Speech: Calling for a major shift in action, policies and investments

As the Executive Director of UN Women, it is really a pleasure to look across the UN system and see so many women leaders powerfully affecting change. It is so important that we work together in these increasingly difficult times.

The impacts of COVID-19 have been devastating, claiming six million lives, destroying countless livelihoods and creating enormous economic damage the world over.

We argue in our report, Beyond COVID-19: A Feminist Plan for Sustainability and Social Justice, that the pandemic has acted as a ‘big revealer, because the virus has exploited and worsened inequalities, including gender inequalities, that were there all the time, but we saw them magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fueled by that pandemic, a jobs and livelihoods crisis has wiped out fragile progress on women’s empowerment. Women who were already disadvantaged in the labour force have lost their jobs at a much faster rate than men and are regaining them at a much slower rate than men. Also, the weaknesses of social protection systems have left women with little to fall back on.

Women, who were already doing the vast majority of unpaid care and domestic work, have taken on much more during the pandemic. Violence against women and girls, already the most pervasive of human rights abuses, has spiraled upwards during the crisis. Our surveys have found that almost 50 per cent of women had experienced violence during the pandemic or knew a woman who has experienced violence. So far, the COVID-19 policy response has too often ignored gender equality. There has been some positive action on violence, although it falls short of what is needed today.

We see also the largest gaps in economic impacts. Out of more than 3000 social and economic measures taken by governments in response to the economic and social fallout of the pandemic, only 13 per cent target women’s economic security and only seven per cent address rising unpaid care demands.

All of this means that progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals is seriously stalled and seriously threatened. A review of progress by UN Women and the UN Statistical Division has revealed that globally, only one indicator under SDG5, the proportion of seats held by women in local government, is ‘close to target’. It’s not there yet, it is just only close to target. In all other areas, we have still a very long way to go. That is why we need a major shift, and that is what we are calling for in our Feminist Plan.

The pandemic and the recovery provide an opening to do things differently, to address these long-standing challenges and to build resilience in the linked climate and environmental crises as well. This is also very important in the context of this session of the Commission on the Status of Women, because gender quality and climate crises are very closely related.

As the UN Secretary-General has said himself, we stand at a crossroads, with a choice between breakthrough or breakdown. Rather than doubling down on the mistakes of the past, we must look for alternative paths. UN Women’s Feminist Plan identifies three areas – jobs, care and climate – where we need to see concerted action, policies and investments. 

On jobs, targeted measures are needed to ensure that women are not left behind in COVID-19 recovery and that they regain the jobs they have lost. The ILO has called for 400 million new jobs to be created in green sectors. It is critical that women are first in line for these opportunities, and that they are given the training and support to access these jobs.

We also need to improve job quality for the world’s 740 million women in the informal employment sector – women who work in areas like small-scale farming, domestic work and street vending. We need also to invest in gender responsive social protection systems. This would include well-designed cash transfer programmes that can be transformative for women and girls with gains in food security, school attendance, increased incomes, greater influence on household spending and so on. This is also extremely important for us.

On care: we know that care is a public good that generates benefits beyond the individuals receiving care, to societies at large. Every society benefits from public goods. Public investment in the care economy must be a key pillar of economic recovery, with investments to support women’s re-entry into the labour force, the wellbeing of children and older people and also the creation of decent work in the care economy. It is estimated that investments in the care economy could create 40-60 per cent more jobs than the same investments in construction, for example.

Finally, on climate: climate disasters have become threat multipliers, worsening existing discrimination and creating new vulnerabilities for women and girls. We need to transition our economies from fossil-fuel dependency to environmental sustainability and do so in ways that also achieve social and gender goals.

Women leaders in local communities are spearheading innovative approaches to promote gender-just green transitions in sustainable energy and agroecology, efforts that protect local ecosystems based on scientific, Indigenous and ancestral knowledge. Governments are discussing these and other policies and programmes now at the Commission on the Status of Women – and it could not be more urgent, as I am sure you will all agree.

