Following are UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ remarks at the opening of the exhibition Women at War, in New York today:
Thank you for inviting me to open this exhibit on the role of women in the Second World War. The events of [the Second World War] marked a turning point in so many ways. The desire to avoid any recurrence of that horror led to the formation of our United Nations, followed by an unprecedented period of relative peace and increased prosperity based on an acceptance of the need for a multilateral world based on international law.
And for many women, the invaluable role they played in the midst of widespread suffering was also a significant step on the march to emancipation and empowerment. That is the subject of this exhibit — a potent demonstration that history is “her story”, too.
While the focus here is on the countries of the former Soviet Union, it reflects a trend that was common among almost all the countries embroiled in this terrible episode in human history.
Women’s contribution to the war effort was no longer confined to traditional roles, such as nursing. Instead, we see women working in factories, driving trucks and providing medical assistance behind and on the front lines. Some women went further, operating anti-aircraft batteries and flying combat missions.
This exhibition is testament to their courage and their indispensable contribution. It says to me what we should all know in our hearts and minds that women can do and can be anything. They are equal in rights and in their capacity to improve our societies.
Yet, we all know that there is still a stark imbalance of power around the world, and we are even seeing a backlash in some areas against women’s rights. That is why we have Sustainable Development Goal 5 on equality and empowerment for women and girls.
We will not achieve peace or any of our goals without the full and equal participation of women. This exhibit shows that women’s roles need never be closely confined. But, the sad fact is that, with the end of conflict, women have been quickly encouraged or compelled to revert to traditional roles.
It is essential, now, that women in all societies can claim the space to contribute — in the political arena, at the top echelons of business, and in forging and keeping peace.
I take this issue extremely seriously. And what we advocate for others, we must do ourselves. That is why I launched my Strategy on Gender Parity in 2017. With that Strategy, the United Nations has embarked on an ambitious and essential system-wide effort to enhance women’s representation at all levels and in all arenas.
I am proud to report that we are making good progress. Last year, we achieved parity in my Senior Management Group, and now, among our resident coordinators — our top officials on the ground. We also have the most female heads and deputy heads of peace operations in UN history, to a certain extent making us remember the role women played in [the Second World War]. And we are working to increase the number of women in peacekeeping — both civilian and uniformed.
This is not just a question of numbers, but also of our effectiveness in fulfilling our mandates. Just as women were indispensable to the war effort some eight decades ago, all their talents and leadership are essential to our current battle to build a new world of peace, prosperity, dignity and opportunity for all on a healthy planet. Thank you.