Opening Session, Women’s Commission Adopts Political Declaration Reaffirming Commitment to Landmark Document for Achieving Gender Equality

WOM/2204
9 March 2020
Sixty-fourth Session, 2nd Meeting* (AM)

Opening Session, Women’s Commission Adopts Political Declaration Reaffirming Commitment to Landmark Document for Achieving Gender Equality

The Commission on the Status of Women opened its sixty-fourth session today, adopting a political declaration commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which together offer the world’s most progressive blueprint for achieving gender equality.

Operating under extraordinary circumstances ushered in by the coronavirus, participants met for a one-day procedural meeting only, having postponed its general debate and cancelled all side events associated with the annual gathering, which was meant to take place from 9 to 20 March and attract thousands of representatives from Member States and civil society alike.

By the six-page declaration, delegates reaffirmed the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and committed to their implementation.  They welcomed progress made in accelerating their implementation through policy actions at national, regional and global levels, and looked forward to the upcoming General Assembly high-level meeting on 23 September to commemorate the Fourth World Conference on Women.

As well, they expressed concern that overall progress “has not been fast or deep enough”, that it has been uneven in some areas, and that structural barriers, discriminatory practices and the feminization of poverty all persist.  “Twenty-five years after the Fourth World Conference on Women, no country has fully achieved gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls,” they declared.

Also through the text, they firmly committed to tackling existing and emerging challenges in all 12 critical areas — broadly centred on poverty, education, health, violence, armed conflict, the economy, decision-making, institutional mechanisms, human rights, the media, the environment and the girl child — through intensified efforts to implement the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

Despite the day’s greatly scaled-down programme, speakers delivering opening remarks maintained a palpable enthusiasm to carry forward the torch lit 25 years ago in Beijing — perhaps most vocally expressed by Heela Yoon, a young Afghan woman who urged all parties involved in her country’s peace process to remain committed to women’s rights.  “Without women, this peace will be a broken peace,” she cautioned.

Secretary-General António Guterres likewise underscored the imperative of achieving Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality.  Centuries of discrimination, deep-rooted patriarchy and misogyny have created a gender power gap in global economies, political systems and corporations.  “This simply has to change.”

Women in Parliaments are outnumbered three-to-one by men, he said.  Women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts, and unpaid care work remains stubbornly feminized.  In some areas, progress has gone into reverse amid a rolling back of laws to protect women from violence, and increased use of biased economic and immigration policies.  With the vision of Beijing only partly realized, “we must push back against the pushback”, he said.

On that point, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women), said women of the world are “radically impatient” for action that improves their lives.  Younger women do not want to go through the experiences of their elders, while the elders are tired of waiting.

Drawing attention to the Secretary-General’s report on the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the outcomes of the twenty-third special session of the General Assembly, she said 131 countries have enacted 274 legal and regulatory reforms in critical areas.  More girls are in school than ever before, while girls’ leadership is strong in climate activism.  These solutions must have money behind them and be delivered to those who have not yet benefited from progress.

Economic and Social Council President Mona Juul recalled that the Commission on the Status of Women was among the first subsidiary bodies created by the Council in 1946.  “Your efforts remain as fundamental as when the Commission was created nearly 75 years ago,” she said.  General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande meanwhile pressed the international community to create cultures of respect.  “We must teach our sons and daughters that every individual, regardless of gender, is entitled to be treated with equal dignity and respect.”

Anita Nayar, Director of Regions Refocus, said women are at the forefront of interlocking movements for justice — from food security to climate rights.  She urged the Commission to ensure meaningful participation from Governments as well as civil society.

Commission Chair Mher Margaryan meanwhile said the political declaration reflects the common political will to deliver on the Beijing Platform for Action — and importantly outlines areas that will guide the body’s work.  “We are called on to recommit to gender equality and women’s empowerment,” he said.  The best way to mark its twenty-fifth anniversary is by working to achieve results.

