UN chief: Legal equality for women could take 300 years as backlash rises against women’s rights

UNITED NATIONS — Legal equality for women could take centuries as the fight for gender equality becomes an uphill battle against widespread discrimination and gross human rights violations, the head of the United Nations said on International Women’s Day.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told a packed UN commemoration on Friday that “a global backlash against women’s rights threatens, and in some cases even reverses, progress in both developing and developed countries.”

The most egregious example is Afghanistan, he said, where the ruling Taliban has excluded girls from education beyond the sixth grade, from work outside the home and from most public spaces, including parks and hair salons.

At the current pace of change, it could take 300 years to achieve legal equality for women, including ending child marriage, he said.

Guterres pointed to “an ongoing epidemic of gender-based violence,” a gender pay gap of at least 20%, and the underrepresentation of women in politics. He cited the annual gathering of world leaders at the UN General Assembly in September, where only 12% of speakers were women.

“And the global crises we face are hitting women and girls hardest – from poverty and hunger to climate disasters, war and terror,” the Secretary-General said.

In the past year, Guterres said, there have been testimonies of rape and human trafficking in Sudan, and in Gaza women, women and children make up the majority of the more than 30,000 Palestinians the Gaza ministry says have died in the Israeli-Hamas conflict . of health.

He cited on Monday a report by the UN envoy focused on sexual violence in conflict, which concluded that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that Hamas committed rape, “sexualized torture” and other cruel and inhumane treatment of women during its surprise attack in southern Israel on October 1. 7. He also pointed to reports of sexual violence against Palestinians held by Israel.

International Women’s Day grew out of labor movements in North America and across Europe in the early 20th century and was officially recognized by the United Nations in 1977. This year’s theme is investing in women and girls to accelerate progress towards equality.

Roza Otunbayeva, the head of the UN political mission in Afghanistan, told the Security Council on Wednesday that what is happening in that country is “the exact opposite” of investing in women and girls.

There is “a deliberate disinvestment that is both cruel and unsustainable,” she said, saying the Taliban’s crackdown on women and girls has caused “enormous damage to mental and physical health and livelihoods.”

Recent arrests of women and girls for alleged violations of the Islamic dress code “were a further violation of human rights and carry enormous stigma for women and girls,” she said. It has had “a chilling effect among the wider female population, many of whom are now afraid to move in public,” she said.

Otunbayeva again called on the Taliban to roll back the restrictions, warning that the longer they remain in place, “the more damage will be done.”

Sima Bahous, the head of UN Women, the organization that promotes gender equality and women’s rights, told the commemoration that International Women’s Day “shows a world hampered by confrontation, fragmentation, fear and, above all, inequality.”

“Poverty has a feminine face,” she said. “One in ten women in the world lives in extreme poverty.”

Men not only dominate the centers of power, but also own “$105 trillion more wealth than women,” she said.

Bahous said well-equipped and powerful opponents of gender equality are holding back progress. The opposition is fueled by anti-gender movements, enemies of democracy, limited social space and “a breakdown in trust between the people and the state, and regressive policies and legislation,” she said.

“We all feel this setback acutely,” Bahous said. “Our values ​​and principles have never been more challenged than now.”

Guterres urged countries to prioritize equality for women and girls. He announced that the UN is launching a “Gender Equality Acceleration Plan” to support governments in designing and implementing policies and spending that respond to the needs of women and girls.

Bahous received strong applause when she called for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, which Guterres has also long sought.

She also urged funding for women and girls, emphasizing that when this happens, economies grow, governments prosper and peace is achieved faster.

“But despite these clear facts, we stubbornly continue to invest more in weapons than in women and girls,” Bahous said.