Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks for the International Women’s Day observance “I Am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights”, in New York, today:
I wish you all the best for International Women’s Day on Sunday.
Gender inequality is the overwhelming injustice of our age and the biggest human rights challenge we face.
I have said it before, and I will say it again: gender equality is a question of power. Men have used and abused power to control women and prevent them from achieving their potential for millennia. Deep-rooted patriarchy and misogyny have created a yawning gender power gap in our economies, our political systems, our corporations, our societies and our culture. Women are still very frequently denied a voice; their opinions are ignored and their experience discounted.
In recent months, there have been plenty of examples. High-profile peace agreements have been signed without any women at the table. Emergency health-care meetings on the new coronavirus were convened with few or no women.
But women need peace, and contribute to peace, just as much as men — maybe more. Women are as vulnerable to illness as men and they make up the majority of the health-care workforce. There is no justification for women’s continued exclusion.
In recent years, I have seen a change. Women have had enough. They are protesting against femicide — the killing of women — in the streets; they are on strike for equal pay and conditions; they are calling out powerful men for violence and abuse.
Young women are redefining what power looks like. They are creating new, inclusive forms of leadership that unite people across borders and around common goals. I welcome some of these young leaders here today. Thank you for your activism and your advocacy. Please keep up the pressure. Please hold the world to account. We need your passion and conviction as we face a whole range of global challenges, from climate change to conflict.
Generation Equality cannot be Generation Gradual Improvement or Generation Incremental Change. Generation Equality means equal rights and opportunities for all women and girls, now. That is why I am determined to achieve gender parity at all levels at the United Nations, and I am pleased that we have done so at senior levels two years ahead of schedule.
Without women’s leadership and full participation, we will never achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development or defeat climate change. Women, particularly young women, are leaders on climate action. But I was not aware until recently that one of the “founding fathers” of climate science was a woman — a “founding mother”.
In 1856, Eunice Foote, an American scientist and women’s rights campaigner, believed changes in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could affect the Earth’s temperature. She conducted an experiment with glass cylinders and thermometers to prove it. Her paper was presented at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science — by a man.
Three years later, another man published his own research on heat-trapping gases which is considered the foundation of climate science. It started with a woman, but it was covered.
Gender equality means finding and honouring women whose achievements were erased and ignored in their own time. Women like Eunice Foote. Women like Katherine Johnson and her colleagues who worked for NASA on the Apollo moon landings, whose story was told in the book and film Hidden Figures. Women like Tu Youyou, who turned to traditional Chinese medicine to look for a cure for malaria in the 1970s. Her discoveries saved millions of lives around the world and were finally recognized with a Nobel prize in 2015.
Women’s stories matter. Representation matters. As Simone de Beauvoir said: “Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men: they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.”
When I was a child, in many places, women were legally dependents of their husbands; they could not open a bank account or own property in their own name; and they were completely excluded from all positions of power. The change we have seen in my lifetime shows that progress is real, and possible.
But it has also led to a pushback. Twenty-five years after the Beijing conference, progress on women’s rights has stalled and even reversed. Some countries have rolled back laws that protect women from violence; others are reducing civic space; still others are pursuing economic and immigration policies that indirectly discriminate against women.
Women’s autonomy, including full access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, is far from universal. Bias against gender equality is growing in some countries. The first gender social norm index, published this week by the United Nations Development Programme, found that almost 90 per cent of people, including women, interviewed across 75 countries have “at least one clear bias against gender equality in areas such as politics, economics, education, intimate partner violence and women’s reproductive rights”. Almost 30 per cent of people in the world think today that it is acceptable for a man to beat his partner.
We must push back against the pushback. We cannot give way; we refuse to lose the ground we have won. It is more important than ever for men to stand up for women’s rights and gender equality.
That is why I am a proud feminist. And why I am personally committed to increasing support for women’s rights across the board at the United Nations. In the next two years, I will do everything in my power to make sure women are represented in all decision-making at the United Nations, including in peace processes.
Only through the equal participation of women can we benefit from the intelligence, experience and insights of all of humanity.