At the outset, the Commission elected as Vice-Chairs Devita Abraham (Trinidad and Tobago), Ahlem Sara Charikhi (Algeria) and Zahraa M. Salih Mahdi Nassrullah (Iraq), who will also serve as Rapporteur for the sixty-fourth session.  The Commission also appointed Zebib Gebrekidan (Eritrea) and Mohammed Essam M. Khashaan (Saudi Arabia) to the Working Group on Communications during the sixty-fourth session, and Michael Baruch Baror (Israel) to serve on the Working Group during the sixty-fourth and sixty-fifth sessions.  It also adopted its provisional agenda (document E/CN.6/2020/1) and revised organization of work for the sixty-fourth session (document E/CN.6/2020/1/Add.1/Rev.1).

The Commission on the Status of Women will reconvene at a time and date to be announced.

Opening Remarks

MHER MARGARYAN (Armenia), Chair, Commission on the Status of Women, said more than 100 Governments and thousands of civil society and youth representatives were expected to come to New York to participate in the sixty-fourth session, however the intergovernmental body had to scale down the meeting, due to the coronavirus.  “Clearly, we are all disappointed,” he said.  But this cannot affect the determination to advance the gender equality agenda nor the review of the 12 critical areas of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, underscoring the achievements and challenges for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

The best way to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary is by working to achieve results, he said:  by ending discriminatory laws and practices; enhancing access to education and economic opportunity; and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms for creating more equal, just and harmonious societies.  Thanking those Governments that prepared national reports, outlining progress achieved and the challenges that countries around the world continue to face, he said all five regional commissions likewise have identified current trends and key actions for moving forward.  The political declaration, the product of hard work by Member States and all stakeholders, reflects the common political will to deliver on the Beijing Platform for Action, acknowledges the existing and new challenges on the way to achieving gender equality; and highlights critical actions for addressing the gaps.  It also outlines areas that will guide the Commission’s work.  “We are called on to recommit to gender equality and women’s empowerment,” he assured.

ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said he is truly saddened that extraordinary circumstances ushered in by the coronavirus caused a postponement of the Commission’s sixty-fourth session.  Activists and women’s groups around world share the disappointment but can hopefully take heart that “we all understand the imperative of achieving Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality”.  “This is quite simply a question of justice,” he said, recalling that when he led the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, he always was compelled to fight for justice and human rights.  At the end of the day, gender inequality is fundamentally a question of power.  “We still live in a male dominated world, with a male dominated culture,” he said.  “This simply has to change.”

Recalling that the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action together define the global agenda, he said that with nations seeking solutions to complex challenges, one way to get on track towards fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals is to accelerate action on the Platform for Action.  While a new generation of activists are taking forward its spirit of constructive action and fearless resilience, women in Parliament are still outnumbered 3 to 1 by men and women around the world earn 75 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.  Unpaid care work remains stubbornly feminized.  Some countries have rolled back laws protecting women from violence, while others have reduced civic space.  Access to sexual and reproductive health services is far from universal.  “We must push back, against the push back,” he insisted.

Diverse women’s movements are calling for urgent systemic change, he said, demanding accountability from Governments and other powerful actors and forging teams across boundaries to show that women’s rights are linked to social, environmental and economic justice for all.  For example, young women’s activism for environmental justice in Africa has spotlighted extractive industry practices and patterns of unsustainable consumption and production.  “Now is the time to build alliances and stand together for women’s rights,” he declared.  For its part, the United Nations is determined to lead by example and in January, achieved gender equality among its full-time senior leaders — two years ahead of the target set when he assumed his role as Secretary-General.  It also developed a road map for gender parity, recognizing the equal rights of women staff and the interest in changing power relations within the Organization.  He encouraged the sixty-fourth session to focus on what unites, using the Beijing Platform for Action to its fullest to send a clear message that gender equality is central to all Sustainable Development Goals.

