Speech: A call for urgent, transformative action

Briefing by Ms. Sima Bahous, UN Under-Secretary-General and UN Women Executive Director, to the UN Security Council annual open debate on women, peace and security, UN Headquarters, 25 October 2023.

[As delivered.]

It is an honour to present the Secretary-General’s annual report on women, peace and security to the Security Council. I do so with anguish at the price being paid by women and girls for the alarming spread of conflict, the continued growth of military budgets, and the rise of authoritarianism. I do so knowing too well that, while horrors and cruelties are being visited on humanity, women and girls remain largely excluded from the ability to make decisions, whether about war and peace, the future of their countries, or even about their own bodies. And I do so still hopeful and determined, because the global women’s rights movement is never deterred by setbacks, because it only gains adherents and courage with each injustice, and because it remains the largest and most reliable constituency for peace.

Speech: A call for urgent, transformative action

Ms. Sima Bahous, UN Under-Secretary-General and UN Women Executive Director, delivers a briefing to the UN Security Council annual open debate on women, peace and security, UN Headquarters, 25 October 2023. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown.
Ms. Sima Bahous, UN Under-Secretary-General and UN Women Executive Director, delivers a briefing to the UN Security Council annual open debate on women, peace and security, UN Headquarters, 25 October 2023. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown.

We meet at a time when the impacts of conflict on women and girls have never been more stark, nor the price we collectively pay through spurning women’s leadership more obvious, as millions upon millions suffer the consequences of the wars of men.

As we meet, the Middle East is witnessing a dramatic escalation of violence. To date, more than 1,400 Israelis have been killed by the horrific attack by Hamas, many of whom are women and children, and an estimated 200 remain as hostages, many of whom are women.

And Gaza has been under devastating, relentless bombardment, killing more than 6,000 people, a majority—67 per cent—of whom are women and children. UN Women estimates that, to date, this has resulted in more than 1,100 new female-headed households and has displaced more than 690,000 women and girls from their homes, leaving them at greater risk of violence.

But let me be clear: every act of violence against women and girls, including sexual violence, is unequivocally condemned, irrespective of the nationality, identity, race, or religion of the victims.

We echo all calls for the unconditional release of all hostages; the protection of all civilians; a humanitarian ceasefire; and immediate, unrestricted, and sustained humanitarian aid for civilians in Gaza. We add to this, accountability for all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, and a return to negotiations for a lasting and just peace for both the Palestinian and Israeli peoples. That return is best served by creating space and heeding the voices of women.

Our focus on the Middle East emphasizes once more the imperative for collective, multilateral action for peace that this Council represents. It has never been more urgent. We will hear later today from Ms. Hala Al-Karib, who will remind us of the crisis in Sudan and of women’s plight there, which must be heard. Many women in Sudan, and elsewhere, tell us that they feel forgotten and unheard, as one conflict is being displaced from the front pages by new conflicts elsewhere.

The report before us highlights the Secretary-General’s call for a critical transformation in women’s meaningful participation in peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding over the course of this decade.

It shares a picture of decline in several countries in the political space for women to participate in decision-making on peace and security, a decline at the very moment when women’s leadership is needed most.

Among the five UN-led or -co-led peace processes in 2022, for example, women’s representation stood at only 16 per cent, compared to 19 per cent in 2021 and 23 per cent in 2020. In peace processes led by Member States or other organizations, women were almost completely absent. This includes in Ethiopia, Kosovo [under UN Security Council resolution 1244 (1999)], Sudan, Myanmar, and Libya. A positive exception remains Colombia, where women reached near parity in the new rounds of negotiations.

It should alarm us that, 23 years after the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1325, we lack an up-to-date, full, transparent, public accounting of women’s representation in peace talks. Even in broad-based national dialogues, where inclusion should be paramount and parity achievable, women’s representation fell below 40 per cent on average and, in some cases, was even much lower. Only a third of the 18 peace agreements negotiated in 2022 included provisions on women or gender equality.

The report provides examples of what works, particularly at the local level where women led successful crossline negotiations to secure access to water and humanitarian aid, brokered the release of political prisoners, prevented and resolved tribal conflicts, and mediated local ceasefires and the halt to violations against civilians. These examples must be replicated at the national level.

In this report, the UN commits to an initial minimum target of women as one third of participants in mediation and peace processes, and reaffirms the target of parity in political and electoral processes.

We should acknowledge that women’s participation in peacekeeping has increased. This last year, peace operations advanced many achievements. They set up mobile courts to convict perpetrators of gender-based violence in conflict-affected settings, deployed female engagement teams to learn about the situation of women and girls in the most remote areas, helped release and rehabilitate hundreds of women and girls abducted by armed groups, included women in many local peace initiatives, and relocated women human rights defenders. These examples should inspire us.

However, as peace operations are withdrawn, the UN’s capacity to monitor and protect women’s rights becomes more limited.

We need women’s leadership now. Yet, in conflict-affected countries, only 23 per cent of parliamentarians and 20 per cent of ministers are women, both below the global average. I suggest that this is no coincidence. We can increase these numbers with quotas and by tackling political violence against women and gender-based hate speech, both of which are on the rise.

We need women to be safe. The growing number of reparations for survivors of sexual violence and the emerging recognition of gender persecution in national and international courts are positive. Yet the thousands of human rights violations, reported in UN documents annually, still vastly outnumber the successful cases of gender justice.

We need to put gender equality at the heart of resource allocation.

Bilateral aid to support gender equality in conflict-affected countries declined in 2021, as we just heard from the Secretary-General. The percentage dedicated to gender equality as a principal objective plateaued at 6 per cent, despite promises to dedicate 15 per cent or more.

This failure to finance comes at a time when the ability to reach women and girls, or even employ women in humanitarian delivery, has been challenged in countries like Afghanistan and Yemen, placing the international community in a cruel dilemma as it seeks to adhere to our humanitarian principles.

It is in this light that the Secretary-General’s report calls on governments to take additional measures to help women human rights defenders, to facilitate the evacuation and relocation of those at immediate risk, and to set out strategies for long-term support in exile.

I am pleased to share that the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund introduced a window for women human rights defenders in 2022 and was able to support 214 women and their 553 dependents within a few months of operation. We need more such actions.

Let me highlight five transformative actions so that this open debate is a milestone, not just a reiteration. I call on all those countries and organizations that support mediation and peace negotiations to take these to heart and to do so with urgency.

First, we must set ambitious and measurable targets for women’s direct and meaningful participation on delegations and negotiating teams.

Second, we must nominate and appoint women as lead mediators and as mediation experts, and make gender balance and the inclusion of gender expertise a norm for mediation teams.

Third, we must earmark a minimum 15 per cent of funds on mediation support to women’s participation.

Fourth, we must track and publicly report in real time on the number and percentage of women directly participating in these peace processes.

And fifth, we must ensure that gender equality and women’s human rights are a central part of peace agreements.

In closing, I join the presidency in honouring the memory of Brazilian activist Bertha Lutz, the most prominent advocate for women’s rights in the UN Charter. The women’s movement owes her a debt of gratitude.

As we speak, around the world and across its crises and conflicts, women continue to risk their lives. They are caring for those around them, trying to carry their families, communities, and nations to peace. We can no longer fail to offer them the best support. They are showing us what to do, and I commend their example, as I commend the Secretary-General’s report to you, as motivation, inspiration, and a source of determination for change.

I thank you.