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SG/SM/20223
31 August 2020

From Tackling Climate Crisis to Building Inclusive Economies, World Needs Women’s Voices More Than Ever, Secretary-General Tells Virtual Town Hall

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the Virtual Town Hall with Young Women from Civil Society Organizations, in New York today:

Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.  May I, before starting, say that you have the chance to speak.  Please do not limit yourself to asking questions.  I will be glad to try to answer any question that you ask, but my main interest is to listen to your opinions and your suggestions, your proposals and to the critical aspects that you would like to raise about what we have been doing.  So, please, use this as an opportunity to convey your own positions more than to ask questions, but, of course, I will be glad to try, if I can, to answer whatever question is asked.  But, my main objective is to listen, it is not to talk.

Now, it’s a great pleasure to be here with all of you.  This Townhall on the sidelines of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is a regular fixture in my calendar, and CSW itself is an annual landmark at the United Nations.  This year, unfortunately, it was one of the first events to be postponed in response to COVID-19.  I am glad finally to have the opportunity to meet with women’s civil society and to hear your ideas and concerns.

The COVID-19 pandemic has in the past six months turned our world upside down.  Beyond the virus itself, the response has had a disproportionate and devastating social and economic impact on women and girls.  COVID-19 is deepening existing inequalities, including gender inequality.  Already we are seeing a reversal in decades of limited and fragile progress on gender equality and women’s rights.  And without a concerned response, we risk losing a generation or more of gains.

Since the start, women have been on the front lines of the response, as health‑care workers, teachers, essential staff and as carers in their families and communities.  Between 70 and 90 per cent of health‑care workers are women, but their salaries and conditions often fail to reflect the life‑saving roles they occupy.  Personal protective equipment is often made to fit a standard man, which means women care workers may be at greater risk of infection, and fewer than 30 per cent of decision-making roles in the health sector are occupied by women:  70 to 90 per cent of health‑care workers doing the work, with only 30 per cent in decision-making roles.

In the broader economy, the majority of women around the world are employed informally.  Many have been thrown into financial insecurity by the pandemic, without regular income and lacking any social safety net.

The pandemic has exposed the crisis in unpaid care work, which has increased exponentially as a result of school closures and the needs of older people and falls disproportionately on women.  Before the start of the pandemic, it was clear that care work — unpaid in the home and underpaid in the formal economy — has long been a contributing factor to gender inequality.  Now, the pandemic has exposed the extent of its impact on physical and mental health, education and labour force participation.

There are also disturbing reports from around the world of skyrocketing levels of gender-based violence, as many women are effectively confined with their abusers, while resources and support services are redirected.  In short, the pandemic is exposing and exacerbating the considerable hurdles women face in achieving their rights and fulfilling their potential.

Progress lost may take years, even generations, to recover.  We know from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that when teenage girls leave school, they may never return.  Today, millions of teenage girls around the world are out of school, and there are alarming reports of an increase in teenage pregnancies in some countries.  Each of these issues is a crisis within a crisis.

Protecting the rights of women and girls during this time is a top priority for the United Nations.  We issued a policy brief in early April, calling on Governments to take concrete action to put women and girls — their inclusion, representation, rights, social and economic outcomes and protection — at the centre of all efforts to tackle and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first phase is the health response.  While statistics indicate that women and girls are at lower risk from the COVID-19 virus itself, they are suffering because of the redirection of health funding and services.  It is simply counterproductive, for example, to deprioritize maternal and reproductive health services.  Maternal mortality fell by nearly 40 per cent between 2000 and 2017; we cannot backtrack now, but there are signs that rates are rising again due to the pandemic, particularly in countries in crisis.

Governments must take a holistic view of the health impact of this pandemic.  All women have a right to quality, affordable sexual and reproductive health services.  Governments have a responsibility to make sure women and girls can access these services, even during a crisis.  In the longer term, we need health systems that meet the needs and realities of all, including women and girls.  This means prioritizing and funding primary health care and universal health coverage.

We are also urging Governments to prioritize protecting women from gender‑based violence in their national COVID-19 plans.  At the start of the pandemic, after my call for a global ceasefire, I issued an appeal for an end to all violence everywhere — from war zones to people’s homes — so that we can face this pandemic together, in solidarity.

I was heartened by the response; more than 140 Governments committed to taking action to designate women’s shelters as essential, and to continue and expand online services.  The United Nations stands ready to support these efforts around the world.  We already have a well-established partnership with the European Union, the Spotlight Initiative, which is the largest global platform on ending violence against women and girls.  Through this we stand ready to support countries to uphold their commitments to inclusive peace and security.

