensive, too transgressive of tradition, or too far down our list of priorities. And we cannot in good conscience deny women and girls, in all their diversity, the equality that is their right.

I reiterate my call on International’s Women Day: For all of us to be the light that brings hope and accelerates progress towards an equal, sustainable, and peaceful future for all people, for every woman, and every girl, everywhere. I know that this is within our reach, so let us all push forward together.

To the Delegates and colleagues observing the Holy Month of Ramadan, may it be peaceful, and a time for reflection, and lessened suffering for all women and girls, everywhere.

I thank you and wish us all a very successful CSW68.

Originally published on UN Women