The U.N. secretary-general said Friday that 25 years after action was demanded at a landmark conference in Beijing, progress on women’s rights has stalled and even been reversed.
“Some countries have rolled back laws that protect women from violence; others are reducing civic space; still others are pursuing economic and immigration policies that indirectly discriminate against women,” Antonio Guterres warned at a commemoration ahead of International Women’s Day, which is Sunday.
Guterres told a General Assembly hall full of diplomats, activists, women and girls that bias against gender equality is growing in some countries.
“We must push back against the pushback,” he said. “We cannot give way; we refuse to lose the ground we have won.”
In a new report, the U.N. said men still overwhelmingly hold elected positions, make more money, and have access to better jobs and education.
In addition, women in many parts of the world are still trying to overcome societal obstacles, including child marriage, illiteracy, domestic violence and lack of access to family planning. Rural and indigenous women face even more hurdles, in addition to discrimination and deeper poverty.
The secretary-general was joined by several trailblazing women, including the world’s youngest female prime minister, Sanna Marin of Finland. She is 34 and heads a coalition government in which women lead all five parties.
Finland has been at the forefront pursuing gender equality for decades, including being the first state to grant women full political rights – both to vote and to run for office.
“Change does not happen overnight,” Marin said. “We had to harness the resources of the whole society because we simply could not disregard half of the population.”
She said family-friendly policies such as paid parental leave, publicly funded child care and even free school lunches played a significant role in advancing gender equality. She noted that many of these policies were introduced by female legislators.
“I argue that the best way to get gender transformative policies is to have more women in high-level decision-making positions,” she said.
'We have touched a nerve'
Veteran activist and author Charlotte Bunch said there was a clear reason for the backlash against gains women have made.
“Because we have touched a nerve; we have touched the possibility of profound social change,” she said.
Many feminists are focused on the pushback against women’s reproductive and sexual rights, especially in some Western countries, including the United States.
“It is a backlash that understands controlling our bodies is fundamental to taking our own power to be a part of those changes,” she said.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee of Liberia urged governments to move beyond the rhetoric of women’s rights and take real action that will lead to change.
“Our rights should not just be important during election season; they should be important at all times,” Gbowee said.