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Speakers in Women’s Commission Explore Role of Gender-Sensitive COVID-19 Response Plans in Creating More Resilient, Inclusive Communities

The Commission on the Status of Women continued its sixty-fifth session today, resuming a general discussion and hosting an interactive dialogue via videoconference to investigate how building gender-sensitive COVID-19 response plans can shape more resilient, inclusive communities.

Opening the dialogue on the theme “Building back better:  Women’s participation and leadership in COVID-19 response and recovery”, moderator Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 Technical Lead and Head of the Emerging Diseases and Zoonoses Unit and the MERS-CoV Technical Lead at the World Health Organization (WHO), said women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.  An estimated 247 million women will be living on less than $1 a day in 2021, up from 219 million before the pandemic, she said, adding that women are also underrepresented in leadership roles, and action is needed to include them in response plans.

Panellists introduced regional, national and thematic challenges and achievements, with some providing examples of how best to craft a post-pandemic “new normal” that includes women in decision-making roles with a view to truly building back better.

Investments in women’s groups is key, said Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, a human rights lawyer and Founder and Chief Executive of Rozaria Memorial Trust in Zimbabwe, stressing that:  “The micro is the macro.”  Governments much consider and support local women’s groups who are providing essential services during the pandemic, as countries engage with agencies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  Indeed, effective local efforts must be scaled up in areas such as combating gender-based violence.  But, guidelines are not enough unless they are translated into action, she said, highlighting other key areas, including that girls must return to school.

Lina Abou-Habib, Interim Director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut, said the disproportionate gender impact of the pandemic was both predictable and preventable.  Focusing on the Middle East region, she said it is not a surprise to learn that women care workers work in dismal conditions at a time when more funds are funnelled to military budgets.  Feminist organizations have taken action to address these and other challenges, such as combating domestic violence, and their work must be acknowledged and supported.

Several panellists made presentations on their areas of expertise, providing a glimpse of women’s accomplishments and the challenges ahead.  Sharing findings of a research study on women leaders’ pandemic responses, Jennifer M. Piscopo, Associate Professor of Politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, said they took early action, acting more swiftly than men and developing tailored programmes supporting the poor, farmers and other vulnerable communities.  Building back better hinges on correcting past problems and shaping new policies, such as providing affordable childcare and undoing the power structure that minimizes women’s unpaid labour.  Unfortunately, women have been excluded from many COVID-19 task forces.

Presenting results of a study tracking pandemic task forces, Müge Kökten Finkel, Director of the Masters in International Development Programme and a faculty member at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and the Co-Director of the Gender Inequality Research Lab, or GIRL, at the University of Pittsburgh, said gender parity is rare.  In addition, the task force tracker study showed scant gender-sensitive responses.  While women work in the public sector in many countries, that does not necessarily translate to their holding decision‑making positions.

At the same time, the culture of media must change, said Luba Kassova, Co-Founder and Director of the international audience strategy consultancy AKAS.  The media rarely portrays women in decision-making roles, and the news remains “a man’s affair”, often leaving female voices unheard.  Changing the culture of news requires challenging gender stereotypes, using more female experts and removing barriers preventing women from participating in news-related decisions.

During the interactive dialogue, some delegates from countries hard hit by COVID-19 shared their experiences in shaping recovery plans.  Spain’s delegate said institutional change is needed in general and in COVID-19 response plans.  As such, the Government established hotlines for women facing violence and a social shield for families, especially for the most vulnerable, as 80 per cent of single‑parent households are headed by women.  The overall goal is to strengthen a gender-based approach, she said.

China’s representative, warning that past gender‑equality gains risk being lost during the pandemic unless women are included in post-COVID-19 recovery plans, cited several national examples of how females are contributing to recovery plans.  From community workers to health professionals, women have led a range of efforts, including in developing a vaccine.  For its part, China has, among other things, helped women and women-led enterprises in economic recovery and stands ready to assist all countries in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action to ensure the advancement of gender equality.

