“The gender digital divide is fast becoming the new face of gender inequality,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres during a town hall with women’s civil society held on Monday, 13 March, during the 67th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women.
The event, moderated by UN Women Executive Director Sima Bahous, gave women advocates from around the world—some veteran activists, some youth and adolescent leaders—the chance to voice key concerns surrounding women’s rights in the digital era.
In his opening remarks, the Secretary-General highlighted technology’s role in the current global pushback on gender equality: “The male chauvinist domination of new technologies is undoing decades of progress on women’s rights,” he said. After more than 100 years of progress, “technology is now reversing that trend. It is concentrating power again more in the hands of men—to the detriment of all.”
In line with that message, civil society members raised a wide range of issues related to technological advancement and growing global inequalities. Woven throughout were the recurring themes of the digital gender gap, the proliferation of gender-based violence and the exclusion of women and girls from decision-making spaces.
Many advocates were also ready with proposed solutions to the problems they named. Alison Brown, president of the International Alliance of Women, raised the idea of a neutral global internet to help protect human rights and promote women’s access to online spaces.
“One global free internet for everybody” is a key objective of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, the Secretary-General emphasized, also stressing the importance of increased digital literacy and online governance: “We need to have some mechanism that creates guardrails that do not put into question freedom of expression but protect namely women from the kinds of vicious harassment and bullying that we are now seeing on the internet,” he said.
Eleanor Nwadinobi, President of the Medical Women’s International Association, tied the issue of violence against women and girls to the COVID-19 pandemic and wider global health concerns, saying: “The time has come for us to stop putting in silos the different issues that affect women and girls, including cyber violence.” Linda Wilson, a delegate of the Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, echoed this call, emphasizing the offline impacts of technology-facilitated gender-based violence and asking the Secretary-General’s advice on how to make governments more accountable on the issue.
Merem Tahar, a representative of the organization Les Femmes de la Diaspora Tchadienne and a member of the indigenous GÂ people of northern Chad, advocated as well for the inclusion of indigenous voices in decision-making spaces. “Don’t forget minorities and young people in your decisions,” she emphasized.
Reiterating his commitment to eliminating gender-based violence in all its forms, Secretary-General Guterres highlighted his proposal for a Global Digital Compact, one objective of which is to establish institutional mechanisms to protect women and girls online. Input from civil society will be crucial to the Compact, which is set to be approved at the 2024 Summit for the Future.
In the wider context of civil society engagement, several youth leaders raised the question of youth representation within the United Nations. “What will it take for the United Nations to look to [adolescent girls and young women] as decision-makers and policy developers?” asked Prabhleen Tuteja, Executive Director of the YP Foundation. Moroccan gender activist Rania Harrara tied the problem directly to the issue of digital access, saying: “Meaningful youth engagement is about digital access, digital literacy and digital safety for all adolescent girls in all their diversity.”
The Secretary-General agreed, highlighting the concept of a UN 2.0 to better address the needs of all people in a rapidly changing world: “We need to have a younger UN,” he said, noting that a Youth Office is being created to help address this problem. “I think that the UN has not done enough in relation to the rights of indigenous people,” he added, and he emphasized the importance of centering the issue as a UN priority going forward.
In an emotional exchange, a delegation of Ukrainian women thanked Secretary-General Guterres for his support of the Ukrainian people and advocated for the creation of “a new mechanism which will protect all countries of the world from aggression.” Referencing ongoing negotiations in Geneva, the Secretary-General Guterres noted that the United Nations is “deeply committed to help[ing] the Ukrainian people as much as possible.” He also highlighted the UN’s continued commitment to supporting the women and girls of Afghanistan, emphasizing the importance of expanding their educational and employment opportunities and of breaking down patriarchal norms and traditions.
“The work of the United Nations would not be possible without our strong partnership with women’s civil society—without you—so I thank you for your contributions and I look forward to our continued close collaboration,” the Secretary-General emphasized. “Together, we must resist the pushback against women’s rights, we must push forward for women, girls and our world.”