The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to wipe out a generation of progress in gender equality, United Nations experts told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as they led a series of interactive dialogues that explored how best to uphold the rights of women and children amid increases in violence and suffering brought on by new virus-induced realities.
The day’s discussions — all held online — touched on topics from discrimination against women and girls, to obstetric fistula and children in armed conflict, with experts describing precarious environments of social isolation and financial insecurity that amplify risks to women and children. The new COVID-19 reality has also reduced access to recourse, resulting in an uptick in gender-based violence and in the incidence of child marriage and trafficking. They underscored the need for increased funds and concerted action to arrest the rollback in hard-won gains.
Virginia Gamba, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, expressed deep concern about “the scale and severity of grave violations committed against children”, noting that 2019 had witnessed an exponential increase in verified incidents of denial of humanitarian access. The pandemic has undermined access for monitoring, verification and response efforts. “We must mitigate the impact of the pandemic, which restricts access to children, disrupts education and health, and hampers dialogue [with] parties to conflict,” she stressed.
In the ensuing interactive dialogue, held virtually, several delegates asked how they could best support the Special Representative’s mandate. The representative of the Russian Federation raised the “most acute issue” of repatriating children from conflict zones and asked how the process might be spurred on in circumstances in which States showed no political will or desire to do so. Germany’s delegate meanwhile said the increase in child abductions was “disturbing” and asked how monitoring measures could be maintained during the pandemic.
Earlier in the day, Elizabeth Broderick, Chair of the Human Rights Council Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women and girls, said the adverse impact of the pandemic on women’s work “cannot be overemphasized” against the backdrop of pre-existing precariousness, characterized by systemic inequality, accelerated globalization and the feminization of poverty. “The world of work starts with women’s human rights, and the redistribution of power and resources,” she stressed. Around the world, there is a backlash against gender equality, she warned, noting that forces are working to reverse gains made in women’s human rights, by entrenching stereotypes around gender roles and curtailing women’s control over their own bodies.
On similar lines, Dubravka Šimonović, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, said gender-blind restrictive measures to tackle the pandemic must not exacerbate gaps in prevention of gender-based and domestic violence. States should take modified measures to secure women’s peace and safety at home, including e-helplines and the use of hotels as shelters.
Also making presentations today were Diene Keita, Deputy Executive Director (Programme), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA); Hilary Gbedemah, Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women; and Asa Regner, Deputy Executive Director, Normative Support, United Nations System Coordination and Programme Results, UN-Women.
The Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Monday, 12 October, to continue its virtual interactive dialogues.
Interactive Dialogues — Advancement of Women
A morning dialogue on the theme “Advancement of women” kicked off with a series of expert presentations, delivered virtually, followed by an interactive discussion among Committee members. It featured remarks by Elizabeth Broderick, Chair of the Human Rights Council Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women and girls; Asa Regner, Deputy Executive Director for Normative Support and United Nations System Coordination and Programme Results of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women); Diene Keita, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA); Hilary Gbedemah, Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women; and Dubravka Šimonović, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.
Ms. BRODERICK said the Working Group, a key mandate of the Human Rights Council, was established in 2010 and is one of only four thematic mandates that address the human rights of women. Outlining its focus areas, she said the group reports on women’s engagement in political and public life, economic and social issues, culture, and health and safety. In addition, it is working to counter recent rollbacks and erosions in gains made in advancing women’s rights. Noting that the Working Group issues official communications to Governments and has conducted 18 country visits to date, she said it has studied such issues as domestic workers’ rights and gender-based violence. Its reports inform the Human Rights Council and contribute to the development of national laws around the globe. The Working Group also collaborates regularly with the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and regional human rights mechanisms.
Noting with concern that overall progress towards gender equality remains “too slow and too uneven” — with marginalized women too often left behind — she also warned that forces across the globe are working to reverse gains made in women’s human rights. This manifests in attempts to curtail women’s control over their own bodies. Warning that such challenges have only been exacerbated amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she underlined the need to reassert the rights of women and help them live lives of dignity. States should also ensure a gender-sensitive and intersectional approach to their national COVID-19 responses and recoveries, she said.
In the ensuing dialogue, many delegates voiced concern that attempts are under way to reverse hard-won gains in advancing the rights of women and girls. Some agreed that COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities, heightened women’s economic insecurity and eroded access to health care. Speakers also shared their national experiences — especially in the context of the pandemic — noting with concern that instances of gender-based violence are on the rise globally, and posed questions to Ms. Broderick.