Representatives of Member States and civil society organizations also provided a snapshot of pandemic responses alongside suggestions for fine-tuning future interventions that promote gender equality and greater participation of women in addressing issues that greatly affect them.  Sharing several examples of gender-sensitive initiatives, the representative of the Philippines said new policies aim at getting more women into decision-making positions.

The representative of the Hunger Project said that, when women are mobilized, programmes are more far-reaching.  Investment in women’s leadership supports resilient communities, she said, citing several examples, including an initiative led by a schoolteacher in Mexico who made audio recordings of Government health guidelines to reach illiterate people.  Indeed, this year has proven that building back better hinges on including women at the grass‑roots level.

Similarly, Uganda’s representative said women have played a critical role in national recovery efforts, which provides targeted efforts.  A COVID-19 response committee has introduced such measures as providing support to women and girls facing violence and those trying to return to school, including pregnant young women.  The economic empowerment of women is an important element of recovery efforts.

Cuba’s delegate agreed that the role of women in the pandemic response has been vital.  For its part, the Government established a multidisciplinary approach to reach all communities, especially women and high-risk groups, providing such assistance as helping those working from home and implementing wage guarantees.

The representative of the International Council of Nurses, representing 27 million in 130 countries, said gender bias in the profession has led to hobbling the pursuit of women’s full potential.  Studies show that women, who make up 90 per cent of the profession, face high rates of COVID-19 infection, with 3,000 having died from the coronavirus.  Yet, they remain underrepresented in decision-making roles, she said, suggesting that a senior nurse in the Government should be tasked with, among other things, high-level decision-making.  To change the playing field, she said Governments can take bold steps towards closing the pay gap, providing adequate protection equipment and developing gender-sensitive policies.

Also participating in the dialogue were representatives of Chile, Norway, Denmark, Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Panama, Georgia, Switzerland, Argentina, United States, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Jamaica.  Representatives of several civil society organizations also participated.

After the dialogue, the Commission continued its general discussion, hearing from senior Government officials of 24 Member States.

The Commission on the Status of Women will meet at 9 a.m. on Friday, 19 March, to continue its general discussion.

General Discussion

MASOUMEH EBTEKAR, Vice-President of Iran for Women and Family Affairs, said her country is currently facing wars on several fronts.  That includes an economic one imposed through sanctions, which impede the flow of medicines and vaccines amid a global pandemic, and a bitter propaganda war intended to smear Iran for having resisted aggression and subordination to global super-Powers.  Nevertheless, she said, Iran has advanced in many ways, including in areas related to women and the family.  It tops the list of developing nations in terms of human development indicators, with high rates of women in higher education, technology and academic faculties.  At the national level, a dashboard and several databases have been launched for monitoring progress on gender equity, and a bill to prevent violence against women that was adopted by the Cabinet will be enacted into law.

“The family is the spirit of the society and the cornerstone of moral, intellectual and spiritual development,” she said, stressing that the family unit is facing multiple challenges in today’s world.  In response, Iran has drawn up indicators for family prosperity and a national plan for family-friendly policies.  Besides those critical roles, women in Iran have also made significant strides in entrepreneurship.  Among other things, she said, the Government provides help to empower women heads of households, start‑ups for young graduates, soft loans and training for standard agricultural products to rural women.

KATRIN JAKOBSDÓTTIR, Prime Minister of Iceland, said sustainable development is impossible to achieve without social justice.  Welcoming the opportunity to review collective efforts towards gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, in all their diversity, she said the COVID-19 pandemic has taught humanity many important lessons.  For example, it spotlighted the need for strong health‑care systems that ensure equal access for every person.  The world has also seen the importance of a robust and comprehensive social system supporting those who have suffered economic hardship, she said, adding:  “We have also seen how vulnerable the gains we have made toward gender equality truly are.”  Moving forward, the international community must make it a mission to safeguard the fundamental human rights of women and girls.