Financing these policies will not be easy, especially for low-income countries and those struggling with high levels of debt and very limited fiscal space. Delivering on long-standing commitments for climate finance to developing countries is therefore now more critical than ever.

But there are choices. We echo the Secretary-General in recognizing that at this pivotal moment we need a new global social contract and unprecedented levels of global solidarity to pull us through. This kind of global solidarity was in evidence at last year’s Generation Equality Forum, where unprecedented commitments were made to accelerate progress on gender equality. The six multi-stakeholder Action Coalitions are bringing together governments, civil society, the UN, the private sector and youth to deliver on those commitments.

During the pandemic, in many instances we have seen a further weakening also of democracies, further disconnecting states from citizens. The conflicts unfolding in Afghanistan, in Ethiopia, in Myanmar and Ukraine very clearly demonstrated how quickly women’s rights gains can unravel, and how quickly they can backslide. I want to stress my and UN Women’s unwavering solidarity with our partners and all women and girls of Ukraine. I fully align myself and UN Women with the clear position of the Secretary-General. War in Ukraine must stop. The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation must end. And we must collectively hold ourselves accountable to deliver to, for and with women and girls, be they inside or outside Ukraine. That is what UN Women is committed to do with our partners for as long as this crisis continues.

Hearing women’s voices in all crises situations is critical. We know that they are often excluded and we don’t hear them. Even though the advocacy of women’s organizations has been relentless, so far, the COVID-19 policy response has been dominated by men. Women hold only 24 per cent of seats on COVID-19 taskforces, so three quarters of the policy response is driven by men and by men’s priorities. This mirrors women’s under-representation in so many other spheres of power and decision-making – from managerial boards to parliaments, to local natural resource committees to climate negotiations. This really needs to change. Yesterday, in his discussion with civil society, the Secretary-General highlighted that all leaders in the G20 and the G7 are men. We also need to examine and arrest this.

Historically excluded groups need to be brought squarely into decision-making. This is extremely important for UN Women. We must promote feminist leadership. We must promote gender mainstreaming across all sectors and gender parity across institutional spaces: in politics and government, civil society, the private sector, any other organization that includes women and young people. We need to see that we have parity in all these spaces. 

Let me tell you how important it is that youth movements go forward, and that you continue to own the moment. This is your moment; you need to continue to own it and to be courageous about owning it and moving things forward. Let me also tell you that UN Women and many, many other UN agencies are behind you and will support you in moving forward on your dreams and aspirations and the change movement that you are pioneering.

Thank you all for being here and for your questions. Since I joined UN Women, it has been very clear to me that a major part of our organization’s strength comes from its links with women’s and feminist organizations, including young women’s feminist organizations. You only have to look at their incredible engagement at the Commission on the Status of Women to see how important these constituencies are for the current discussions. The Youth Forum that we had recently in this context was really an inspiring moment for me and I think for many of us working together with the younger generation.

One of the inspirations for our Feminist Plan was the many women’s networks and organizations around the world that responded to the COVID-19 crisis with plans and visions of what needs to change. Continuing to work on this together, sharing plans, thinking and knowledge is also very important, including with youth organizations and young people’s organizations.

In producing our Plan, a central part of the process was engaging with these organizations and including their perspectives and thoughts. We worked with several women’s rights organizations and networks, including DAWN, AWID, and WIEGO, for example.

Our hope and aim for the Plan is that UN Women can put the research, knowledge and data into the hands of younger gender equality advocates in governments, in the UN and in civil society, so that we can strengthen the arguments and to help to open up spaces for the necessary debates. And then, eventually to have the actions that are needed on the ground.

We count always on your partnership and on your inspiration. We count also on partnerships with diverse women and girls, and their organizations, to make this happen. I am inspired and thrilled to be here with you, and also to be in spaces with the young generation. The intergenerational link together with what UN Women is doing will bring us closer to our shared objectives for women and girls around the world. I thank you for your engagement.