Opening statement by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the 64th session of the Commission on the Status of Women 9 March 2020


[As delivered]

This was always going to be a different CSW. Because this is a special year for gender equality.

It is 25 years after the Fourth World Conference on Women and adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. We thank all those who were there. We salute the many women – and men too – who have been implementing the Platform for Action. We also thank them for their efforts, as well as the human rights defenders, activists, midwives, scientists, young feminists, politicians and rural women who do this work. 

We recognize the foresight and enlightenment of the Member States who adopted such a comprehensive agenda for gender equality. For the United Nations, this was its greatest contribution to the advancement of human rights and women’s rights. 

Excellencies, we all share the disappointment that the moment to commemorate and review this historic platform for action coincided with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 disease. Respect for public health concerns has necessitated the shortening of this session of the Commission.

We all regret the absence of the many voices that we are used to hearing and being enriched by. We are considering how to ensure that those who are not here today in the halls of influence and decision-making will at some future point join these reflections, when it is safe to do so. I know that the CSW Bureau is looking at a suitable opportunity to do this, along with delegates from capitals and the broad civil society networks.

This challenge has also inspired us to make efforts to use new technology to connect virtually at this time when we cannot travel internationally. We hope that this at least also contributes to the environment.

We look forward to the adoption of the draft Political Declaration that re-affirms the Beijing Platform for Action, and the adoption of the Commission’s next multi-year programme of work.

2020 has to be the year where change is intensified.

In addition to the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform Action, this year marks 20 years of implementing Security Council resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. It is also UN Women’s 10th birthday and the start of the UN Decade of Action. During this time, we will be working hard to achieve the aspirations of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with the support of a variety of stakeholders whom we continue to mobilize.

We are challenged by limited implementation. Women are radically impatient for action that improves their lives. They see the progress made, but also that it is accompanied by pushback and erosion of gains. They see that the scale and pace of change has not been what it should be. Younger women do not want to go through the experiences of their elders. And the elders are tired of waiting. 

The Commission has before it the findings of the milestone Secretary-General’s report: the ‘Review and appraisal of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the outcomes of the twenty-third special session of the General Assembly’.

The Secretary-General’s report provides rich evidence and insight to guide the accelerated action that is being mandated. I hope you have also seen our related report ‘Gender Equality: Women’s Rights in Review’ that we launched on International Women’s Day. The Secretary-General’s report provides the conclusions and recommendations that put us in a position to move ahead. It is a solid foundation of evidence that can help accelerate change as long as we have the political will. It tells replicable stories of determined innovation by countries across diverse regions.

The report draws on 170 national reports, and the contributions of hundreds of civil society and youth organizations to both national and regional reviews, as well as the latest available global data. I thank everyone who contributed to this rich process.

The positive findings in the report give us good news to celebrate.

The changing of laws in 131 countries that have enacted 274 legal and regulatory reforms in critical areas.

  • The 1 billion fewer people who are living in extreme poverty.
  • The 155 Member States that have strengthened legislation to enforce laws to combat violence against women, as against a handful in 1995.
  • Nearly 80 countries introduced legislated gender quotas distinctly raising women’s participation. In 2019 elections, women gained 30 per cent of parliamentary seats in countries with quotas, compared to 18 per cent in countries without quotas.
  • Girls’ leadership has been supported by the increased profile of the challenges faced by the girl child, and the encouragement of girl children to become leaders. We have heard from one just now. Girls are leading in many areas, and in particular, as climate activists.
  • More women and governments are supporting the end of child, early and forced marriage as well as female genital mutilation, both of which are gradually and progressively declining. There also, acceleration is very important because the rate of change is still very slow.
  • More girls are in school than ever before.
  • Rwanda and Ethiopia’s fast progress in provision of access to family planning in Africa shows it can be done, against a trend of shockingly low access in Africa that is detrimental to development.
  • Strengthening women’s sexual and reproductive rights and health is also critical. We have seen that where young women know their rights, there is a decline in teenage pregnancy.
  • In 1995, only Sweden provided paternity leave. By 2015 this had grown to 94 countries.
  • Two countries in Latin America (Uruguay and Chile) have extensive childcare provision which also helps in supporting the participation of women in the labour force.

These encouraging elements show us the proven solutions and how their benefits are interconnected. What is needed is the resolve to bring those solutions to those who have not yet benefitted from the progress. Those who are being left behind. Those whose rights are denied and violated with flagrant impunity.

Every solution has to have resources behind it. In Beijing we had a comprehensive agenda approved but there were no resources allocated to implement it. We do not want to repeat that mistake. Across the board, the percentage of development resources devoted specifically to gender equality remains on average less than 5 per cent. In 80 per cent of countries with data, there are national plans to achieve gender equality. Some of these plans are very strong and very good. And that is part of the positive legacy of the Beijing Platform for Action. But only one third of those Plans are costed and resourced. It is vital that we address this gap.

