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UN women: four steps toward equality

by Barbara Consarino

The world one year into the pandemic, seen through the eyes of the women who have borne the burden of the disease and its health, economic, legal, and demographic consequences; two weeks of seminars, online meetings, speeches, and exchanges of experiences, from New York to the whole world, during the 65th session of the United Nations Commission, UN Women, on the Status of Women. An unusual session, held remotely because of the virus, that nevertheless, once again, demonstrated the courage, creativity, and adaptability of women everywhere. Women ministers, parliamentarians, representatives of hundreds of NGOs, and secular and religious organizations spoke of the unprecedented experience of a terrible year, proposed solutions, and put demands forward.

At the end of the gathering, the Agreed Conclusions recognize that the Covid 19 pandemic is aggravating pre-existing gender inequalities and perpetuating multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination: women have seen jobs vanish, family duties and responsibilities intensify, and, with the imposed confinement measures, domestic violence increase. Millions of them suddenly found themselves in poverty, with no external resources to turn to, no rights, and, in the most disadvantaged areas of the world, with the prospect of arranged marriages to escape poverty. When they worked in health facilities, women got sick more than their male colleagues: this happened in Europe and the United States as well. But they are also the least represented in scientific government task forces: only 24 percent, according to research fielded by the UN and the University of Pittsburgh, which examined 225 experts across 137 countries, also discovering that women were not even present in 26 of these.

Flyer of the CSW65 event, Women in Public Life – Participation in decision-making, 15-26 march 2021.

Acknowledging the inequalities that the pandemic has increasingly exposed, four essential points to work on were recognized: changing laws and policies that discriminate against women and hinder their equal participation in public life; adopting innovative measures to promote women as executives, leaders, and managers, in all areas; setting targets and timelines to achieve gender balance through measures such as quotas, appointments, or training programs; encouraging political parties to nominate as many women as men candidates and promote equal leadership in their structures. But these are just the starting lines: young women, who, however, enthusiastically participated in the session, are particularly underrepresented in public life. It was calculated that women under 30 years of age make up less than 1 percent of parliamentarians globally. The commission agreed on the need to provide young women with concrete and targeted help in the forms of support in education, mentorship programs, and access to technologies so that they are not excluded from important decision-making processes.

The UN women’s commission addressed topics such as climate change and environmental issues. After the hoped-for defeat of Covid 19, these issues will have to be approached with different eyes and mindsets. The Under- Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, said: “We currently confront the two biggest challenges of our generation: the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, and the unfolding climate change crisis. In both, women are disproportionately affected. And in neither, are women appropriately represented as negotiators and policy makers. 

In a recent survey of COVID-19 task forces we found that less than 5 per cent of those task forces had gender parity in the composition of their membership. This gives men the self-imposed, impossible task of making the right decisions about women without the benefit of women’s insights. This needs to be set right without delay or we stand to lose. This year in November there is the UN Climate Change Conference. It is more important than ever that we get this right, starting with delegations that are going to be participating in that important gathering, some of which currently do not include women.”

Another priority theme is violence against women in the public or private sphere, a true “shadow pandemic.” Greater attention on the judicial level is recommended, but so are practical measures such as psychosocial support for victims, affordable housing solutions, and, especially, the salvation that comes with work. Many voices have been raised worldwide asking for the full funding of the grassroots organizations that in 2020 have seen an exponential increase in help requests from women. At such a difficult time, the Turkish government’s decision to withdraw from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention, has also raised much concern. About 300 women are killed in Turkey every year. UN Women reiterated the considerations expressed by the United Nations and other partners and asked Erdogan to reconsider the decision. However, one thing is sure, nothing can be the same as before: “Women need to be front and center of the recovery from the pandemic – said the Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres – not as a matter of charity, not even as a matter of justice and basic human rights, but as a matter of economics; of efficiency and effectiveness; of social and community resilience.”

Three Moldovan mayors’ stories also demonstrated a similar strength: three young women have challenged gender stereotypes showing reactive leadership during an epochal crisis. In their respective cities and with few resources, Elena Neaga, Tatiana Galateanu, and Maria Galit managed to keep the virus at bay by choosing to take concrete and shared actions in a sort of rapid democracy. Now they enjoy the trust and support of the fellow citizens who had elected them, perhaps a little reluctantly. Small signs of possible change.

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