Gender equality will not be achieved for another 300 years at the current rate, says UN secretary-general

Women’s rights are “abused, threatened and violated” around the world and gender equality will not be achieved within 300 years on the current track, the United Nations secretary-general warned Monday.

Antonio Guterres told the opening session of the Commission on the Status of Women – the UN’s main global body fighting for gender equality – that progress won over decades was lost because “the patriarchy fought back.”

The UN chief pointed to Afghanistan where “women and girls have been erased from public life,” and said that in many countries women’s sexual and reproductive rights have been rolled back.

He also said that school-going girls are at risk of kidnapping and assault in many places, and he complained that some policemen are preying on the vulnerable girls they are supposed to protect.

“From Ukraine to the Sahel, crisis and conflict affect women and girls first and foremost,” Guterres said.

Among other setbacks, he said, maternal mortality is on the rise and the impact of COVID-19 is forcing women to marry and preventing them from going to school, while preventing mothers and caregivers from paid work.

During its two-week session, the Commission on the Status of Women focused on closing gender gaps in technology and innovation. The secretary-general said the topic could not be more timely because women and girls are being left behind as technology races ahead.

“Three billion people are still not connected to the internet, most of them are women and girls in developing countries, (and) in the smallest countries only 19% of women are online,” said said Guterres. “Globally, girls and women make up only one-third of students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Men outnumber women two to one in the tech industry and in the growing field of artificial intelligence only about one in five workers is a woman, he said.

He said that “big data” is the foundation of political and business decisions, “but often ignores gender differences – or turns a blind eye to all women – resulting in products and services that cater to non- gender equality from the beginning.”

Guterres called for urgent action to equalize power between men and women.

He said there should be increased education, employment and income for women and girls, especially in developing countries. He called for the full participation and leadership of women in science and technology to be promoted “from governments to board rooms and classrooms.”

Guterres also said that a safe digital environment should be created that eliminates “misogynistic disinformation and misinformation” and “gender-trolling” on social media.

Sima Bahous, executive director of UN Women, told the commission’s opening meeting that “the digital divide has become the new face of gender inequality.” He said that last year there were 259 million more men than women online.

She also cited a survey of female journalists from 125 countries that found three-quarters had experienced online harassment in the course of their work and a third had engaged in self-censorship in order to answer.

In Afghanistan, Bahous said, the women who speak through the YouTube and blogging the Taliban have marked their doors and many have fled the country to ensure their safety. In Iran, many women continue to be targeted for participating in online campaigns, she said.

She said the challenge is to “fix the institutions and harmful gender stereotypes surrounding technology and innovation that frustrate women and girls” and ensure that online spaces are free of abuse and that the guilty is liable.

“If we don’t leave this session saying collectively, unequivocally, ‘Enough, no more,’ then we will fail,” Bahous said.

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