MONA JUUL (Norway), President of the Economic and Social Council, speaking to the stark contrast in the opening of the sixty-fourth session from years past, said that throughout the United Nations, “we miss the energy, courage and voices from the diverse global women’s movement.”  While the circumstances of the meeting may have changed, its purpose remains critical:  to mark a milestone and recommit to achieving gender equality and the full empowerment of women and girls.  Since 1995, the Platform for Action has inspired the work of Governments and other stakeholders in promoting rights of females, and in ending all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls, everywhere.  But the task remains unfinished.  It is a core commitment of the Economic and Social Council to advance the gender-responsive implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and a clear priority area as the world embarks on the Decade of Action to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Recalling that the Commission on the Status of Women was among the first subsidiary bodies created by the Economic and Social Council in 1946, she said that today it has undoubtedly become the highest profile part of its work.  “Your efforts remain as fundamental as when the Commission was created nearly 75 years ago,” she said.  The political declaration is a strong reaffirmation of commitment to the full, effective and accelerated implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, seeking to strengthen collective efforts towards gender equality, the empowerment of women and full realization of human rights for women and girls.  While the session has been scaled down, “the fight for women’s and girls’ rights persists,” she assured.  “As Governments, we must stand together with civil society across the world to speak up for women and girls and protect those who defend their rights.”  The Council is fully committed to completing the unfinished business of securing equal civil, political, economic and social rights for women and girls, everywhere.

TIJJANI MUHAMMAD-BANDE (Nigeria), President of the General Assembly, expressing regret about the public health concerns that were diminishing the typical vibrancy associated with the Commission’s meetings, said that change has been slow for most women and girls in the world.  Mainstreaming gender equality is critical for the achievement of all Sustainable Development Goals.  The most existential threat facing the international community, climate change, has a disproportionate effect on the most marginalized women and girls.  Highlighting indigenous women who are spearheading climate action in their communities and youth activists such as Greta Thunberg, he said that women advocates, entrepreneurs and policymakers are essential to safeguard the world.

Calling on schools to meet the needs of all students, particularly girls, he said that academic achievements do not guarantee women’s economic empowerment.  Women take on three times more unpaid work than men, and the majority of jobs which will be automated in the future are currently undertaken by females.  Further, women’s rights are imperative to ensuring peaceful, inclusive and democratic societies.  Voicing concern that in September 2019, “only 16 of 192 speakers in the general debate were women”, he added, “this is not demonstrative of the United Nations we need”.  The international community must create cultures of respect, he said, adding that “we must teach our sons and daughters that every individual, regardless of gender, is entitled to be treated with equal dignity and respect.”

ANITA NAYAR, Director of Regions Refocus, said the insidious coronavirus crisis forces the international community to confront the inequalities of the current economic model and health-care systems underpinned by profiteering rather than common good.  It further highlights how women and girls bear the disproportionate burden of care work, while also revealing “our profound interconnectedness and the hollow nature of borders”, she said.  Commending the progress made since the 1995 Beijing conference, she stressed that women’s movements from the Global South have shaped the progressive values that have come out of the United Nations.  While feminist advocacy for reproductive health and other women’s rights have led to important policies, feminist analysis has revealed why neoliberalism is incompatible with women’s rights.

Despite these efforts, she added, neoliberalism has reasserted itself by undermining democracy and transparency.  Global economic governance institutions are co-opting the language of feminist movements to repackage existing institutions, as shown by the continued privatization of social security services.  The corporate capture of multilateral spaces as Governments become further intertwined with the private sector is exacerbating the climate crisis and inequality between countries.  “We are living in what promises to be a permanent state of crisis,” she said, noting that women are again at the forefront of interlocking movements for justice, from food security to climate rights.  Calling for long-term and flexible funding, especially in the global South, she said the Commission must ensure meaningful international participation from Governments as well as civil society.

HEELA YOON, youth representative, said that despite progress in the implementation of various international frameworks, women and girls’ contribution to peace and human rights often goes unrecognized.  As a representative of young Afghan women advocating for peace and human rights in grassroots communities, she said, she believed it impossible to prevent armed conflict without addressing its gender impact.  Shouldering domestic burdens and experiencing discrimination, Afghan women and girls, like their counterparts around the world, face significant barriers to political participation, she said.

Many women in Afghanistan, she added, also face significant challenges in economic, household and community decision-making.  While highlighting the prevalence of psychological and physical abuse, as well as the problem of early marriages, she said that young women are dispelling the narrative of females as victims by advocating for gender equality.  In the absence of formal mechanisms, young women have forged their own avenues for progressive social transformation and “taking ownership of our own bodies”, she said.  Urging all parties involved in the Afghan peace process to remain committed to human rights and women’s rights, she cautioned:  “Without women, this peace will be a broken peace.”

PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA, Under-Secretary-General for Gender Equality and Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women), said the Platform for Action adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing is the United Nations greatest contribution to the advancement of women’s rights as human rights.  Voicing regret at the absence of many voices because of public health concerns, she said this challenge will inspire the Commission to make every effort to use new technology to connect virtually.  Noting that 2020 marks not only marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action but also the tenth birthday of UN-Women, she stressed, “women of the world are radically impatient for action that improves their lives.”

Younger women, she added, do not want to go through the experiences of their elders while the elders are tired of waiting.  Drawing attention to the Secretary-General’s report on the review and appraisal of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the outcomes of the twenty-third special session of the General Assembly, she noted that 131 countries have enacted 274 legal and regulatory reforms in critical areas.  More girls are in school than ever before while girls’ leadership is strong in climate activism and many other areas.  Quotas are working to bring more women into parliaments, she said, while paternity leave is making some headway.

Calling on the international community to bring these solutions to those who have not yet benefited from progress, she stressed that every solution has to have money behind it.  Across the board, the percentage of development resources devoted specifically to gender equality remains on average less than 5 per cent.  Half a billion women across the world are illiterate, she pointed out, adding that 740 million women are stuck in the informal economy.  “We have created a world where women are squeezed into just 25 per cent of the space both in decision-making rooms and in the stories that we tell about our lives,” she said.  Noting that the wave of change in the world is being led by young people, she said that they and civil society are at the heart of the UN-Women campaign “Generation Equality”.

Action

The Commission then adopted the “Political declaration on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women” (document E/CN.6/2020/L.1), to a burst of applause.

The representative of Canada said the coronavirus should serve as a reminder that, in times of crisis, women and girls are often the first to be left behind.  Describing the outbreak as a collective test to see if Governments can make the political declaration a reality, he urged a focus on how the United Nations will work with others to alleviate the impact from the virus that will materialize for women, and drew particular attention to women in small island developing States, who depend on tourism.  “Let’s make sure our actions are quick and significant,” he said, in line with the political declaration.

The representative of Namibia said women’s voices are critical to better dialogue, better policies and more equitable peace deals.  Stressing that “1325 is much more than a number”, he called Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) a watershed political framework demonstrating women’s essential role in peace agreements, peacekeeping operations and in rebuilding war-torn societies.  He expressed disappointment over the difficulties in achieving consensus on the political declaration.  The Security Council has an obligation to fulfil the women, peace and security agenda, but that agenda has transcended the 15-member organ and finds its pace in the work of various United Nations bodies.  The political declaration should not have been a contentious one, he lamented.

The representative of the United States said the political declaration is not perfect, but it largely captures her country’s priorities.  The United States is committed to ensuring that all women can hold and lead from official and unofficial seats of power, which is why her delegation strongly supported the passage of resolution 1325 (2000).  While that text is not mentioned in the declaration, she noted that important anniversary.  Civil society is an important partner and the United States will continue to press for recognition of these partners in future declarations.

The representative of Ecuador recalled the progress made in developing rules and rights for women around sexual and reproductive health and rights, based on the rights enshrined in the Beijing Declaration and Programme of Action.  He drew attention to regressive tendencies around human rights and the adoption of prejudicial laws that undermine progress achieved in gender equality.  What was achieved in Beijing should be used as a baseline.  However, when negotiating the political declaration, basic rights were overlooked, he said, which is regrettable.

The representative of Israel said the political declaration should have been adopted at the highest level and with the participation of civil society.  Stressing that the shortened gathering today should serve as a reminder of the difference between “where we would like to be — and where we really are”, he said there is a long way to go to ensure that women and girls can equally participate in society.  Twenty-five years after Beijing, “we are not where we should have been”, he said, citing limited participation by civil society in the sixty-fourth session.

The representative of South Africa pointed to his country’s adoption of progressive legislation concerning women’s rights in the years after the abolition of apartheid.  The political declaration should have given more expression to a collective commitment to the sexual and reproductive rights of women, he said, adding that it is also vital to recognize their important role in peace and security.