The representative of Algeria outlined a range of emergency measures undertaken amid the pandemic to protect women’s rights from rollbacks. Noting that universal access to social protection is crucial, as it tackles the root causes of gender inequality — notably social exclusion — she asked Ms. Broderick how the Working Group is addressing that issue.
In a similar vein, the representative of the European Union described the bloc’s new gender equality strategy, introduced this year. Its priorities include ending gender-based violence, promoting access to sexual and reproductive health and closing gender pay gaps. It also recognizes the need to engage men and boys and build solidarity. He asked Ms. Broderick to outline steps that can be taken to prioritize women in national COVID-19 recovery strategies.
The representative of Mexico also posed a question, asking Ms. Broderick how she views the issue of sexual harassment and its roots in cultural practices.
The United Kingdom’s delegate said the Government is working to pivot its programmes to bolster women’s human rights amid COVID-19, including by promoting their political participation, tackling gender-based violence and supporting sexual and reproductive rights.
Ms. BRODERICK responded briefly, agreeing with speakers who expressed their concern about the new challenges that are profoundly jeopardizing the health, safety and rights of women. Noting that women’s voices are also largely absent from policy responses to COVID-19, she called on States to ensure their equal and meaningful participation in decision-making. Turning to the growing backlash against women’s rights — as manifested in broad hostilities towards so-called “gender ideology” — she said that around the globe, many women still live with the threat of criminal punishment for sexual conduct. Meanwhile, the practice of child marriage is increasing due to COVID-19, and access to reproductive rights is being rolled back. These issues must be a top political priority, and civil society must be given the space needed to combat that backlash, she said.
Also participating in that discussion were the representatives of Australia, France, South Africa, Malta and Saudi Arabia.
Ms. KEITA introduced the Secretary-General’s report on “Intensifying efforts to end obstetric fistula within a decade” (document A/75/264), recounting her own experience as a civil society activist. Noting that fistula is a childbirth-related injury that leaves women incontinent and in pain for years, she said its continued occurrence represents a stark failure of health systems to deliver for women. While noting that the number of women suffering from obstetric fistula has declined in recent years, she pointed out that the illness is completely preventable by providing skilled birth attendants and family planning services. Among other recommendations, she said more attention should be given to prevention and treatment strategies, awareness raising, financial support and research and data collection. “No one deserves to suffer from obstetric fistula,” she stressed, calling on Governments to uphold the rights of women and girls — especially those who are married and become mothers at a young age — and emphasizing that fistula is one of the worst manifestations of gender-based violence and discrimination imaginable.
In a brief ensuing discussion, the representative of Senegal said her delegation plans to introduce the Committee’s annual resolution on ending obstetric fistula in the coming months, on behalf of the African Group. She also outlined Senegal’s own far-reaching policy reforms and pointed out that financing for maternal health care remains a major concern for many countries, including in Africa.
Also participating in that discussion was the representative of the European Union.
Ms. REGNER expressed concern that, amid COVID-19, a “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence is now threatening women around the globe. Recalling the Secretary-General’s recent warning that COVID-19 could wipe out gains made towards achieving gender equality, she said UN-Women — together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) — created a COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker, which has recorded 992 gender-sensitive measures across 164 countries. Describing these policy responses as “heartening”, she nevertheless warned that COVID-19 continues to disproportionately affect women. It has also weakened States’ ability to tackle instances of gender-based violence and made it more difficult for women to leave or report their abusers. Detailing efforts to counter this abuse, she cited a finding in the Secretary-General’s report that 80 per cent of countries have recently introduced new laws or services aimed at preventing gender-based violence, providing psychosocial support, raising awareness and strengthening social protection measures.
Delegates expressed their views, shared national experiences and posed questions during a subsequent interactive dialogue. The representative of the United Kingdom underlined her country’s unwavering commitment to the rights of women and girls, pointing out that it is leading the global effort to eliminate gender-based violence in all its forms. The United Kingdom has committed an additional $3.3 million to support women’s rights organizations on the front lines of the fight against gender‑based violence.
Spain’s representative said his Government has recently enacted a range of laws in support of victims of gender-based violence. These include a gender violence containment plan, which was created amid the COVID-19 crisis. He asked Ms. Regner what practical steps can be taken, in light of the pandemic and the twentieth anniversary of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000), to prevent the erosion of gains made towards achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women.
The representative of Iran said conflict, extremism and now the outbreak of COVID-19 jeopardize gains previously made, especially in developing countries. Unilateral economic sanctions still imposed by some States are exacerbating these challenges, and women suffer the most as they are disproportionately engaged in informal labour. Iran has made major strides towards women’s advancement despite the “economic terrorism” long waged against his country, he said, calling on all countries to recommit themselves to multilateralism.
