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Women’s Leadership, Equal Participation Key for Positive Change, Secretary-General Says in Observance Message, Stressing COVID-19 Forcing Reckoning with Gender Discrimination

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Following is text of UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ video message for the event marking International Women’s Day 2021, observed today:

Today we celebrate the women of the world who are leading their countries and communities through the urgent crises caused by COVID-19.

Over the past year, countries with women leaders are among those that have suffered fewer deaths and put themselves on track for recovery. Women’s organizations have filled crucial gaps in the provision of services and information on the pandemic, especially at the local level. Women peacebuilders have played a vital role in public health messaging in low‑trust and conflict‑affected communities. Seventy per cent of frontline health and care workers are women — many from racially and ethnically marginalized groups and at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Yet, even as women have played critical roles during the pandemic, we have seen a roll-back in hard-won advances in women’s rights. This regression harms women and girls above all — but it also harms everyone and all our work for peace and prosperity. In this Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals, we must turn things around.

As we look to this year’s Generation Equality Forums in Mexico City and Paris, we have many challenges to overcome. Too often, services are delivered by women, but decisions are made by men. Just 22 countries have a woman as Head of State or Government, just 21 per cent of ministers are women and women parliamentarians make up less than 25 per cent of national legislators.

Women have an equal right to speak with authority on the decisions that affect their lives. This is how we will ensure that decisions are inclusive and reflect the needs of the entire population. This is how we will rebuild from a pandemic that has made gender inequality worse, that has pushed more women into poverty, out of jobs and away from access to educational and medical services, including for sexual and reproductive health. This is how we will solve the urgent challenges of our time, from the pandemic to climate change, to deepening inequalities, conflict and democratic backsliding.

Gender equality is essentially a question of power. But, equal power will not happen by itself. This is still a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture. We need to work together with vision and determination to make equality happen. I am proud that we have achieved gender parity in United Nations leadership posts for the first time in history.

We must transform social norms. We must put in place laws and policies to support women in leadership, including special measures and quotas with ambitious targets, and do far more to appoint women to high-level positions. We must tackle violence against women both online and offline so that women’s voices are no longer silenced, especially in public life.

We must increase access to financing for women candidates, women’s organizations and feminist movements. And we must support women leaders in all their diversity and abilities — including young women, migrant women, indigenous women, women with disabilities, women of colour and lesbian, gay, transgender, intersex or questioning.

The COVID-19 has been a calamity for the world, and for women and girls. But, it has also forced a reckoning with global inequalities, fragilities and entrenched gender discrimination.

Women must be at the centre of the recovery as we make the course corrections that the pandemic has highlighted so vividly. This is a job for all of us. I look forward to working with all of you to advance women’s leadership, to achieve women’s rights and to build a future based on equality and dignity for all. Thank you.