Speech: ‘The patriarchy may be pushing back, but so are we’

UN Secretary-General's remarks at the Townhall Meeting with Civil Society on the occasion of the 68th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women

[As delivered]

Dear colleagues and friends,

It is a great pleasure to be with you today. And I thank you for coming together, in person and online.

This is an essential meeting on my calendar every year.

It is a meeting of minds. And a chance to talk about strategies and tactics.

A place where we come together as proud feminists to establish how we can achieve our shared goals.

Secretary-General's remarks at the Townhall Meeting with Civil Society on the Occasion of the 68th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women
Secretary-General speaking at the Townhall Meeting with Civil Society on the Occasion of the 68th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

We know that we are meeting in troubled times – for the world and particularly for women and girls.

The Sustainable Development Goals are off track – including Goal five: gender equality. 

At our current rate, 340 million women and girls will still be living in extreme poverty by 2030. We cannot allow this to happen.

We face a climate crisis, a cost-of-living crisis, and a debt crisis in many countries. These are hitting women and girls hardest – pushing many into further poverty.

On top of this, some countries are seeing decades of progress on gender equality reversed and repealed.

Around the world, women’s rights are under attack, civic space is being squeezed, and women’s rights defenders face violent threats for daring to speak up for justice. 

Afghanistan is the most egregious example.

Women and girls are effectively banned from much of the education system, from working outside their homes, and from playing any part in public life.

This is appalling and cannot stand.

Meanwhile, the conflicts raging around the world are catastrophic for women and girls – as we have seen all too clearly in the past year and more. This includes:

  • Reports of rape and the trafficking of women in Sudan;
  • Accounts of sexual violence and indications of sexualised torture during the terror attacks carried out by Hamas in Israel – as recently identified in a United Nations report.
  • Testimonies of sexual violence against Palestinian detainees, as set out in the same report.
  • And the decimation of maternity services in Gaza, where women and children reportedly make up more than two-thirds of the tens of thousands of people killed.

The people of Gaza are living in one waking nightmare.

Targeting civilians and failing to protect civilians are violations of international humanitarian law – pure and simple.

And sexual violence in conflict is always a horror.

We must condemn it wherever and whenever it occurs.

Dear Friends,

Gender equality is a question of power.

And I see two worrying trends in power relations.

First, the patriarchy is fighting a strong rearguard action.

After decades of progress, women’s rights are being undermined and reversed.

Populists and demagogues are attacking women’s freedoms and proclaiming so-called “traditional” values.

But traditions like the oppression of women and girls should stay where they belong – in the past.

The women of my generation did not win the fight for their rights, only to see their daughters and granddaughters fight the same battles.

I salute the people, governments and movements that are standing up to defend the rights of women and girls, through legal and constitutional action.

And second, new technologies – which could be used to accelerate equality – are instead making matters worse.

I am particularly concerned about developments of Artificial Intelligence.

The male-dominated industry has increasing power and influence, which will only grow in the coming decades.

There is a mountain of evidence that when systems are designed by men, they result in biased algorithms. Women’s needs, women’s bodies, and women’s fundamental rights tend to be ignored.

There is a serious danger that discrimination is being built into the algorithms on which AI is based, which would entrench bias into activities as important as recruitment, urban planning and medical imaging for decades to come, to the detriment of the rights of women.

Governments, civil society, the tech industry and others must come together to bridge the digital gender divide and ensure women make their full contribution to digital technologies at all levels.

This is one of the main goals of the Global Digital Compact that will be central to the Summit of the Future in September.

Dear Friends,

The patriarchy may be pushing back. But so are we.

And this year is key.

Half of humanity is going to the polls.

And we have opportunities ahead to advance progress.

Together, we must make the case for advancing gender equality, realising women’s rights, and increasing women’s representation and participation at all political levels.

And we must push governments and the private sector to put their money where their mouth is, by funding equal rights and opportunities for women and girls.

We must be clear about the benefits: economic prosperity; social cohesion; greater investment in health and education; and more durable peace processes.

The evidence is clear: women’s full participation makes peacebuilding more effective.

We must call for policies, targets and investments to make that a reality. 

We must also drive action to end violence, combat cultural norms, secure women’s full participation and leadership in all areas of public life, and protect women’s rights and their defenders.

A strong, well-resourced women’s movement is critical.

For decades, your movement has been at the forefront of change – leading efforts to eliminate discrimination, end violence, and deliver equality.