Highlighting the critical need to ensure women’s full and effective participation in decision-making in public life, she said women remain largely underrepresented with most parliaments still male-dominated.  Globally, the world remains far from reaching full equality in the workforce, and women are too often absent or underrepresented at the highest levels of corporate boards.  Stressing that gender balance in employment is essential to women’s financial independence, she drew links between achieving that goal and ending all types of gender inequalities, including violence against women.  Against that backdrop, she called for a structural approach that includes paid parental leave, subsidized childcare, laws to close the gender pay gap and full access to women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

SOPHIE WILMES, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, European Affairs, Foreign Trade and the Federal Cultural Institutions of Belgium, recalled that, 25 years ago, women’s unequal share of power and decision-making was already recognized as a critical area of concern.  “We undeniably realized some progress, but no country has yet achieved women’s full, equal, effective and meaningful participation,” she said, while describing that goal as concrete and realistic.  First, women’s and girl’s empowerment and equal participation in decision-making requires the elimination of structural barriers, discriminatory laws and norms perpetuating gender stereotypes.  No law, tradition, religion, value, custom or culture can ever justify gender discrimination, she stressed, calling for stepped up efforts around the globe to ensure that every woman and girls knowns her rights and how to enforce them.

She agreed with other speakers that the fight against gender-based violence, both offline and online, is also crucial in that regard.  Such violence has dramatically increased during the pandemic.  Outlining Belgium’s efforts to combat all forms of gender-based violence, she said its national action plan is aligned with the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe, which sets legally binding standards to prevent violence, protect victims and ensure accountability for perpetrators.  She also underlined the importance of sexual and reproductive health and rights, emphasizing that women’s empowerment cannot be achieved without giving women choices in that arena.  “This should not be a contentious subject,” she stressed, calling for effective access to information, sexual and reproductive health services, modern methods of contraception, safe abortion and comprehensive sexuality education for all.

TIGRAN AVINYAN, Deputy Prime Minister and Chair of the Council on Women’s Affairs of Armenia, said protecting women’s rights and addressing discrimination against them is one of his country’s top priorities, as well as a key pillar of its current term on the Human Rights Council.  Outlining a range of national programmes and legislative reforms in that arena, he said the country’s Gender Policy Implementation Strategy (2019-2023) lays out goals for women’s equal participation in decision-making processes and well as achieving gender equality in science, education and the socioeconomic sphere.  Within the framework of its COVID-19 pandemic response and rehabilitation programmes, the Government has also undertaken targeted actions to mitigate the impact of the crisis on the most vulnerable groups, with a special focus on the needs of women and girls.

However, he said, the recent aggression by Azerbaijan against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh — with the involvement of foreign terrorist fighters — posed an existential threat to the population of Artsakh, making the issue of their protection an urgent priority.  Citing indiscriminate and disproportionate military attacks, shelling and bombardments that resulted in civilian casualties and mass displacement, he called for safe and unhindered humanitarian access to the civilian population.  There is also an urgent need to implement social and rehabilitation programmes targeting all women affected by the conflict, including those who were forced to flee to Armenia, he said.

ZORANA MIHAJLOVIC, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Mining and Energy and Head of the Coordination Body for Gender Equality of Serbia, expressed pride that, as of October 2020, her country is led by a Government in which half of ministers are women.  “Equal participation of women and men in political and public life in decision-making processes is a matter of justice, democracy, equality, respect for human rights and the matter of good governance,” she said.  Serbia leads its region in many of those respects, with a woman Prime Minister and two women Deputy Prime Ministers, a female governor of the National Bank and a female president of the Constitutional Court.

Outlining recent initiatives to strengthen women’s empowerment and participation even further, she said the country has improved its normative and strategic framework in the field of gender equality and prohibition of discrimination; established institutional mechanisms for gender equality at all levels; enhanced the institutional response to violence against women and raised public awareness; and incorporated gender-responsive budgeting.  Serbia is also the first country outside the European Union that introduced a gender equality index, an important instrument for creating policies in gender equality.  Drawing attention to the challenges now wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, she said much more work is needed to change gender stereotypes, promote a culture of non‑violence and tolerance and effectively apply the principles of gender equality to all public policies.