The representative of Afghanistan, recalling his delegation’s recent election to the Commission on the Status of Women, said the progress made by women in Afghanistan demonstrates their transition “from victim to effective partner in multilateralism”.
The representative of the European Union posed several questions, recalling that in recent months, 146 United Nations Member States and observers joined a statement in support of the Secretary-General’s appeal for gender-based violence to be a focus of national COVID-19 response efforts. She asked how Ms. Regner would assess progress made so far to that end.
Japan’s delegate asked what specific measures are being taken by UN-Women to address violence taking place behind closed doors during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what the Agency’s advice would be for its various partner organizations.
Responding, Ms. REGNER recalled that UN-Women is tasked with developing a plan for the 146 countries that “answered the appeal of the Secretary-General” to include gender-based violence as a priority issue in their COVID-19 responses. It held a side event during the General Assembly’s high-level week on violence against women during COVID-19, and will now study “what works” in an effort to elaborate specific methods and strategies. What is clear is that measures to combat gender-based violence must be concrete in their effects, and more pressure is needed to bolster funding and fill financing gaps. UN-Women has been active on the ground to support the implementation of actions listed in the Secretary-General’s appeal, she said, also calling on Governments to redouble their efforts to implement Council resolution 1325 (2000).
Also participating were the representatives of Mexico and Ethiopia.
Ms. GBEDEMAH said the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action have been drivers of women’s empowerment and gender equality over the decades. Maternal mortality rates have fallen dramatically, and more than 150 countries have enacted legislation aimed at promoting gender equality and empowering women. However, attempts to roll back those gains are increasing, and human rights defenders face new threats and attacks. Drawing attention to Sustainable Development Goal 5 (gender equality), she said the Committee is also advancing efforts to link the achievements of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to the Convention’s legally binding norms.
Among other topics, she said, the Committee is undertaking assessments related to human trafficking, female genital mutilation, the abduction of women and girls, forced marriage and the shrinking space for women in activism. It has adopted several new Guidance notes on the rights of women in the specific context of COVID-19, including one calling for reasonable accommodation to online access. She went on to advocate ongoing support for United Nations treaty bodies from the regular budget, which should remain a top priority as financial pressure on the Organization continues to build. These mechanisms are particularly important as human rights are being eroded, and they have largely continued to deliver on their mandates throughout the pandemic.
Several delegates shared their national experiences during the ensuing dialogue, with some outlining specific legislation adopted to prohibit gender discrimination. Pakistan’s representative described his country’s national gender-sensitive development model, which invests in women’s economic growth and uses new technology to promote financial inclusion. Pakistan also established a comprehensive national monitoring system to protect women’s safety, complete with a 24-hour hotline, which provides free legal advice.
The representative of the Russian Federation expressed regret that the Committee continues to use its platform to issue broad interpretations of State obligations — even States that are not party to the Convention — and to use language that has not been universally agreed upon. It is inappropriate and even counterproductive for the Committee, having considered a single complaint against a State, to make “sweeping recommendations” about the need to revise national legislation. The Committee also fails to consider States’ cultural specificities, he added.
The representative of Germany asked Ms. Gbedemah what actions Member States can take to raise awareness about the Convention, and how efforts to “build back better” after COVID-19 can be rendered more inclusive of women. The representatives of Japan and the United Kingdom posed similar questions.
In a brief response, Ms. GBEDEMAH said the nature of the Committee’s dialogues with countries will change to reflect the new challenges posed by COVID-19. For example, discussions about education parity will now include specific questions about how many girls have returned to the classroom in the wake of the pandemic. Responding to the representative of the Russian Federation, she said it remains crucial to address topical issues that continue to emerge in the Committee’s work, even when they prove difficult to navigate.
Also participating in that discussion were the representatives of Morocco, France and Afghanistan, as well as the European Union.
Ms. ŠIMONOVIĆ, noting that this is her fifth and final presentation to the Committee in her capacity as Special Rapporteur, said her report focuses on the intersection of COVID-19 and gender-based violence. Describing the pandemic’s impact on her own work, she recalled that while she was able to conduct some of her planned country visits, others had to be postponed. Among other things, she issued a press statement on the need to tackle gender-based violence in the context of COVID-19 and produced guidance on the availability of shelters and access to helplines. In May, she hosted an online meeting of United Nations expert human rights mechanisms — some of which are represented at today’s meeting — and issued a joint statement on COVID-19, gender-based violence and discrimination against women.
