“One-quarter isn’t equality. Equality is one-half.”
— Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of U.N. Women
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World leaders don’t often gather with the sole purpose of investing money in women’s advancement. They don’t even typically gather for major discussions on the issue; it seems to happen only about once every quarter-century.
The last time was in 1995 for the Beijing World Conference on Women. That was when Hillary Clinton, the first lady at the time, delivered her now-iconic “women’s rights are human rights” speech, considered so audacious back then that officials at home had advised her to soften it. China even cut off airing her speech in the convention center as she was speaking.
By the end of that summit, almost every country in the world had committed to the “full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life.” It was considered groundbreaking even though activists saw the commitment as toothless.
More than two decades later — and after a pandemic that reversed many advances in gender equality — world leaders gathered in Paris on Wednesday with a heightened sense of urgency, committing to a host of new ambitious goals on gender equality. And this time, with significant financial commitments on the table.
At the Generation Equality Forum convened by U.N. Women, political leaders, corporate executives and activists unveiled a total of $40 billion to advance gender equality — most likely the largest dollar amount ever dedicated to the issue. The funding will go toward instituting hundreds of new gender-focused policy proposals on issues including gender-based violence, which spiked globally during the coronavirus pandemic, economic empowerment and access to reproductive health services.
“Women are just one-quarter of those who are managers, they are one-quarter of parliamentarians around the world, they are one-quarter of those who negotiate climate change, less than one-quarter of those who negotiate peace agreements,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of U.N. Women, said at the opening ceremony. “One-quarter isn’t equality. Equality is one-half.”
Mrs. Clinton returned to the stage and urged world leaders and activists to “continue the progress that was started and spread throughout the world 26 years ago.”
“Looking back, I believe we have made progress — not near enough — and we have to recommit ourselves to going even further,” she said.
President Emmanuel Macron of France noted that Covid-19 turned out to be “an anti-feminist virus” that pushed more women around the world into poverty, nudged more girls out of school and locked women in with their abusers.
Significant nongovernmental pledges were also announced on Wednesday. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said it would put $2.1 billion toward gender equality work over five years, one of the organization’s largest-ever single commitments. The announcement cemented Ms. French Gates’s longtime focus on gender equality, which she has noted remains an underfunded area in philanthropy. The Ford Foundation committed $420 million over the next five years, with $159 million devoted to addressing gender-based violence.
U.N. forums tend to be better known for photo opportunities, handshakes and lofty declarations, not broad-scale, catalytic action. The platform agreed to in Beijing had no real financial backing, and it involved neither the private sector nor civil society in the negotiations or the writing of the overarching priorities.
To avoid repeating that mistake, the organizers of this year’s forum devised a new system: All participants — whether U.N. member states or grass-roots activist organizations — would be required to submit clear, measurable proposals that fell under any of the six main policy areas: eliminating gender-based violence, advancing women’s economic empowerment, enhancing access to sexual and reproductive health care, increasing gender parity in private and political spheres, investing in gender-focused climate change solutions and narrowing the gender digital divide.
“We recognize that everybody’s not starting from the same starting point but everybody can make an effort based on their national capacity, and so it’s for countries to define in which areas they want to be committed,” said Delphine O, secretary general for U.N. Women’s Global Forum.
Some government representatives tried to sneak in half-baked commitments, such as laws that had already been passed or items with no budget attached, Ms. O said. In those cases, U.N. Women went back to those participants and asked them to step up their game.
But some of the commitments were ambitious, sometimes to the surprise of the forum’s organizers. Kenya, for instance, came forward with a plan to counter gender-based violence that includes new funding for survivor recovery centers, legal services and psychological support systems. Other African countries then used Kenya’s proposal as a template for their own plans to curb gender-based violence.
The United States had not signed up to participate in the forum under President Donald J. Trump but changed course under the Biden administration, submitting its finalized commitments just last Friday. The range of U.S. commitments, which were crafted by the Biden administration’s new Gender Policy Council, fell under three categories: women’s economic security, gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health and rights, both domestically and internationally.
“This is the strongest that the U.S. has come in, in many years,” said Sarah Hendriks, director of the policy and intergovernmental division at U.N. Women.
Of the many charismatic speakers on Wednesday, one — Shantel Marekera, an advocate from Zimbabwe and a member of the U.N.’s youth task force — seemed to capture the mood.
“It sounds silly that we’re still talking about this in 2021,” she said onstage in Paris. “We are done talking.”
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