OLHA STEFANISHYNA, Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine, said equal rights for women and men in all spheres of life is a prerequisite for the success of European integration.  Ukraine’s gender policy is therefore aimed at all sectors, with 226 national indicators to shape gender-sensitive policies.  Since 2017, coordination of gender policy has been entrusted to her Office, with the Commission on Gender Policy Coordination established under her chairmanship.  In 2020, at the initiative of First Lady Olena Zelenska, Ukraine joined the G7 Biarritz Partnership and committed to reducing the pay gap, integrating a gender component into education, combating gender-based violence and reforming legislation on social leave.

To address the rising tide of domestic violence, she said the Government adopted a State programme featuring “hotline 1547”, launched in February 2020, which aims to prevent domestic violence, human trafficking and gender discrimination.  In its first year, more than 10,500 consultations were provided.  She went on to note that despite the ongoing temporary occupation of Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, Ukraine has continued to implement its first national action plan related to Security Council resolution 1325 (2000), adopted in 2016, as well as its second action plan, adopted in October 2020.  Ukraine also has developed communications campaigns to overcome gender stereotypes and prevent any manipulation of gender issues.

EVELYN WEVER-CROES, Prime Minister of Aruba, and INGRID VAN ENGELSHOVEN, Minister for Education, Culture and Science of the Netherlands, said the pandemic exposed the “painful contradiction” that the vast majority of people working on the front lines in health care and education are women.  And yet, women are underrepresented in decision-making within these sectors.  “This illustrates a wider problem,” they said. “The voices of women and girls, in all their diversity, still too often go unheard.”  The obstacles to their participation still go unseen.  Women and girls still fall victim to sexual and gender-based violence — in the streets, in their own homes and online.  “We must do better,” they insisted.

The Netherlands strives to ensure a more level playing field, especially within leadership positions, they said, noting that in February, the Dutch Parliament backed a diversity quota of at least 30 per cent women and 30 per cent men on the supervisory boards of listed companies.  In addition, the Government is exploring measures to be taken in semi-public and public organizations, such as hospitals and schools.  In all these steps, it is vital to ensure an intersectional approach, and the full, equal participation of civil society. Global challenges require multilateral solutions.  “It is essential that our resolve does not weaken,” they stressed.

THOMAS BLOMQVIST, Minister for Nordic Cooperation and Equality of Finland, associating himself with the European Union, said that the impact of COVID-19 has been more severe on women and girls, particularly those in vulnerable situations.  The only way to build back better from the pandemic is to put women and girls at the forefront of recovery efforts and to do more to eliminate gender-based violence.  “We need a systemic transformation from the grass‑roots to the global level,” he emphasized.  However, women and girls can only participate fully in society if they have the access and knowledge they need to make decisions regarding their sexual and reproductive health and rights.  That includes comprehensive sexuality education.  “Bodily autonomy is essential to the empowerment of women and girls and to the fulfilment of their rights,” he said.

He went on to note that gender equality has long been a foreign policy priority for Finland, which, in 2020, became the largest contributor of core support to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN‑Women).  Finland is committed to taking the global gender equality agenda to the next level.  In the Generation Equality process, the country co‑leads the Action Coalition on Technology and Innovation, aimed at bridging the gender digital divide, empowering women and girls as designers of gender‑responsive technologies, and creating safe and inclusive digital spaces for them to use their voices.  The Government established the International Gender Equality Prize to encourage discussion about gender equality on a global scale.  In 2021, the prize will be awarded, for the third time, to a person or organization that has advanced gender equality in a globally significant way.  Gender equality is also a priority theme in Finland’s campaign to join the Human Rights Council for the 2022-2024 term.

