Paris conference aims to fast-track road to gender equality


UNITED NATIONS — An international conference opening in Paris on Wednesday aims to fast-track the road to gender equality and mobilize millions of dollars to achieve the long-sought goal quickly, the head of the U.N.’s premiere global body fighting to empower women says.

UN Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said in an interview with The Associated Press that the underfunding of women’s programs and the slow implementation of a 150-platform to achieve gender equality adopted by the world’s nations in Beijing in 1995 “leaves a lot of women in a situation where they will never really realize their true and full potential.”

What the three-day Generation Equality Forum starting Wednesday is about, she said, is tackling and funding all areas where women have been “short-changed” — forced marriage, gender-based violence, leaving school, experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change, trying to crack glass ceilings, losing out on innovation and technology, and ensuring their sexual and reproductive rights and health.

“Many of the problems that women face in 2021, we know the answers,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said. “The fact is that we are not doing what is right by women is a true reflection of people who really don’t care or understand the pain that women go through.”

The Generation Equality Forum in Paris, an initiative of UN Women marking the 25th anniversary of the 1995 Beijing women’s conference, was delayed from last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and will be mainly virtual because of the continuing global impact of the coronavirus. It is a follow-up to a forum in Mexico City in March and is co-chaired by France and Mexico.

Mlambo-Ngcuka said the forums bring together not just the U.N.’s 193 member nations but civil society, the private sector, men and boys, young people, philanthropists and religious and traditional leaders.

“All of these are going to be announcing what it is they are going to do different in the next five years, in order to change the trajectory for women’s future,” she said in a virtual interview Monday from Paris. “Anyone who is going to speak at this conference, they are speaking because they are making a commitment.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka said Wednesday’s opening of the Generation Equality Forum at the Elysee Palace will include remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the presidents of South Africa and Argentina and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who will be speaking virtually.

When Mlambo-Ngcuka became head of UN Women in 2013, she said the budget was about $250,000, and she was told “our mission is to take UN Women to half a million — and my heart almost stopped.”

At this week’s conference, she said, she will be announcing “a new day” for the U.N. agency including major contributions that will transform UN Women “into a true coordinator of the women’s agenda in the world.” Without disclosing the amount, she indicated it will be in the millions and that in the future “we’re looking more for billions.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka said UN Women will receive investments from the World Bank, the Gates Foundation whose co-founder Melinda Gates will be in Paris, from governments, the Ford Foundation, the private sector including Salesforce, “and other very important contributors … that will help us to push the agenda forward,” she said.

Investments are especially needed now, she said, because COVID-19 “has disproportionately affected women.”

Two-thirds of those who lost jobs in the pandemic were women, and many were in “the informal sector” with no savings or support. she said.

“But they are committed to jump up so we need to meet them halfway,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said. “Getting women into the labor force was one of the major pushes we’ve had in the last 25 years. We still were not where we wanted and needed to be, but we were pushing nevertheless.”

She said girls education also increased dramatically in the last 25 years and was making “headway” until the pandemic forced girls to drop out of school.

UN Women is determined to “get the girls wherever they are and bring them back to school” even if they became pregnant during COVID-19 because of non-consensual sex, she said.

“We need to rescue them from this and make them survivors and continue with their education,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said. “We cannot afford just to give up.”

She said the pandemic also increased the burden for women of caring for family members and others.

At the Generation Equality Forum, Mlambo-Ngcuka said, an alliance of countries, the private sector and civil society will launch a new approach changing “the way we do care” that will focus on infrastructure for caring for children and for the elderly as well as policies, money and laws.

“And we’re very thankful that the United States is in the leadership on that” along with Bangladesh, South Africa, Argentina and other countries, she said.

U.N. goals for 2030 include achieving gender equality.

Mlambo-Ngcuka said technology can now accelerate things that used to take a long time and UN Women has already enlisted Google, Microsoft and Salesforce and is reaching out to other technology companies to help close gaps in education, to speed up police reactions to violence against women, and to close the digital divide for women including migrants and refugees.

“We are also looking for companies that can address economic empowerment and opportunities for women to do much better in improving their economic well-being in a shorter time,” she said.

For example, she said, it should be possible for women in rural Congo rural areas to sell goods in New York quickly.

“I am hoping that in 2030 we will have some countries who would have come close to achieving gender equality,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said.

And by pushing harder, she said, it’s possible that even more can reach gender equality by 2050.

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