COVID-19 poses a host of new, complex questions for leaders and policymakers worldwide. How do we secure both rapid production and equitable distribution of vaccines? How should we reform labour markets and global supply chains in light of the pandemic’s economic impact? How do we ensure that children do not lose valuable life chances after the disruption to their education caused by lockdowns and other restrictions?
Yet underpinning all of these new questions are long-standing challenges that reflect deep systemic inequalities in our world, with violence and discrimination against women and girls being one of the most serious of all.
The coronavirus outbreak has exacerbated existing inequalities for women and girls in many ways – from health and the economy, to security and social protection. Yet the pandemic also provides an opportunity for radical, positive action to redress long-standing inequalities in multiple areas of women’s lives.
As part of this redress, it is vital we prioritise the prevention of violence against women in the COVID-19 response and recovery.
The Generation Equality Forum (GEF) that opens this week in Paris is a key opportunity to tackle these challenges head on. It should have taken place last year, marking 25 years since the landmark UN World Conference on Women in Beijing.
The Declaration that emerged from that conference remains the most comprehensive framework for achieving women’s empowerment and gender equality, but the persistent inequalities that have again been so vividly exposed by the pandemic show how much progress still needs to be made.
This is why the GEF meeting in Paris is so important. Amid all the other competing priorities for leaders’ attention, it is a chance to renew and revitalise global commitment to gender equality, and secure a set of concrete, ambitious and transformative outcomes so the next 25 years are ones of real progress, not squandered chances.
As a man born into a patriarchal society, I have always been acutely conscious of the discrimination faced by women and the disproportionately heavy burden they bear from man-made crises, from conflict and poverty to climate change.
My mother used to tell me about the danger for women for giving birth. She said, "Women would look once again at their rubber shoes before going into labour, being unsure whether she would wear those shoes again." Those words have stayed with me throughout my life.
My childhood was scarred by the Korean War, when my family was uprooted from our village and I saw how women had to pick up the pieces and rebuild whilst the men were called to fight.
This is why, as Secretary-General of the United Nations, I was determined to make women’s rights and gender equality a key priority. It is why I established UN Women, a dedicated UN agency charged with tackling discrimination and promoting equality. And it is why I championed the Sustainable Development Goals, which have equality and empowerment at their heart.
I am proud to call myself a feminist. But I am dismayed that so many other men, including those in positions of power and responsibility, remain locked in sexist and misogynist mindsets and, by their actions and inactions, continue to oppress and denigrate women in both public and private spheres.
Women pay a terrible price for this male failure. Research last year by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) predicted at least 15 million more cases of domestic violence around the world for every three months that COVID-19 lockdowns were extended.
On top of this, women continue to face persistent, entrenched economic discrimination in all sectors. Women do far more unpaid labour than men, and even when they are part of the labour market, women-owned businesses face a global credit gap of $1.5 trillion, which prevents them from investing in and expanding their operations.
If this is to change – and change it must – then male leaders must take responsibility, acknowledge their failings and transform their attitudes and public messages.
Groups such as MenEngage are undertaking valuable work to underscore the connections between gender-based violence, misogynist mindsets and wider systemic inequalities pertaining to climate change, public health and access to justice.
This is critical work, but if men are serious about proving ourselves to be feminists, we have to cede space, relinquish certain privileges we and our forefathers have enjoyed for centuries, and make way for women in positions of leadership.
All participants at the Generation Equality Forum in Paris should recall the words of the pioneering French feminist Simone de Beauvoir:
“To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man… when we abolish the slavery of half of humanity, together with the whole system of hypocrisy that it implies, then the 'division' of humanity will reveal its genuine significance and the human couple will find its true form.