New York, N.Y. — For more than a year, I have covered the United Nations for Global Sisters Report, and it's hard not to feel that the soul of the U.N. belongs to women.
Yes, at the upper ranks of the world body, men still dominate. I hear good things about the new U.N. secretary-general, António Guterres of Portugal, who brings with him much-needed experience in the area of migration and vows to make gender equality and representation in the U.N. part of his core commitment to the top position.
But many women — including many of the Catholic sisters who represent their congregations at the U.N. — were keenly disappointed that a woman was not appointed secretary-general last year, especially since there were a number of women who were extremely qualified for the job.
I think others shared their disappointment, particularly since women bring special passion and zeal to the work of the United Nations.
This is always apparent in March, when the United Nations marks both International Women's Day (always on March 8) and hosts a two-week-long conference on women's issues.
This will be the 61st meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women. During the annual session, which runs March 13-24, the U.N. headquarters in New York hosts U.N. member states, U.N. organizations and nongovernmental groups like the Catholic sisters. Collectively, they examine the progress women are making globally while also looking at ongoing challenges, problems and aspirations.
This year's theme focuses on women and the changing world of work, something highlighted during the U.N.'s commemoration on this year's International Women's Day (which, by the way, could not accommodate all of the people who showed up for it — people were literally turned away at the doors of the U.N.'s Trusteeship Council Chamber).
In his remarks, Guterres noted the ways sexism continues to hold back women.
"Women's rights are human rights," he wrote in prepared remarks. "But in these troubled times, as our world becomes more unpredictable and chaotic, the rights of women and girls are being reduced, restricted and reversed. Empowering women and girls is the only way to protect their rights and make sure they can realize their full potential."
He added: "Historic imbalances in power relations between men and women, exacerbated by growing inequalities within and between societies and countries, are leading to greater discrimination against women and girls. Around the world, tradition, cultural values and religion are being misused to curtail women's rights, to entrench sexism and defend misogynistic practices."
In her message, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, the United Nations' women's organization, said: "We want to construct a different world of work for women. As they grow up, girls must be exposed to a broad range of careers, and encouraged to make choices that lead beyond the traditional service and care options to jobs in industry, art, public service, modern agriculture and science.
"In roles where women are already overrepresented but poorly paid, and with little or no social protection, we must make those industries work better for women," said Mlambo-Ngcuka. "For example, a robust care economy that responds to the needs of women and gainfully employs them; equal terms and conditions for women's paid work and unpaid work; and support for women entrepreneurs, including their access to finance and markets."
UN Women backed up these calls with statistics that show the ongoing challenges of the gender gap in work.
"Only about 50 per cent of working age women compared to 76 per cent of men are represented in the labour force globally today," the organization said in a press release, "and women take on 2.5 times more unpaid work than men. The global gender pay gap is 23 percent."
The Catholic sisters attending the upcoming meetings believe the theme of women and work strikes at the very heart of their congregations' tradition and mission.
School Sisters of Notre Dame Sr. Eileen Reilly, who directs her congregation's work at the U.N., said the sisters "see our mission of education as enabling persons to reach the fullness of their potential. In our 21st-century world, we believe that the economic empowerment of women is essential if women are to thrive."
I spoke last week to Sr. Teresa Kotturan, the U.N. representative of the Sisters of Charity Federation and always a passionate advocate for women. She told me that the annual women's commission meetings, which bring women to the U.N. from across the globe, recognize that women "play a major role not only in the family and society, but in the global scenario."
"If women are empowered, you have an empowered society, an empowered family, an empowered nation," she said.
For Kotturan, the key goal in the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals — the U.N.-led efforts to end poverty and other global problems — is the fifth goal, "achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls."
"If you empower women, you can more easily achieve the other SDGs," she told me.
Take the issue of water, for example. In many countries, women still spend an inordinate amount of time fetching water for their families.
If there were better access to water, Kotturan said, women could spend more time with families or working for their families. That would also help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals' sixth goal — ensuring "the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all."
There are other examples of the way focusing on women could help boost life for millions. Guterres noted that "closing the gender gap in employment could add $12 trillion to global GDP by 2025."
I had heard the same message a week earlier, when Yann Borgstedt, Swiss entrepreneur and humanitarian, spoke at the U.N. on why men should support investment in women.
Citing statistics from the U.N. and other sources, Borgstedt noted that there is a steep economic cost in keeping women back.
"The failure of 65 countries to educate girls to the same level as boys collectively costs them $92 billion a year," said Borgstedt, who in 2005 founded the Womanity Foundation, which focuses on empowering women and girls in a number of countries, including Afghanistan, through work and educational projects.
Boosting women's economic empowerment is a boon, he said at the Feb. 27 event sponsored by the Women's International Forum. As just one example, Borgstedt said women's "economic independence is key to family well-being: Women reinvest 90 percent of their income in the family, whereas men, only 30 to 40 percent."
Other studies have shown that in places where gender equality is emphasized, labor forces are happier and have higher levels of productivity, and countries have increased gross national products and happier populations, Borgstedt said.
These are all part of a piece, but it's also important that women and girls have a voice in the deliberations like the ones planned at the U.N. in March.
The School Sisters of Notre Dame has submitted a statement to the U.N. on this subject ahead of the meetings. It calls on the Commission on the Status of Women to ensure girls "have a place at the table and a voice during these deliberations."
"When creating programs, such as initiatives and trainings that potentially empower women, include a range of teen girls, in a block large enough that their voices can be joined in conversation and discussion with each there and with the adults in the room," the SSND statement says.
"They are the guides as to what they need in order to emerge, to be supported, to be empowered, and to be given the chance, structure, and opportunity to flourish economically and otherwise. In such venues and surveys, it is critical to provide space to actually listen to the voice of girls."
Let's hope the U.N. does that very thing in the coming weeks.
[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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