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COVID-19 shows urgent need for strong push to meet unfulfilled promise of Beijing, Secretary-General tells twenty-fifth anniversary meeting

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Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the High‑Level Meeting on the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, held today:

To you all, good morning and good evening. It is a pleasure to address you on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fourth World Conference on Women.

The Beijing Conference was a watershed, a landmark, a turning point. For many of us, it was a moment for deep reflection. The bold vision and transformative agenda of the Beijing Conference made clear, first, that women’s rights are central to equality and justice everywhere; and second, that they are denied, obstructed and ignored — everywhere.

That was a wake-up call. Since then, we have made some important gains. Maternal mortality is down by nearly 40 per cent since 1995. More girls are in school than ever before in history. But, we have not fulfilled the ambitious vision of the Beijing Declaration. One woman in three still experiences some form of violence in her lifetime. Every year, 12 million girls marry before the age of 18.

In some parts of the world, levels of femicide — the killing of women — could be likened to a war zone. In 2017, an average of 137 women around the world were killed by a member of their own family every day. Women are still frequently excluded from peace negotiations, climate talks and decision-making roles of all kinds.

Worldwide, on average, women have just 75 per cent of the legal rights of men. The World Bank estimates that it could take 150 years to achieve gender parity in lifetime earned income. And that closing that gap would generate $172 trillion in human capital wealth. That is what we are all losing.

COVID-19 has emphasized and exploited the continued denial of women’s rights. Women and girls are bearing the brunt of the massive social and economic impact of the pandemic. Twenty-five years after Beijing, we are facing a women‑led recession as women employed in the informal economy are first to lose their jobs. Women nurses and carers are on the front lines of the response to the pandemic, but men still occupy 70 per cent of leadership roles in health care.

And women are suffering a shadow pandemic of gender-based violence during COVID-19, together with an increase in abusive and repressive practices, including early marriage and the denial of sexual and reproductive health care. Unless we act now, COVID-19 could wipe out a generation of fragile progress towards gender equality. The systems and structures of our world, based on millennia of male domination, are holding women back in all areas, with serious consequences for everyone. COVID-19 demonstrates that we urgently need a strong push to meet the unfulfilled promise of Beijing.

This is fundamentally a question of power, so it starts with the equal representation of women in leadership positions, in Governments, boardrooms, in climate negotiations and at the peace table — everywhere decisions are taken that affect people’s lives. Achieving this will require targeted measures, including affirmative action and quotas. This is a human rights issue and a social and economic imperative.

I encourage all Member States to make concrete, time-bound and ambitious commitments to women’s leadership and full participation. At the United Nations, we achieved gender parity in our leadership at the beginning of 2020, with 90 women and 90 men as full-time senior leaders. We are now working for parity at all levels, not only for the sake of our women staff, but because women’s leadership and participation makes institutions like ours more effective — as we have seen in the response to the pandemic.

COVID-19 is a catastrophe, but it is also an opportunity for transformative thinking that puts women front and centre of the response and the recovery. Stimulus funds should put money directly into women’s hands through cash transfers and credits. Governments should expand social safety nets to women in the informal economy and recognize the value of unpaid care work.

I repeat my call for urgent, comprehensive action on gender-based violence. The United Nations is working to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls, including through our partnership with the European Union, the Spotlight Initiative.

Looking forward, we need transformative, women-led changes to the failed structures and frameworks exploited by this pandemic. That is the only way we will implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and achieve lives of dignity and opportunity for all.

I also urge you to step up support for the grass‑roots civil society organizations that have always been at the vanguard of the women’s rights movement. The upcoming Generation Equality Forum, co-hosted by the Governments of Mexico and France, will be an opportunity to build networks and partnerships for change.

In recent times, we have seen around the world a pushback against gender equality and women’s rights. Now is the time to push back against the pushback. I would like to correct a common misconception. The Beijing Conference did not only concern women. It concerned women, men, girls and boys. Women’s full human rights and freedoms are fundamental to peace and prosperity on a healthy planet. For everyone, everywhere.

I salute the visionary women — and men — who led the way 25 years ago. Let’s finish what they started.

For information media. Not an official record.