UN Headquarters

16 March 2021

Remarks at Town Hall with Civil Society during the 65th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women 

António Guterres

Secretary-General António Guterres holds a virtual townhall meeting with Women's Civil Society participants during the Commission on the Status of Women. UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Women need to be front and centre of the recovery from the pandemic…as a matter of economics; of efficiency and effectiveness; of social and community resilience,

Dear friends. Good morning, good afternoon, good evening.

It is a great pleasure to join you today. My priority is not to answer questions, it is to listen; to hear your opinions, to hear your suggestions; and of course, to be able to incorporate them in our thinking and policies.

But first, please allow me to say a few words about the past year and what it has meant for progress on women’s rights and gender equality.

We are seeing new evidence almost every day that the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for women’s rights – and particularly the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalized: poor women, women working in the informal economy, and indigenous women.  

According to the World Bank, women in Latin America and the Caribbean were 44 percent more likely than men to lose their jobs at the onset of the crisis.

UNICEF reported last week that up to ten million more girls are at risk of becoming child brides as a result of the pandemic.

Gender-based violence was an emergency even before COVID.

In the past year, as many women have been trapped at home with their abusers, and others have been subjected to online abuse and harassment, it has become a shadow pandemic that will continue well after COVID is over.

School closures and overburdened elder and healthcare services have laid bare the hidden cost of the care economy on women, and the inequalities this perpetuates.

An estimated 12 million women were unable to access sexual and reproductive health services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with disruption of supplies and services lasting an average of 3 and a half months.

Despite these serious setbacks to gender equality and women’s rights, there is a huge gender gap in the task forces and panels that are supposed to be building the recovery.
There is simply no excuse for this.

Male-dominated teams will come up with male-dominated solutions.

We cannot go back to the failed man-made policies that have resulted in the fragility we see around us – in healthcare systems, in social protection, in access to justice, and in the wellbeing of our planet.

We need to take the opportunity of a reset, based on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to ensure that everyone enjoys the right to life, dignity, and security on a healthy planet. 

And we need to localize the Sustainable Development Goals, working with you, our civil society partners, to deliver real change on the ground.

The Spotlight Initiative to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls can also provide a new model for such partnerships with both national governments and civil society. Civil society is involved in its design, implementation, monitoring and decision-making at all levels. 

The Spotlight Initiative is working towards the goal of making most of its investments in local civil society groups.

Dear civil society representatives,

Women need to be front and centre of the recovery from the pandemic – not as a matter of charity, not even as a matter of justice and basic human rights – although this is true – but as a matter of economics; of efficiency and effectiveness; of social and community resilience.

Women’s full representation and leadership are a prerequisite for making the best use of all our resources.  Women have proven this once again during the pandemic.

Women essential and frontline workers, including health workers, have kept institutions, communities and societies afloat.

Women leaders have won widespread praise for making decisions based on science, demonstrating their sound judgment and foresight leading their countries. In many cases, the results speak for themselves in lives saved and jobs protected. 

Gender equality is a question of power. We still live in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture.

A few women leaders are not enough. It is when we have many women in power that we transform power itself.

I have always been committed to women’s equal participation.

When I was sworn in as Secretary-General, I made clear I was determined to bring equal numbers of women into senior leadership positions – which we achieved ahead of schedule last year.

We are now pushing for parity at all levels, in line with my strategy for UN reform.

My Call to Action on Human Rights is mobilizing the United Nations system around the use of temporary special measures and quotas to support women’s equal representation and participation.

Looking forward, our proposals for a reinvigorated multilateralism, Our Common Agenda, will be founded on gender equality. Women and girls will be central to all our future planning.

We need a more inclusive, networked multilateralism that recognizes the strength that comes through diversity. We cannot talk about inclusive multilateralism without including half the world’s population.

Dear friends,

The COVID crisis has created an opportunity we must seize. We must reignite the Decade of Action for the Sustainable Development Goals, and chart a path to more equal, just, inclusive, sustainable economies and societies.

I am calling on leaders in all sectors to step up and take five transformative actions, to build women’s representation, participation and leadership.

First, realize women’s equal rights by repealing all discriminatory laws and enacting positive measures.

Second, take concrete steps, including special measures like quotas, so that women have equal representation everywhere: on company boards, in the media, at academic institutions, and in parliaments and governments.

Third, support women’s economic inclusion by enabling them to join and remain in the workforce in decent jobs with equal pay and a living wage.

Protect their jobs in both the formal and informal sectors; give them equal access to credit; and invest in the care economy and social protection.

Fourth, I am calling on all countries to address violence against women and girls through emergency plans, backed by funding, policies, and political will.

Fifth, make space for the intergenerational transition that is underway. Seek out and support the young women leaders who are advocating everywhere for a more just and equal world.

The upcoming Generation Equality Forum, convened by UN Women and co-hosted by the governments of Mexico and France, will be an important opportunity to advance this agenda.

Governments, corporations, civil society, young people and change makers from all sectors will come together, to define and announce ambitious investments and policies.

And financing is essential.

I look forward to participating, and I am confident many of you here today will play a major part in its success.

Dear activists and friends,

In the past year, the United Nations has placed women at the centre of our own COVID-19 response and recovery.

We undertook one of the first assessments of the impact of the pandemic on women globally.

My call for a global ceasefire was supported by women peacebuilders around the world.

I then reiterated and expanded the call into an appeal for an end to all violence everywhere – including at home.

In response to the alarming increase in violence against women and girls, the United Nations has repeatedly urged authorities to keep shelters open and to move services online.

We have stressed that sexual and reproductive health services are essential and must be fully operational and accessible, even in a pandemic.  

Our COVID response fund has earmarked resources for gender-sensitive programming.

And I convened eminent women economists to brainstorm new approaches and solutions to address the impact of the pandemic on trade, financial flows, and the jobs that we need for a sustainable recovery.

Around the world, we advocated with Member States to ensure that women entrepreneurs are targeted in stimulus packages; that women working in the informal economy can access social protection; that recovery packages include greater investment in the care economy.

Because, as the founding director of UNIFEM, Peg Snyder, once wrote: “Raising women’s economic independence has a transforming potential for women, their families and their countries.”

I was sorry to learn that Ms. Snyder passed away recently, and am glad to have the opportunity with you to recognize her ground-breaking work. 

Dear activists and friends,

After a difficult year, there are now signs of hope, thanks to the vaccines that have been developed in record time.

But we should not talk of getting “back to normal”. It has become clearer than ever that what was considered normal was often discriminatory, unjust and unsustainable. 

You are at the vanguard of the movement towards a safer, fairer, more inclusive and equal world.

The United Nations stands with you, today and every day.

We will continue to work closely with you as we emerge from the pandemic and reignite the Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Thank you, and now I look forward to listening to your ideas, to your suggestions, to your proposals, and even to your criticisms of what we are doing, because they are absolutely essential for us to make sure that we do the right thing.

Thank you very much.