HASINA SAFI, Minister for Women’s Affairs of Afghanistan, said women in her country have made crucial gains since 2001.  Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government managed to push forward with it support to widows and women-headed households, both in rural and urban areas.  It advanced its digital connectivity initiatives and established a policy for women in crisis and emergency situations.  Women currently hold 27 per cent of seats in the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of Government, and 28 in the upper house.  Afghanistan has 4 female ministers, 13 female deputy ministers and commissioners and 3 female ambassadors.  A female judge has been nominated for membership on the High Council of Supreme Court for the first time in history, and four women are on the national peace negotiation team.

Despite progress, she said, more work is needed in coordination, programme implementation, monitoring and service delivery.  Those efforts must come from both the national and international levels, with clearly defined roles in order to maintain sustainability gains.  Asking all United Nations Member States for their continued support, she pointed out that targeted attacks and killings — which affect women in particular — have been steadily increasing in Afghanistan.  The ceasefire must be implemented as the top priority in order to stop those killings and move forward confidently with the peace process, she stressed.

KAOUTER KRIKOU, Minister for National Solidarity, the Family and the Status of Women of Algeria, reiterated her country’s faith in women’s decision-making capabilities and leadership potential.  Algeria spares no effort to support women in all spheres of life and works to engage women in all initiatives aimed at achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  Algeria is a pioneer in its number of female engineers, which stands at over 48 per cent, and 65 per cent of those graduating from higher education are women.

Outlining the country’s efforts to make its commitment to combat all violence against women into tangible impacts on the ground, she also described the ways it has been supporting women and families during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Amid that crisis, Algerian women proved that they can forge ahead with such crucial projects as infrastructure construction and household leadership.  Among other things, she said, the Government granted exceptional paid leave to women with small children during the pandemic.

SILVIA LOLI ESPINOZA, Minister for Women and Vulnerable Populations of Peru, agreed that the challenges facing women across the globe have only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.  While Peru and countries across Latin America have worked hard to empower women and achieve gender equality, efforts do not always yield immediate results, and like all the Sustainable Development Goals gender equality is a long-term project.  She recalled that Peru adopted a National Policy for Gender Equality in 2019, while enacting specific laws drawing up gender‑parity‑based candidate lists for national elections and ensure gender equality in farming communities.  There is also a new law prohibiting political harassment against women — which impedes women’s political participation — including sanctions for perpetrators, she said.

ZEHRA ZÜMRÜT SELÇUK, Minister for Family, Labour and Social Services of Turkey, said her country prioritizes women in all emergency situations and supports them through a strong social services network and comprehensive social assistance.  “Ensuring full and effective participation of women in public life and decision-making mechanisms is a multidimensional target that requires coordinated policies,” she observed.  To end discrimination against women, Turkey has prepared an empowerment strategy document and action plan, outlining five main policy areas:  participation in decision-making mechanisms, economy, education, health and media.

She went on to stress that the number of female parliamentarians has increased more than fourfold since 2002, while schooling for girls is “remarkably” higher in all levels of education.  The national development plan and employment strategy meanwhile aim to increase women’s participation in the labour market.  Turkey also has organized financial literacy and empowerment seminars, which have reached nearly half a million women.  The Prime Minister’s recently announced human rights action plan will allow the country to strengthen its approach in all policy areas, including empowerment of women and girls, she assured, noting that the number of violence prevention and monitoring centres have increased from 11 to 148 in the last two decades.

MÄRTA STENEVI, Minister for Gender Equality in the Ministry of Employment of Sweden, associating herself with the European Union, said she is a proud member of the Swedish feminist Government, which ensures that a gender equality perspective is central to all its ministries and priorities.  Noting that all people, including non-binary people, must have the power to shape society and their own lives, she stressed that human rights are universal and apply to all.  Everyone must be able to fully enjoy their human rights irrespective of sex, gender identity or expression, ethnicity, religion or other belief, disability, sexual orientation or age.  A feminist Government also ensures the equal rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons.

