Statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet
29 October 2020, 16:00-17:00
I thank Göttingen University for organizing this seminar.
It is a pleasure to join Professor Amartya Sen in discussing an issue that has been so dear to me -- and so present throughout my life.
In the past decades, whether as a Cabinet member or Head of State and Government of my country, or when I joined the United Nations, one of my priorities has been to address the widespread inequalities that can harm women and girls in every society.
Perhaps one of the most pervasive and systemic forms of inequality is the one based on gender, established over millennia of discrimination and stereotypical narratives and gender roles.
Fortunately, the unwavering commitment and advocacy of civil society groups, feminist movements and women’s rights activists have yielded many advances in our long, unfinished path towards gender equality.
This year, we celebrate the anniversary of a milestone among them.
The adoption of the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 25 years ago was nothing short of revolutionary.
One hundred and eighty nine countries recognized that “women’s rights are human rights”.
They pledged to achieve gender equality, in practice and in law, so that all women and girls could fully enjoy their inalienable rights and freedoms as equal human beings.
The Beijing Conference is considered a milestone because it gave a platform to women’s movements worldwide that challenged the broad tolerance for discrimination against women.
The Beijing Declaration consolidated the call to establish gender-based violence as a human rights violation, rather than a private matter to be dealt within the family.
It supported the voices of those women who challenged the narrative of harmful practices as “respect for culture” and deemed them to be abhorrent across all regions of the world.
The Declaration recognized women’s diversity and the need to address multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.
The progress that ensued was truly remarkable.
From constitutional provisions to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, strong normative standards and political commitments have emerged to promote gender equality and women’s rights at all levels -- national, regional and international.
Maternal mortality worldwide has dropped dramatically.
In many professions once closed to women, they now hold leading positions.
Legal frameworks, policies and specific institutions to address gender-based violence have been put in place in virtually all countries.
And at the beginning of the year, we were nearly achieving gender parity in health and education globally.
While progress is unquestionable, it has been uneven and often too slow.
Among the 193 UN Member States, only 21 have a female head of State or Government and only 14 have at least parity in the national cabinet. In national legislatures, the situation is even worse, and only four have at least 50 percent women. p>
In several countries, many of women still do not have the right to open a bank account, obtain credit or own land, nor equal inheritance right.
The gender gap in economic participation and opportunity is widening – and that was the case even before the pandemic. In the current pace, it will take us an unacceptable 257 years before this gap is closed.
Globally, the gender pay gap is estimated to be around 23 per cent. Women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn for work of equal value – with an even wider wage gap for women with children.
Around 62 per cent of the global workforce, over 2 billion people, earn their livelihoods in the informal economy, which is responsible for 90 per cent of total employment in low-income countries and 67 per cent in middle-income countries. In many developing countries, women represent the majority of informal workers and are often in more vulnerable situations than their male counterparts.
In addition, women bear the brunt of more than three-quarters of the world's unpaid care work, according to the International Labour Organization. As a consequence, women are more likely to be employed in precarious, ill-paid jobs, with no access to social insurance benefits such as paid maternity leave, unemployment insurance or pensions.
Social protection systems that take into account women’s unequal burden of unpaid care work through their life cycle help correct this imbalance and ensure women’s human rights are not endangered.
My Office had been working with several initiatives in this regard.
Let me give you a few examples from South America. In Paraguay, we are studying the impact of unpaid care work on the realization of women’s right to social protection. In Peru, we are working with afro-descendant women in Lambayeque and Piura to give voice to their experience of systemic discrimination in access to social protection and decent work. And in Uruguay we are looking at COVID-19 cash transfers and how they contribute to protect women’s rights.
In all fronts, the pandemic has been eroding the hard-won achievements on gender equality we have been discussing.
The negative impact of the pandemic range from the heightened risk of gender-based violence and unmet needs for sexual and reproductive health and rights to the loss of jobs, livelihoods and access to education and the increased burden of unpaid care work.
The effects are global.
According to recent assessments:
In Turkey, while paid hours reduction affected men more, job losses affected more women.
In Cambodia, the outbreak of COVID-19 has increased the number of hours many rural women spend on unpaid care and domestic work, with 31% spending more than 6 hours every day on these activities. It is worth highlighting that this is, actually, a general trend. It has been triggered by both the health crisis and its impacts, especially the closure of schools, given that the care for children, the sick and older people falls heavily on women.
While many European countries depend heavily on women migrant workers to perform care work, many have lost their income or jobs due to the economic shock experienced by their employers. In some cases, they found themselves on the street, without food, money, or support networks, and at risk of being trafficked.
Worldwide, women and girls are reporting increased levels of sexual violence and harassment – online and offline. Economic losses are exposing them to extreme forms of violence, such as survival sex, child marriages and female genital mutilation. Among the most affected worldwide are those already in vulnerable situations and in marginalized communities, including women living with disabilities, migrants and rural women.