I salute your extraordinary work and achievements.

I deeply value the vital role you as Civil Society play in supporting the United Nations.

And I am determined to do everything I can to help you secure the resources you need.

I am pleased that the Spotlight Initiative, in partnership with the European Union, has allocated $190 million to civil society organisations to help eliminate violence against women and girls. 

In 2022, the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund approved 198 new grants, funding 344 civil society organisations, to support women peacebuilders, humanitarians, and human rights defenders responding to crisis.

I will continue to call for greater financial support for women’s organisations.

Let’s be clear, they are essentially, at the finance, taking into account the enormous tasks that you have in front of you and the enormous importance of making sure that you are successful in your struggle.  

Last week, we launched the United Nations System-wide Gender Equality Acceleration Plan.

This Plan is based on the conclusions of the Independent Review we commissioned, to report on our capacity to deliver on gender equality.

It’s important that this review, that was commissioned by us and that has been made public, shows not only our achievements but also our weaknesses.

There are many things in the UN that still need to change and this was detected by this independent review.

This is the reason why we are launching this Gender Equality Acceleration Plan with a system-wide perspective across the whole UN-system.

We count on you to look permanently what we are doing and to help us correct what we are still  not able to do in an adequate way.

The ambition of the plan is clear: to ensure every part of the United Nations system is helping to advance rights and equality for women and girls.

It includes a commitment to opening financing opportunities for grassroots women’s organizations, and a target to raise $300 million for women’s organizations in conflict and crisis settings over the next three years.

Dear Friends,

Equality requires investment – in women’s organisations and beyond.

To address women’s poverty, we must put money into education, training, social protection, care policies, ending violence against women, and much more.

We must make that case to governments, the private sector and everywhere funding decisions are taken.

But we must also push for changes at the global level, to make far more finance available.

Many economies are struggling. And simply do not have the means to invest in sustainable development.

COVID-19 continues to take its toll. So does inflation. And debt is strangling many developing countries.  

Debt service payments are crowding out investment in public services – including investments to advance the rights of women and girls.

We must deal with these immediate challenges.

That is why we have proposed an SDG stimulus of $500 billion a year in affordable, long-term finance for developing countries. This will help to turbocharge progress on SDG 5 on gender equality, and across the 2030 Agenda.

The SDG Stimulus also calls for action on debt, to create breathing space for countries facing impossible repayment schedules.

Leaders endorsed the Stimulus at last year’s SDG Summit.

But we also need action to ensure finance flows to women and girls.

That means increasing the number of women in leadership roles in governments and financial institutions. 

And it means all countries putting in place budgets, policies and tax systems that respond to women and girls, reflecting their realities and their needs.

Together, let’s keep up the pressure to make this happen.

Inequality has many dimensions and they are all interlinked.

The dramatic inequality that exists today between rich countries and the least developed countries is a factor that enhances inequality at the gender level.

There is no way we can fight inequality effectively in developing countries if we do not address simultaneously the problems of inequality between developing and developed countries.

The fighting against inequality is a comprehensive struggle in all areas of human activity.

So, let’s work together for action for the long term: to reform the international financial system – which is woefully out of date – so that it reflects the reality of today’s economy and today’s world.

The Summit of the Future later this year is a chance to drive progress.

I am urging Member States to take it.

And I am urging you to use your strong voices and activism to influence your governments to play their full part in the Summit, for women and girls today and tomorrow. 

Women and girls are a constant theme through the Summit of the Future.

And I will do everything possible for an outcome that delivers for them.

I urge you to join me on this.

We are asking Member States to support our proposals for a New Agenda for Peace – which puts women’s leadership and participation at the centre of decision making.

We are aiming to agree a Global Digital Compact – which includes measures to close the gendered digital divide and harness technology for the SDGs.

And we are asking Member States to support our plans for metrics that go beyond Gross Domestic Product.

GDP entirely disregards the unpaid care work and household labour, overwhelmingly done by women and girls, that forms the foundation of economies around the world.

In these strained times, let’s unite around our shared goals. And our shared commitment to equality and human rights for all. 

I will never stop fighting for a world that works for women and girls.

And I very much look forward to hearing your views on how, together, we can take power from the patriarchy.

As I said in the beginning, essentially, the question of Gender Equality is a question of power.

In my experience, especially as a politician for a long period, power is never given, power has to be taken.

Thank you.

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