UNITED NATIONS — Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Monday that there is a “deep, pervasive and relentless” pushback on women’s rights and called for a fight to “push back against the pushback.”
Calling himself “a proud feminist,” the U.N. chief said, “It is a fight we must win — together.”
Guterres spoke at the opening of the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women, which since its establishment in 1947 has been committed to achieving “equality with men in all fields of human enterprise.”
The secretary-general told hundreds of ministers, delegates and representatives from civil society and business that the U.N. body could equally go by another name: “the Commission on the Status of Power — because this is the crux of the issue.”
While advocates for gender equality are mobilizing as never before, Guterres said, “around the world, there is a pushback on women’s rights.”
He pointed to increased violence against women, especially defenders of human rights and women running for political office. He cited “online abuse of women who speak out,” women 26 percent less likely to be employed than men, and “an ongoing uphill battle for reproductive rights.”
“And nationalist, populist and even austerity agendas are tearing social fabric — aggravating inequality, splintering communities, curtailing women’s rights and cutting vital services,” Guterres said.
The fight against these negative trends is a fight that must be won, he said.
“So let us say it loud and clear,” Guterres said. “We will not give ground. We will not turn back. We will push back against the pushback. And we will keep pushing. For wholesale change. For rapid change … our world needs, starting by addressing the imbalance in power relations.”
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of the U.N. women’s agency, gave some examples of pushback in an Associated Press interview ahead of the commission’s meeting.
In negotiations on its final document, she said, some countries don’t want health care facilities to provide “sexual and reproductive rights,” issues that were fought over and are part of the 1995 platform for action adopted by the world’s nations at the U.N. women’s conference in Beijing.
In addition, she said, “Some countries don’t want to use the word gender. You must always say men and women, so that you do not include people who are gender non-conforming.”
She said these ideological issues are “the usual pushback” that are “ultimately about women’s bodies.”
Mlambo-Ngcuka told the commission on Monday that gains for women over the past two decades “are fragile, and we are seeing them reverse.”
The latest data indicate 131 million girls worldwide aren’t going to school and there has been a 6 percent increase in girls not attending elementary school, she said.
“On average, globally, women still have only three-quarters of the legal rights of men, and more than one billion have no recourse against violence or are restricted in their education or employment — what is now being called ‘economic violence,'” Mlambo-Ngcuka said.
And every day, approximately 830 women — 99 percent of them in developing countries — die of preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, she said.
Ireland’s U.N. ambassador, Geraldine Byrne Nason, who presides over the Commission on the Status of Women, said the Beijing declaration statement that women’s rights are human rights generated optimism, but “we have been disappointed.”
Today, she said, less than 7 percent of heads of state and government are women, and only one in four parliament members around the world are female. And, she said, “it’s estimated if we don’t act, it will take 217 years to reach parity between men and women in pay and employment opportunities.”
“So what went wrong?” Byrne Nason said. “The truth is that collectively we haven’t yet succeeded in making sure that women are wherever decisions are being made.”
She said gender empowerment means handing over or sharing power “and we know how hard that is.”
“What we’re trying to achieve is that men have their rights, and nothing more, and that women have their rights, and nothing less,” Byrne Nelson said.
She said the commission will be deliberating in the next two weeks about maternity, pensions, safe roads and transport, schools that teach girls skills to succeed, women’s access to vital health care, “and the fair distribution of care and the domestic work between men and women.”