Access to education has also been severally disrupted by COVID-19, affecting around 90% of the world’s children. When not in school, girls are less likely to continue studying and face additional risk of child marriage and pregnancy. Approximately 7.6 million girls from pre-primary to secondary school may not return to school.
Furthermore, we are witnessing a retrogressive trend to undermine gender equality and the rights of women, girls and LGBTI people. Opposition to gender equality is again on rise, including continued resistance to women’s autonomy over their bodies and lives
The crisis has revealed that our existing societal model, built on inequalities, is just not sustainable.
The pandemic is a human tragedy but, from it, we have the remarkable, once in a lifetime opportunity to change course. To recover better than we were before.
And this is an opportunity we just cannot miss.
We are at a turning point to make human societies more equal, as envisioned in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
For that, let me be clear.
Gender equality is not an optional extra, nor can it be cast aside in times of crisis.
As recognized by the whole world through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, it is essential to peaceful, just and resilient societies.
Ignoring this would not only be unprincipled, betraying the fundamental promises every country has made to its people, but counterproductive.
As I often say, we cannot meet any challenge playing with just half of the team.
But according to the recent assessment by UN Women and UNDP, among over 2.5 thousand COVID-19 response measures taken in 206 countries and territories, less than half are gender-sensitive.
Only 48 countries have integrated measures to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls as essential services in COVID-19 response plans.
Only about 10% of the total fiscal, economic, social protection and jobs responses address women’s economic security.
And only 8% of the social protection and labour market measures that were taken directly address unpaid care.
We must enhance integration of human rights and equality, including gender equality, in all response and recovery plans.
And to recover better, we need to address the systemic inequalities and structural discrimination that made us so fragile in the first place.
We need "a new social contract for a new era”, as the Secretary-General called for.
That means, and I quote him, a “New Social Contract and a New Global Deal that create equal opportunities for all and respect the rights and freedoms of all."
Such transformational change will require deep solidarity and strong global cooperation.
To take gender equality fully into account, there some concrete steps we should take.
One: Invest in universal and gender sensitive social protection, universal health care and public care services.
Two: Protect labour rights of those working in precarious employments and in informal sectors, and support micro, small and middle enterprises.
Three: Recognize and redistribute unpaid domestic and care work, including in the social protection system.
Four: Prioritize services to respond to gender-based violence and make sure women and girls have access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Five: Ensure women and girls’ access to education and eliminate the gender stereotyping that often prevent girls from freely choosing their life and career development in diverse areas of occupations. In addition, all children should have access to age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education, and
Six: Bridge the digital divide, including gender digital divide, and ensuring safe and equal access to digital technology for all.
Seven: Support the transition to a healthier, resource efficient green and circular economy.
Eight: Ensure women’s full and equal participation in decision making and policy design.
Sustainable recovery efforts from COVID-19 will be efforts that simultaneously address inequalities through advancing universal social protection, including universal health coverage, and protect the environment for current and future generations. They will integrate access to education, protect the right to housing and food, and shield people from extreme poverty. And they will be grounded in inclusive, participatory processes and ensure equal opportunities for all.
Everyone must benefit from rights-based response and recovery efforts.
These are uncertain times, with the situation evolving as we speak. To recover better and sustainably, forward looking research is as essential as urgently needed policies.
With the global recession we face, we cannot wait for the full resumption of global growth to invest in social infrastructure or in achieving gender equality. We need a new model for macroeconomic and fiscal policies, one that sustainably mobilizes “maximum available resources” for the sustainable enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights for all.
That may require tax reform, stronger accountability to eliminate corruption and tax evasion, and human rights-based and gender-responsive budgeting.
And, we must not lose sight of another severe crisis we are facing. The climate emergency is an existential threat. Together with environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and pollution, it constitutes one of humanity’s gravest challenges ever, contributing both directly and indirectly to human rights violations around the world. We need and ambitious climate action. And we need more knowledge and strategies on how to ensure gender equality in the green economy, and how we can accelerate the transition to a green economy through advancing gender equality.
I am sure this is a year none of us will ever be able to forget.
Indeed, we live in a time of multiple, massive and complex global crises.
To all of them, the answer is human rights.
The challenges are grave, but I must say I am a strategic optimistic.
And the reason is simple. Despite all moments and examples of division, I trust that we can all come together and act as one humanity. Because this is what we are. And I
know, that if we work together, we can rebuild societies that uphold human rights and freedoms.
These will be societies that will be more resilient. More just. More equal.
Societies where development will be sustainable.
Societies that will be better.
As you have said, Professor Sen, “development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency.”
I look forward to our discussion.