The UN at 70 and the Ongoing Quest for Gender Equality

©UN Photo/Loey Felipe

As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, let us look back and acknowledge what has been achieved. During those seven decades the world has changed enormously. This anniversary is therefore also an opportunity to assess what more the international community needs to do to meet the new challenges.

Thanks to the determined contribution and vision of pioneering women (and men) throughout its history, gender equality and women’s human rights have always been central to the three pillars of the work of the United Nations: peace and security, development, and human rights. Established by the General Assembly in 2010, UN Women holds the mandate to ensure that the quest for gender equality continues to be recognized as a fundamental prerequisite to making progress across each of these interlinked areas.

It is remarkable that, from the outset and at a time when the global women’s movement was still in its infancy, gender equality was written into the Charter of the United Nations. The Charter defined the mission of the United Nations as being “to achieve international co-operation…in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. There were only four women among the 160 signatories: from Brazil, China, the Dominican Republic, and the United States of America. Together they instilled women’s human rights into this historic document.

Within its first year, the Economic and Social Council established its Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), as the principal global policymaking body dedicated to gender equality and the advancement of women. Fifteen government representatives, all of them women, met for the first session of the CSW in February 1947, at Lake Success in New York. One of the first tasks of the CSW was to contribute to the drafting of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognized that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. The Declaration provided the foundation for the development of our comprehensive human rights system which, to this day, sets universal standards for building better, fairer societies, in which women and girls can play an equal part.

The CSW subsequently turned its attention to advancing women’s political rights, at a time when many Member States had not yet extended voting rights to women, and equality within marriage. Since then, there have been 59 sessions of the Commission, where Member States have come together to discuss critical issues related to gender equality, and to agree on priority actions to advance the agenda.

Fast-forward to 1975, when the General Assembly convened the World Conference on Women in Mexico City, to mark International Women’s Year. Much was achieved over the following decade, 1976-1985, which was declared the United Nations Decade for Women. In 1976, the Voluntary Fund for the United Nations Decade for Women (which later became UNIFEM) was set up to provide financial and technical assistance to innovative programmes and strategies that promote women’s human rights, political participation and economic security.

Another major achievement came when the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the General Assembly in 1979. This Convention, now one of the most widely ratified of all United Nations treaties, has become known as the global bill of rights for women. On 30 April 2015, the Republic of South Sudan became the 189th State party to commit to applying CEDAW 30 legally binding articles, to achieve gender equality and women’s rights.

CEDAW continues to be expanded upon and clarified through “General Recommendations”. The most recent of these concern women in conflict prevention, conflict and post-conflict situations; harmful practices; and gender-related dimensions of refugee status, asylum, nationality and statelessness of women. Although CEDAW is one of the most widely ratified conventions, a number of reservations limit its application, particularly in relation to customary, traditional and religious laws and practices, and women’s rights within the family and marriage. The Optional Protocol to the Convention, which entered into force in 2000, significantly strengthened its impact by providing women who claim violations of rights protected under the Convention with the right to petition. It also created an inquiry procedure into situations of grave or systematic violations of women’s rights.

Further Conferences on Women were held in Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985), followed by the landmark Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995). Gender equality advocates brought to Beijing the multitude of human rights violations experienced by women and girls. They outlined the need for comprehensive laws and policies as well as the transformation of institutions, both formal and informal, to achieve gender equality. The outcome documents of this Conference, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, remain the most comprehensive international blueprints for advancing women’s human rights. These documents firmly anchored the struggle for gender equality within a human rights framework and made a clear statement about State responsibility in delivering on the commitments that were made.

Generations have been inspired by this bold commitment, and the past two decades have brought progress on many fronts. We are seeing an increasing number of laws to promote gender equality and address violence against women and girls. Girls’ enrolment in primary and secondary education has increased. In some regions, there are more women participating in the labour force. Maternal mortality has decreased by 45 per cent since 1990 and all regions have increased women’s access to contraception. There has been a doubling in women’s representation in national parliaments from 11 per cent in 1995 to 22 per cent today. Significant normative advances have been made in the global agenda on women, peace and security, including the landmark Security Council resolution 1325 (2000), which has been further strengthened and operationalized through six additional resolutions calling for accelerated action across all pillars of the agenda: prevention, participation, protection and relief, recovery and peacebuilding.