The second phase of the response is mitigating the social and economic impact of the crisis.  That starts with putting money into the hands of women who work in both the formal and informal economies.  Cash transfers, credits and loans should be targeted at women, to mitigate the immediate impact of job losses and increased caring responsibilities.

As Governments inject stimulus and other funds to get their economies back to work, they must expand social safety nets and recognize the value of invisible and unpaid care work.  This will address the vulnerabilities women experience, ensure women’s central role in economic life and in the long term, contribute to sustainable development and more inclusive and resilient economies.

The third phase of the response is building a better future.  The pandemic is only demonstrating what we all know:  that millennia of patriarchy have resulted in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture which damages everyone — women, men, girls and boys.  I have many times said that, behind many of the problems I have been talking about, there is an essential question of power.  It is indeed addressing this question of power that we must concentrate all our efforts.

It is clear that we cannot go back to the failed policies that have resulted in the fragility we see around us — in health‑care systems, in social protection, in access to justice.  This is the time to rebuild more equal, inclusive and resilient societies.  Our road map is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

We need to take the opportunity of an economic reset to ensure the rights to life, dignity, and security for everyone.  The pandemic has shown us who is doing the work that really matters:  nurses, teachers, care workers.  As we recover, we need to remember this.  It is time to end the inequities of unpaid care work and create new economic models that work for everyone.  Benefits like health insurance, paid sick leave, paid child and family care and paid parental leave are not luxuries; they are vital to the functioning of our societies.  Extending those inevitably has a gender dimension, because so much of the work women do is underpaid and undervalued.

Recovering better goes beyond Governments.  The private sector, academia, institutions of all kinds and civil society must be fully engaged.  It is essential to protect and expand civic space so that civil society organizations can play their full part.

We must also emerge from this crisis with women’s equal leadership and representation.  The past months have seen a growing recognition in the media and through academic research highlighting what we have known anecdotally for years:  that women leaders are extremely effective.  Women Heads of State, Ministers for Health, health workers and community leaders are winning widespread recognition for their empathy, compassion, communication and evidence-based decision-making.

Their actions are showing the value of inclusivity.  It stands to reason:  doubling the resources, capacity and expertise we put into decision-making benefits everyone.  And yet, less than 8 per cent of Heads of State, less than 25 per cent of parliamentarians and less than 30 per cent of decision-makers on health care are women.  Bias and discrimination are harming us all.  And again, this is essentially a question of power.

That is why I made bringing more women into leadership positions in the United Nations one of my first priorities.  I am proud that we achieved gender parity at the beginning of 2020 with 90 women and 90 men as full-time senior leaders, two years ahead of the target date I had set.  We have a road map in place for gender parity at all levels of the United Nations in the coming years, and I will push hard for its implementation.  We owe this not only to our women staff, but to the people we serve.

Organizations and companies that include equal numbers of women at all levels are more effective, efficient and resilient to sudden shocks.  This is also why I have made temporary special measures a signature issue of my Call to Action on Human Rights.  Unless we use quotas and temporary special measures to remove the biases and obstacles to women’s equal participation, women will never realize their full rights, and societies will never reap the benefits of equality and inclusion.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is at the top of our concerns, we will not be distracted from all our other goals.  This year is an important one for gender equality, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, the twentieth anniversary of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace and security, and the first year of the Decade of Action on the Sustainable Development Goals.

In February, I set out our priorities and agenda in a speech on women and power at the New School here in New York.  We remain determined to advance women’s priorities and to ensure their equal rights and participation in the peace and security agenda, on climate change, on building inclusive economies and on reducing and eliminating the digital divide so that women have an equal role in designing the technologies of the future.

We are going through difficult times, and nobody expects them to end soon.  But I want to reassure you, and through you, women everywhere, that the United Nations stands with you and is working for you every day, around the world.

As we mark our seventy-fifth anniversary, we need your voices and engagement more than ever.  The United Nations is changing, and we count on you to be part of that change.  In the past 75 years, we have seen successive waves of advocacy for human rights and women’s rights.  Today, young women like Nadia Murad and Malala [Yousafzai] are redefining leadership for a new generation.

At a time of growing nationalism and populism, the forces ranged against global solidarity can seem overwhelming.  But, if we are to meet today’s global challenges, from the climate crisis to growing inequality and the digital divide, we must join together, rejecting sexist and ageist stereotypes that prevent women — and men — from realizing our full humanity.  I invite you to join us, and I promise you that we will listen.  Today, as I mentioned in the beginning I am here with the main objective of listening, and I look forward to hearing your views.  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.