It is no surprise therefore that the gains of development I have just listed have not been shared equally.

Conflict and humanitarian crises have become more complex and protracted, exposing women and girls to increasing levels of poverty, instability and violence. The escalating environmental crisis is projected to destroy many of the development gains to date, affecting the poorest and most marginalized women. 

Critical gaps remain, building serious backlogs of women whose lives are untouched by the advances that we have made thus far. To take just one example of this, there are half a billion women across the world who are illiterate and progress has stagnated in the last two decades. This means that, as each year goes by, we must not only focus on the new generation of girls going into schools, but at the same time we must deal with the backlog of older women who never got this chance in the first place. When a woman or girl is educated her whole family and community advances.

We must not forget the older women who are being ’left behind’. They are unable to change their own circumstances, for example by taking advantage of training opportunities offered by governments to pull themselves out of poverty. Because these opportunities require the trainees to be literate. Everyone should be able to read and write.

Marginalized women living at the intersection of disadvantages are worst off. For example, a large share of young women living with disabilities are not in education or employment. This proportion rises as high as 80 per cent in some countries.

Excellencies, economic inequality has not moved for the past 20 years. There has been almost no change in labour force participation for women over the last 20 years, except in Latin America. 740 million women are stuck in the informal economy, earning low pay, with little or no security.

One of the most striking features of the lives of many women revealed by the report is how much they work but how little advantage that brings them.

Women and girls use triple the time and energy of boys and men to look after children and the household. That costs them equal opportunities in education, in the job market and in earning power. Young women raising families are 25 per cent more likely than men to live in extreme poverty, which impacts the rest of their lives.

Violence against women is also not abating. It is linked inextricably with inequality. Violence remains rife in every society, both directly and indirectly affecting women’s ability to participate, and to live in peace and prosperity.

Political participation is an area where some progress has been made. There has been spectacular underperformance, except where quotas have played a role in sustaining gains. 

Women politicians are frequently under threat. They are cyberbullied, and even physically harmed, which can discourage many of them from running for office. This is a major concern for UN Women and I’m sure for many of you.

Science and innovation are also presenting a challenge; women are underrepresented in this area. And cyberviolence joins other new risks such as threats to privacy rights, or algorithms that perpetuate unconscious bias. We must eliminate these elements that are entrenching prejudice and locking women out the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution. Science and innovation have the capacity to equalize people or to create even larger cohorts of those we are leaving behind. This is a matter that needs our close attention.

Digital technology was not considered in Beijing but this demands our attention now, and women and girls must be fully engaged in the planning of new policies that concern them, which is why we highlight it.

As governments and societies turn their attention to new, green economic plans and ‘green deals’, it is vital that these plans explicitly consider women’s aspirations. Women are not leading in climate policymaking but they must be heard on issues from land degradation to clean energy. Currently only 14 per cent of women own land. Land pushes them to less viable territories and increased insecurity including food insecurity. 

Despite the progress made, women are still largely excluded in politics, policies and budgets.

The Secretary-General’s report tells us that 75 per cent of parliamentarians are men, 73 per cent of managerial decision-makers are men, 67 per cent of climate negotiators are men, 76 per cent of the people who we see, hear or read about in our mainstream news media, are men and 87 per cent of the people at the peace table are men. Even though we know that when peace settlements include women the negotiations and the outcome are more durable.

These figures show us that we have created a world where women are squeezed into just 25 percent—one quarter—of the space, both in physical decision-making rooms, and in the stories that we tell about our lives. One quarter is not enough. Only half is an equal share, and only half is enough.

This is the mission of Generation Equality, to change this trend. The mission of the UN Decade of Action is to take us to equality.

Women want parity not one quarter. As the Secretary-General told us on Friday: “Generation Equality cannot be Generation Gradual Improvement or Generation Incremental Change”.

Everywhere, we are seeing young people raising their voices and stepping forward. This is their time. They are born rejecting discrimination. They and the Beijing veterans welcome the transformation of institutions that are prepared to challenge entrenched cultural biases and that are removing the strong barriers to progress. They are impatient and they do not want to yield even an inch as they push forward to equality.

Young people and civil society are at the heart of our big campaign throughout 2020, whose focus through “Generation Equality” is to complement the efforts of Member States that are reflected in the CSW’s draft Political Declaration.

We also want to link the outcomes in Beijing and what we have now with the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) with the contemporary challenges we still face. And we want to broaden the stakeholder base, including the private sector and many constituencies who support our cause.

Civil Society will lead us in Generation Equality and the governments of France and Mexico will co-host the Generation Equality Forum planned for Mexico City and Paris, which UN Women will be convening.

This is the part of our work that will assist us to accelerate the pace of change.

Together, we can make changes that we need. But we need to hurry.

Thank you.