Remarks by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and UN Women Executive Director, Sima Bahous, at the United Nations Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security


[As delivered]

Sima Sami Bahous, UN Women Executive Director, briefs the Security Council meeting on women and peace and security, 21 October 2021. Photo: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

Mr. Secretary-General, Madam President, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, it is an honour to address the Security Council to present the Secretary-General’s report on women, peace and security. In these dark days of multiple crises, this topic is more important than ever.

As I start my tenure as Executive Director of UN Women, I look forward to working with you to strengthen and accelerate the implementation of the women, peace, and security agenda.

It has been 21 years since you passed Security Council resolution 1325 in this very chamber. Yet, we still meet to discuss the limited progress made. The doors that Security Council resolution 1325 was meant to burst open have let in only a glimmer of light. But as women, as peacebuilders, as development practitioners, we take that glimmer, and we fight.

As the Secretary-General has said, the United Nations intends to push back, double down, and move forward.

His report in front of you today is rich in evidence. Let me focus on two of the most salient lessons from those findings. First, we need to significantly increase funding for the women, peace and security agenda and conversely curb military spending. Second, we need to do more to support women’s meaningful participation in peace and security processes.

On the need to curb military spending: Distinguished Delegates, if we want to see a paradigm shift in the way we confront peace and security issues, we need to take a hard look at the levels and trajectory of global military spending.

Curbing military spending has been a chief strategic objective of the women’s movement for peace. It was a key objective of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995; it was reaffirmed recently during the Generation Equality Forum; and it is essential to achieving SDG16.

The evidence clearly shows that high levels of military spending in post-conflict settings increase the risk of renewed conflict. It also shows that investing in gender equality has a high return in peace dividends. Yet, we continue to over-spend in the former and under-invest in the latter.

Last year, global military expenditure increased by 2.6 per cent even in the face of the contraction in the global economy of 3.3 per cent and the competing demands of COVID-19. That is nearly USD 2 trillion spent in the same year that all economies, whether in peace or conflict, struggled to meet people’s basic needs.

In stark contrast, in humanitarian appeals, sectors that address gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health services are only funded at 33 per cent and 43 per cent respectively, compared with an average funding of 61 per cent for the overall appeal.

None of the ceasefire agreements reached between 2018 and 2020 included the prohibition of sexual violence, and the percentage of peace agreements with gender provisions stands at 28.6 per cent.

At this critical juncture, we have to review prioritization.

Thriving nations are equal nations. And equal nations are more peaceful nations. But people cannot thrive without investment in their basic needs, like health and social protection.

Conflict-affected countries spend two to three times more on defense than on health care. The opposite is true in most stable countries.

When state support is absent or inadequate, women rely even more on their local organizations. Yet, the share of bilateral aid supporting feminist, women-led and women’s rights organizations and movements in fragile or conflict-affected countries is a mere 0.4 per cent. Furthermore, there has been a striking increase in the fragility of funding for these organizations. More than 80 per cent of local civil society organizations working on the frontlines of crises reported this year that their organization’s existence was at risk due to lack of funding, up from the 30 per cent reported last year.

There is no better predictor of our ability to advance gender equality or reduce violence against women than the strength of the women’s movement. We cannot expect women’s organizations to perform miracles if they do not have enough funds to keep their lights on and their leaders are under constant threat.

There is an urgent need to accelerate both programmatic and institutional financing. One pathway to shift the spending paradigms is to increase the number of women in elected and appointed posts.

I ask the international community to do more to support the participation of women in decision-making on defense and security sector expenditures, to expand the use of gender-budgeting tools and programming to influence military spending levels, and to strengthen citizens’ oversight of military budgeting through enhanced transparency and accountability.

My second request builds on the Secretary-General’s call for “partnerships, protection and participation”, which is also a central part of “Our common agenda” and a renewed social contract.

Women’s equal and meaningful participation in peace and security is the central goal of resolution 1325. Yet we continue to fall short.

Quotas and other special measures are our best mechanisms to accelerate positive change to increase representation.

The Report shows us that women’s parliamentary representation in conflict and post-conflict countries doubles where there are legislated quotas. The UN is committed to promoting the use of quotas, not just in politics, but in peace processes and other relevant contexts.

Other recommended approaches include inclusive selection measures, independent delegations of women representatives, political commitment by Member States for processes they support, as well as investment in better data collection, gender analysis and monitoring of results across all peace efforts.

It is clear that women’s participation and their protection are linked. We simply cannot have one without the other.

We cannot expect women to build peace if their lives are constantly under threat.

The report provides examples of the violence committed against women and girls in conflict settings and refugee camps, much of it conducted with almost complete impunity.

This includes instances of targeted violence against women in public life who are fighting for peace or for their rights.

In Colombia, 10 of the 16 members of the Special Forum on Gender, which monitors the implementation of the gender provisions of the peace agreement, reported threats made directly against them, as did women who participated in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in 2020.

The rapid takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban was preceded by a wave of killings of women civil society activists and journalists, and the targeting of academics, vaccinators, and women judges.

This is happening in other countries too. In 2020, the UN verified 35 cases of killings of women human rights defenders, journalists, and trade unionists, but this number is a significant undercount and comes from only seven conflict-affected countries with data.

We are falling short of providing protection to these women, even those who risk their lives to collaborate with the United Nations. Necessary action ranges from properly assessing the risks and monitoring threats, to planning for contingencies, making rapid and flexible funding available for individual cases, ensuring that women are part of delivering and planning humanitarian aid, and taking all necessary measures to enhance digital and physical security.

The Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund, which has already supported more than 400 women’s organizations since 2016, is working on opening a special window for such cases. This could help to pay for evacuation and resettlement costs, counseling and mental health care, and necessary equipment, from computer software to security cameras.

Here again, we need governments to step up. We rely on your governments to open doors for these women, and facilitate and expedite the approval of applications for asylum, temporary relocation, or protected status due to gender-based persecution.

We rely on you to support the work of women’s civil society organizations, to condemn, investigate, and punish attacks against them, and to review the national laws that may be constraining their civic space and curtailing their activities and funding.

Distinguished delegates, when we act together, we can accomplish transformative change.

From Mexico City to Paris this year, the resounding expression of political and financial support to gender equality galvanized by the Generation Equality Forum could not have come at a better time.

Part of that movement to advance gender equality and all that it can bring, was the new Compact on Women, Peace and Security and Humanitarian Action, whose areas of work will be directly supportive of the Secretary-General’s goals.

I invite you to join the 153 signatories and make concrete commitments to advance our common cause over the next five years.

I hope that you feel - and share - my sense of urgency to make progress in the women, peace and security agenda. If we want to see a tangible difference in the lives of women and girls and a paradigm shift in the way we confront peace and security issues, we need governments to step up. And not just the governments in countries that are affected by conflict, but also their regional neighbours, their trading partners, their military allies, their donors and most of all, this Security Council.

For too long we have seen vast military spending that is in bitter contrast to the limited investment in other areas. For too long we have seen the violence targeted against women and their rights, and at the same time the extreme marginalization and exclusion of those women from the very places where they can drive change.

Surely the time has come to say ‘enough’. Surely there is hope. Today’s report recommends solutions. I look forward to working with all of you in support of their implementation.

Thank you.