The representative of Argentina, speaking on behalf of the group of Latin American and Caribbean countries that adopted the Santiago Consensus, said that the Beijing Declaration sets out clear guidelines for women’s empowerment.  The member States of his group had come up with a wide range of proposals which presented language on issues of high priority, including violence against women and access to justice.  The group also showed flexibility during the negotiation process, he added.

The representative of Switzerland, also speaking on behalf of Iceland, Lichtenstein, New Zealand, and Norway, said the current declaration acknowledges that women’s rights are human rights while also highlighting the interlinkages between gender equality and sustainable development.  Regretting that delegates could not reach an agreement to honour the women, peace and security agenda in the document, he also lamented the lack of a reference to the work of human rights defenders, despite their important contributions.  Further, the consensus on the important issue of sexual and reproductive rights could not be maintained.

A representative of the European Union delegation said that while today is a celebration, it is no time to be complacent.  For the Union, it was important that the declaration recognize the link between gender equality and peace and security and vice versa, he said, adding that there cannot be selectivity when upholding rights.  The bloc also reaffirms its commitment to the promotion and protection of the right of every individual to have full control over and decide freely on matters related to their sexuality and sexual and reproductive health, free from discrimination and violence, he stressed.

The representative of Iran said his country was involved in all Beijing Declaration and Programme of Action preparations, negotiations, implementation and reviews, including the current one.  While welcoming the constructive approach taken during the negotiations by facilitators, he said some of Iran’s concerns over the effects of unilateral coercive measures, including on women, were regretfully not taken on board.  It is unfortunate that the negative impact of such measures on human rights, development, international relations, trade, investment and on women have been overlooked in the final text.

The representative of Mexico said her country would have wished to have seen more clear-cut language in the political declaration on the problems facing women and girls in their diversity.  A priority for Mexico was to have a reference to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and about the need to uphold the right to bodily autonomy responsibly, as was done 25 years ago.  Regrettably, there is still push-back on this issue.  She also expressed disappointment that the political declaration does not refer to the Generation Equality Forum.

An observer for the Holy See said that from the outset, his delegation underscored the need for the political declaration to be adopted by consensus.  Today’s action is indeed a meaningful and great achievement.  Yet, he expressed regret that the declaration does not refer to the family nor policies for its support.  Women are critical change agents in society — and so too in the family as primary caregivers.  Recognition of this point requires adequate policies for an approach to balanced work and family life.  Such recognition cannot be considered controversial, he said, stressing that human rights must be recognized as universal and indivisible, and that the Holy See understands the term “gender” as grounded in biological sexual identity.

The representative of Uruguay, associating with the group of Latin American and Caribbean countries that adopted the Santiago Consensus, reiterated deep concern over obstacles to progress on the human rights agenda for all women and children, particularly the strong trend of pushing back on agreed language around sexual and reproductive health and rights, gainsaying concepts that had been defined by the international community and achieved through delicate balances among various positions.  He cited the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in that context, noting also that under the 2030 Agenda, Governments pledged to guarantee universal access to sexual health and services.  “This must be a priority for everyone,” he said, underscoring that Uruguay would have liked to have seen a reference to resolution 13235 (2000) on women, peace and security in the political declaration.

The representative of Kenya, welcoming the political declaration, said it will help promote women’s empowerment and advance gender equality around the world.  He noted that the Beijing Declaration was an unprecedented step in addressing gender equality in 1995.

The representative of Argentina, taking the floor a second time, noted that he is also speaking on behalf of the Argentine women in his delegation who could not travel because of the coronavirus outbreak.  The proposals made by the Santiago Consensus countries were based on the imperative need to stress the eradication of gender violence and strengthen the basic guarantees of comprehensive sexual and reproductive rights.  Voicing disappointment that the text has no explicit reference to those rights, which is a priority for the feminist movement and already accepted in the international human rights agenda, he expressed regret that the current meeting has a scaled-back agenda and lacks the representation of State officials who are involved in the design of policies and the civil society organizations that have a track record in advocacy.

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*  The 1st Meeting was covered in Press Release WOM/2179 of 22 March 2019.

For information media. Not an official record.