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UN highlights transformative power of equal participation, marking International Women’s Day

In a message on International Women’s Day, marked annually on 8 March, Secretary-General António Guterres outlined “clear evidence”, such as better social protection programmes, stronger climate policies and enduring peace agreements, when women are in governments, parliaments or peace negotiations.  

“Whether running a country, a business or a popular movement, women are making contributions that are delivering for all and driving progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”, Mr. Guterres said. 

“I call on countries, companies and institutions to adopt special measures and quotas to advance women’s equal participation and achieve rapid change”, he urged. 

The UN began celebrating the International Day in 1975, which was designated International Women’s Year. Over the decades it has morphed from recognizing the achievements of women to becoming a rallying point to build support for women’s rights and participation, in the political and economic arenas. 

This year’s commemorations, under the theme, Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world, comes as the world continues to navigate the pandemic, which has wiped out decades of hard-won progress towards gender equality. 

COVID-19 erased decades of progress 

Women have borne the brunt of the coronavirus  pandemic – from being pushed into poverty, to losing jobs as the informal economy shrinks, to an alarming spike in domestic violence and the unpaid care burden. 

However, in spite of the impact on their lives and rights, women have stood resolutely on the frontlines of pandemic response, as essential workers, care givers and leaders.  

“As we recover from the pandemic, support and stimulus packages must target women and girls specifically, including through investments in women-owned businesses and the care economy”, the UN chief urged. 

‘No country prospers without women’s engagement’ 

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN-Women, the Organization’s entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, underlined the need for political will to actively and intentionally support women’s representation. 

In a message, she went on to note that concrete efforts such as setting and meeting parity targets, at all levels of government; or special measures such as putting in place and enforcing quotas and policies to address representation for “real progress” on women’s leadership.  

Without such measures, progress can be slower or even non-existent and easily reversed, she warned. 

“No country prospers without the engagement of women”, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka highlighted, calling for women’s representation that reflects all women and girls in all their diversity and abilities, and across all cultural, social, economic and political situations.  

“This is the only way we will get real societal change that incorporates women in decision-making as equals and benefits us all”, the head of UN-Women added. 

‘Responsibility of our lifetimes’ 

We are at a pivotal moment … the responsibility of our lifetimes is upon us: to create more equitable, inclusive, just, and sustainable post-pandemic societies 
— High Commissioner Bachelet 

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that discrimination against women is what is holding them back, not a lack of interest or capacity. 

Speaking at a commemorative event at the Human Rights Council, the UN rights chief stressed that discrimination leads to laws that prevent women from controlling their bodies, owning land or accessing credit. 

She called for specific action, including special measures and quotas to “break the cycle of exclusion”, which results in disproportionate share of caregiving responsibilities, social norms preventing equal access to education, as well as violence, harassment and harmful practices. 

“We are at a pivotal moment … the responsibility of our lifetimes is upon us: to create more equitable, inclusive, just, and sustainable post-pandemic societies”, Ms. Bachelet added. 

UNICEF/Juan Haro
Women campaigning against child marriage at a village in south-centre Niger.

When women lead, ‘we all win’ 

Ghada Waly, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), highlighted, in particular, the importance of women’s leadership and representation in law enforcement and judiciary. 

Their increased participation ensures more investigations into crimes against women, better policing outcomes, and successful victim-centred approaches, she added, noting that women also enable “systemic changes”, including lower rates of violence and greater integrity through diversity. 

“These are major victories for public trust and effective institutions. When women lead, we all win”, Ms. Waly said, recalling the UN Crime Congress Kyoto Declaration, adopted on Sunday, in which governments pledged to remove impediments to the advancement of women within criminal justice systems. 

Celebrating women leaders in Afghan peace process 

Empowering these women, and expanding women’s participation, will be critical to ensure a just and sustainable peace that protects the rights of all Afghans 
 — UNAMA head Deborah Lyons

In Afghanistan, the UN Assistance Mission (UNAMA) highlighted that 2021 is a “historic opportunity for a lasting peace” that will benefit all Afghans, reiterating that women must play a leading role in decision-making at all levels of the peace process. 

“The peace process has brought to the fore strong Afghan women leaders, who have negotiated on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and rallied support in their communities for a peaceful solution to the conflict”, Deborah Lyons, Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan said in a message. 

“Empowering these women, and expanding women’s participation, will be critical to ensure a just and sustainable peace that protects the rights of all Afghans.”  

Unsplash/Matteo Massimi
Two women pray at a temple in Yangon, Myanmar.

Listen to the voices of Myanmar’s women: UN Country Team

Meanwhile in Myanmar, the UN Country Team (UNCT) applauded the country’s women and women civil society organizations for their role in Myanmar’s “slow journey towards a more democratic, peaceful and prosperous society”. 

“For decades, women, across Myanmar have worked both in the shadows and in broad daylight, often at high risks to their safety and well-being, to advocate for peace, support the peace process and deliver essential services when and where there were no government services to be had”, UNCT said in a statement, praising also their contributions to prevent and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

They are “once again demonstrating their leadership and agency” following more than one month of instability and violence, in the aftermath of the military takeover on 1 February. 

The UNCT added that across Myanmar, women, young and old are leading the call for peace, justice and democracy “with courage, braving bullets and beatings, death and detention, challenging patriarchy and social norms in the process”.   

“At this time of crisis, we urge all stakeholders, in Myanmar and abroad, to listen to the voices of the women of Myanmar and we echo the words of the UN Secretary-General reaffirming the unwavering support of the UN to the people of Myanmar in their pursuit of democracy, peace, human rights and the rule of law.” 

Global commemorations 

UN agencies together with partners also organized commemorative events around the world to mark the International Day. 

The UN World Health Organization (WHO) introduced the Global Brest Cancer Initiative, which aims to reduce global breast cancer mortality by 2.5 per cent per year until 2040, thereby averting an estimated 2.5 million deaths. The agency is also hosting an advocacy event Hearing the call of women with breast cancer, where the Initiative will be presented to the global cancer community. 

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) highlighted the impact of the pandemic on girls, warning that ten million additional child marriages could occur before the end of the decade. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) called on the international community to take urgent steps to protect refugee, displaced and stateless women and girls facing poverty and gender-based violence due to COVID-19 and its socio-economic fallout. 

Similarly, in Asia and the Pacific, the UN’s regional development arm, ESCAP, launched a new report The long road to equality, which shows that while levels of women’s representation in the region have increased, the progress “remains uneven”, both within and among countries. 

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