Yet, as we mark this 70th anniversary, we must also chart the long path that still lies ahead of us.

Overall progress since Beijing has been slow and uneven, with serious stagnation and even regression in several areas. Women’s increasing educational attainment and rising participation in the labour market have not been matched with better conditions, prospects for advancement and equal pay, and women continue to shoulder a disproportionate share of unpaid care work. In some developing regions, up to 95 per cent of women’s employment is informal; globally, women are paid 24 per cent less than men for the same work; and women do nearly two and half times more unpaid care and domestic work than men. Women continue to be excluded from decision-making at all levels, including in all aspects of peace and security. At the current pace it will take another 50 years before we see the equal representation of women in politics. Deep-seated discriminatory norms, stereotypes and violence remain pervasive and violations of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights remain widespread. Progress has been particularly slow for the most marginalized women and girls who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.

Over the last 20 years new challenges have emerged. The global financial and economic crises, volatile food and energy prices, food insecurity and climate change have intensified inequalities and vulnerability, with specific impacts on women and girls. We are facing new and heightened threats to peace and security globally. The last year in particular has been marked by increased violence, mass displacement flows and related humanitarian catastrophes. Fragile gains towards gender equality continue to be threatened by rising extremism and a backlash against women’s rights in many contexts.

In 2015, we are at a historic moment with the convergence of many different United Nations processes which provide unprecedented opportunity to advance gender equality. The 20-year review of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action coincides with the target date end of the Millennium Development Goals and the deliberation of the post-2015 development agenda. The Third International Conference on Financing for Development, the preparations of a new climate agreement and the High-level reviews of the United Nations peace operations and peacebuilding architecture and of the implementation of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) provide further opportunities for progress, which must be seized.

This year, UN Women published its flagship report Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016: Transforming Economies, Realizing Rights. It shows us what the economy, too long designed by and for men, would look like if it were fit for women, and provides concrete recommendations for action. Through improved economic and social policies, Governments can generate decent jobs for women and ensure that unpaid care work is recognized and supported. The business community is another key partner, to ensure the full and equal participation of women in decision-making at all levels, to enact flexible leave policies and to close the gender pay gap. Civil society, including women’s organizations and trade unions, must act as a “watch dog” and continue to place women’s rights on the agenda. And the media must take responsibility for accurately representing women’s lives, for giving equal time and consideration to their stories and perspectives, and for not perpetuating stereotyped and objectified images.

Gender equality, the empowerment of women and human rights of women and girls must be a central priority in all aspects of the post-2015 development agenda. Our aim is nothing less than full equality, a Planet 50-50 by 2030, with substantial progress made over the next five years. If we are to achieve this goal, the unequal distribution of power, resources and opportunities that perpetuate gender inequality must be changed. This requires a shift from dominant economic models which narrowly focus on increasing gross domestic product to alternative approaches that emphasize development, the realization of human rights and sustainability. Significantly increased resources and strong accountability mechanisms are needed at all levels to ensure that decision makers are delivering on their commitments.

Decades of important normative advances at the United Nations have firmly established that gender equality and the realization of women’s and girls’ human rights are fundamental for achieving human rights, peace and security, and sustainable development. Creating a world where women and girls enjoy their human rights is one of the most defining and urgent challenges of this century. This daunting, yet achievable, task demands a change from business-as-usual with renewed political leadership and a commitment to real transformation. It also demands that we undertake this task with the full cooperation and solidarity of our partners in progress: the men of this world.

In this light, Eleanor Roosevelt, who played a critical role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, inspires us to continue the struggle, “Surely, in the light of history, it is more intelligent to hope rather than to fear, to try rather than not to try. For one thing we know beyond all doubt: Nothing has ever been achieved by the person who says, ‘It can’t be done.’”