Welcoming the focus of this year’s Commission session, she said that, while gender balance might be reached, women’s conditions to perform their representative duties can still be hampered by gender-based violence, threats, harassment and cyberbullying.  “We also know that increased gender equality is no linear process — gender equality does not develop by itself, and it requires actors that counteract resistance and secure its proper implementation,” she said, echoing concerns raised by other speakers about women’s increased risk of gender‑based violence and other negative impacts amid the COVID-19 crisis.  Underlining the opportunity to build back better, she said women and girls must be put at the centre of all efforts to recover from the pandemic.

JANA MALÁČOVÁ, Minister for Labour and Social Affairs of the Czech Republic, associating herself with the European Union, said that, throughout the pandemic, the Government has raised awareness of support services for victims of violence experienced in intimate partnerships, sharing information via social media and television.  The Ministry has also supported families, offering benefits and allowances to those in financial need, often to single mothers.  The Czech Republic is turning the crisis into opportunity, she assured, with gender equality mainstreamed into recovery mechanisms to ensure more equitable economic growth.  The Government recently adopted the Gender Equality Strategy for 2021-2030, which includes 400 measures to tackle gender stereotypes, among other issues.  The second National Action Plan for the Implementation of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda for 2021-2025, meanwhile, sets strategic targets, defines measures to achieve them and those responsible for implementation.

MARYAM MONSEF, Minister for Women and Gender Equality of Canada, described COVID-19 as the most serious public health crisis ever faced by her country.  “It has laid bare fundamental gaps in our society and disproportionately impacted those who were already marginalized, vulnerable or struggling,” she said, noting that women have suffered steep job losses while many have bravely served on the front lines of this crisis.  Women have also carried the burden of unpaid care work at home and been impacted disproportionately by increases in rates of gender‑based violence.  Canada is inviting applications to its CA$100 million Feminist Response and Recovery Fund, and beginning on International Women’s Day 2021, it opened a virtual two-day summit focused on Canada’s feminist response and recovery.

Pledging that the Government will continue to work with strong feminists to create one million jobs and to improve health and safety outcomes for all women, she said it has so far been able to ensure that more than 1,500 organizations combating gender-based violence across the country were able to keep their doors open and pay their staff amid the pandemic.  Thanking its partners and many volunteers — who picked up the phone, answered texts and responded to questions throughout the pandemic — she outlined efforts to address broader inequalities in Canada.  Among other things, the country is also investing more than CA$6 billion in international assistance through its Feminist International Assistance Policy and plans to work closely with the Commission to learn more about ways to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

ELISABETH MORENO, Minister for Gender Equality, Diversity and Equal Opportunities of France, said that, while socioeconomic pressures are expanding everywhere amid the pandemic, women and girls have been disproportionately affected and also face the “shadow pandemic” of rising gender-based violence.  Emphasizing that women’s leadership is also the path out of the crisis, she said France has been promoting a system of universal feminism for years and underlined the need to draw critical lessons from the pandemic.  Equality between women and men must finally be enshrined in social systems around the globe.

In that vein, she stressed that women should have complete freedom of choice over their life plans and physical integrity, including their bodies.  France stands alongside those who fight for women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights around the globe, she said, noting that President Emmanuel Macron has championed those causes since taking office in 2015.  She also spotlighted his focus on climate and economic issues, as well as France’s support for putting women at the centre of their countries’ peace processes — a position for which it advocates in its role as a permanent member of the Security Council.  She also drew attention to the upcoming United Nations Generation Equality Forum, to be co‑hosted by France and Mexico, which provides a chance to adopt a set of ambitious measures aimed at achieving immediate and irreversible progress towards gender equality alongside concrete funding.

Also speaking during the general discussion were the Vice‑President of Colombia, as well as ministers and other senior Government officials of Spain, Egypt, Croatia, Norway, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Slovenia.


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