Bachelet: Achieving Gender Equality is “a Necessity and an Obligation”

On September 25th, 2015, the United Nations General Assembly approved the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be met over the next 15 years. The excitement was still palpable the next morning at a breakfast meeting convened at the International Peace Institute on “Accelerating Efforts to Promote Gender Equality and Women’s Rights.”

The focus of the meeting was Goal 5, which talks of achieving gender equality and empowering women.

Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile and a co-host of the meeting, said it was essential to see this issue in its proper context, interacting with the other goals. “Empowering women is an objective by itself, but also, it will enable the achievement of the rest of the goals,” she said.

She proclaimed, “Promoting progress towards building a more equitable and just world, that guarantees the rights of women and girls, is more than a challenge. It’s a necessity and an obligation.”

Erna Solberg, the Prime Minister of Norway, and also a co-host, said it also benefitted men. “Gender equality is important not only for the sake of women, but has positive impacts for women and men,” she said. She cited the example of her own government, which has achieved equal representation of male and female ministers. Furthermore, her male colleagues have all joined UN Women’s gender equality campaign, HeForShe.

Referring to possible objections from other member states, she said, “We will not accept tradition, culture, or religion, to deny or scale back women’s human rights.”

“Women and men experience conflicts differently,” Ms. Solberg emphasized, and cited IPI research that demonstrates how women’s influence in peace processes almost always leads to reaching a peace agreement that is then more likely to be implemented.

To that end, Jeffery Feltman, UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, stated that while there is plenty of room for improvement, there has already been much progress made at the UN in implementing the women, peace and security recommendations. For instance, he said, all UN mediation support teams now include women.

“Women’s rights are priorities in conflict-resolution work,” he said. Looking forward, Mr. Feltman would like to see a gender advisor added within the Department of Political Affairs at the UN Headquarters, to mirror what is being implemented in the field. Peace, he concluded, is a “more sustainable process if women are involved at every stage.”

Yannick Glemarec, Assistant Secretary-General of UN Women, noted the “quite unprecedented” usage of the same terms by three of these reviews in reference to women, peace and security. To translate this into action, he said, “What we know is that well-designed, well-resourced policy works.”

José Manuel García-Margallo y Marfil, Foreign Minister of Spain, the country that will hold the Security Council Presidency in October, the 15 year anniversary of the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security, emphasized the leadership role his country has taken on gender equality. The Spanish Presidency, he said, will be “fully committed to give new impetus to this important agenda.”

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, discussed the policies she has implemented to advance women’s rights and gender equality. Fourteen percent of Liberian security forces are female – the UN target is 20% – following an active program of recruitment. Ms. Johnson Sirleaf also said she faced resistance for making rape a crime without bail.

She said that Liberian women had taken heart from her example. “Today, because of me and the example I set, in the most rural areas, they now participate in decision-making,” she said. “They participate because they feel they can be leaders.”

Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, African Union Commission Chairperson, reiterated the positive role model her colleague Ms. Johnson Sirleaf, the only female African Head of State, provides for young girls. “Before President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, young girls in Africa didn’t think they could become President of a country,” she said.

She emphasized the importance of teaching gender equality from the beginning of children’s socialization. “On our continent, boys are treated as superior, allowed to bully girls. And then we are surprised when they are adults?” she asked. We “must work on future generations,” she said, “to be better than we are now.”

Bafana Khumalo, co-founder of Men Engage, an alliance of NGOs working together with men and boys to promote gender equality, also discussed the importance of such engagements from a young age, and ensuring that such a conversation is as inclusive as possible, incorporating sensitivity to LGBT issues.

Michael Kimmel, a Sociology Professor at Stony Brook University, has devoted much of his career to engaging men about gender equality. He advised the best place to “engage men is in their relationships to women they already care about.”

Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), also highlighted gender sensitivity for youth, which, he said, will reduce conflict and gender-based violence. Mr. Osotimehin discussed the importance of investing in data, which has impacts far beyond statistics. “Given the technologies we have today, we have to register births, so that everyone has an identity that is legal.” Then, he said, “We can protect rights.”

Charlotte Bunch, Founding Director of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, noted that while policy changes regarding women’s rights always come following significantly organized advocacy, this “crucial link in the system of women’s empowerment” is “dramatically underfunded,” she said.

Ms. Bunch lamented the challenges of building a support base for this work, “particularly when 90 countries have increased restrictions on civil society engagement,” she said.

Linda Noor, Managing Director of Minotek, a think tank working on minority issues in Norway, said that strategies for countering violent extremism developed for men are not applicable for the way that women, especially the several hundred European women who have traveled to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), deal with extremism and violence. The online magazine of ISIS, she said, had recently published a 6-page defense of selling women into slavery, penned by female authors. More analysis on such uses of “females to spread anti-female attitudes and norms” is needed, she said.

Sanam Anderlini, International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), said, “coming from the Middle East, all the women we work with are literally facing an existential threat.”

Including women at the peace table brings the perspective of an entire community, not just the voices of women, Ms. Anderlini said. “In my 15-20 years, I’ve never heard a peace activist in a war zone who only speaks about women, they always speak about men.” she said. “I challenge the men to speak about what women are going through.”

Ms. Solberg closed the panel by drawing upon the themes of a few of her fellow panelists, stating, “There is a new perspective with the rise of violent extremism and rights of women. We now have to look at women who are at risk because they are raising their voice. It is not just in the Middle East- it happens in our own countries.”

Women challenging traditions and their cultural background are particularly in the “crossfire” she said. “We now have to look even more thoroughly at how we secure the rights of women who are at risk, because they are raising their voice,” she said.

Terje Rød-Larsen, President, IPI, made welcoming remarks, and Geir O. Pedersen, Permanent Representative of Norway to the United Nations, moderated the conversation.

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