Listing a range of challenges resulting from the pandemic, she said access to services for women has been widely impacted, and the collection of data — including on femicide and other critical issues — has regrettably been curtailed. “The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures must not be a barrier to preventing violence against women and domestic violence,” she stressed, adding that women must be integrated into decision-making processes and especially COVID-19 response policies. She went on to call for the increased harmonization of national laws with international standards and the prioritization of issues related to gender-based violence and discrimination at the United Nations.
In the ensuing dialogue, numerous delegates shared their perspectives and concerns on the “shadow pandemic” of domestic violence affecting women in lockdown and asked about the best strategies to tackle the issue. Other questions centred on how States can best support women’s organizations during this extraordinary time, as COVID-19 has revealed the urgency of addressing the drivers of gender-based violence.
“Violence is preventable,” the United Kingdom’s delegate stated, a point echoed by Morocco’s delegate, who asked Ms. Šimonović for her views on how civil society and national human rights bodies can support victims in accessing justice during quarantine.
The representative of the Netherlands said the “gender-blind” responses initially implemented at the start of the pandemic soon gave way to a crisis for women. It is now understood that responses must be gender-responsive and intersectional, and that Governments must work closely with civil society groups on the ground, particularly in the Global South.
The representative of the Republic of Korea agreed that survivors of gender‑based and sexual violence must be at the very centre of COVID-19 policies and responses. Outlining national efforts, he said his country has experience supporting the so-called “comfort women” who suffered violence during the Second World War. It is also working to provide tailored assistance to survivors across Asia and Africa.
Argentina’s delegate said gender-based violence impacts not only women but also the entire lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. She asked Ms. Šimonović to outline the main challenges facing countries as they attempt to align their national laws and policies with international normative frameworks on gender.
The representative of Sweden, on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic Countries, asked how to prevent the misuse of lockdown restrictions, including to curb access to abortion by classifying sexual and reproductive health care as a “non-essential service”.
Ms. ŠIMONOVIĆ replied that it is “timely” to focus on violence against women, calling for it to be taken up as a priority issue at the United Nations, in an inclusive manner that involves all concerned agencies and independent mechanisms. Recalling that her current and previous reports outline good practices on services to prevent gender-based violence — such as enhanced funding for non-governmental organizations, shelters and helplines for domestic violence — she said States can also open online consultations to ensure efficient protection orders.
Also participating in the interactive dialogue were representatives of Malta, Italy, Qatar, Slovakia, Cuba, France, Namibia, Colombia, Liechtenstein, Mexico, the Russian Federation, Ireland, Brazil, New Zealand, Canada, Switzerland, Georgia, Slovenia, Belgium, Algeria, Afghanistan and the United States, as well as the European Union.
Rights of children
In the afternoon, the Committee heard presentations by Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict Virginia Gamba; and Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children, Najat Maalla M’jid.
Ms. GAMBA, presenting the report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (document A/75/203), said 2019 had witnessed an alarming rise in grave violations of children’s rights, including a 400 per cent increase in cases of denial of humanitarian access to children, along with persistent violence, and attacks against schools and hospitals. “But not all has been bad news,” she said, adding that efforts to hold parties of conflict to account had led to a record number of 27,000 children being released.
Expressing concern about the downsizing of missions and the limiting of resources, she called on the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary), the Security Council, and the Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations to ensure adequate staffing and budgeting, as it is critical to the fulfillment of her mandate. “We must mitigate the impact of the pandemic, which restricts access to children, disrupts education and health and hampers dialogue [with] parties to conflict,” she stressed, adding that the socioeconomic impact exacerbates the risk of child trafficking, sexual abuse, and their recruitment and use in armed conflict.
In the ensuing interactive dialogue, the representative of Germany said the increase in abduction of children is “disturbing” and asked how monitoring measures can be maintained during the pandemic.
Mexico’s representative echoed concerns about the reduction in activities to protect children in situations of armed conflict and asked about reintegration programs that include a gender focus.
The representative of Turkey expressed regret about the action plan to end the recruitment and use of children, reached between the Secretary-General and the “so-called” Syrian Democratic Forces. She objected to a reference to a command order to prohibit recruitment in paragraph 44 of the report and asked why there is “a lack of adequate information” on this issue.
Pakistan’s representative said that according to reports, children in “illegally occupied Jammu and Kashmir” had been wounded by pellet guns, tortured, and were illegally detained without charge or due process. He asked how children’s rights may be monitored in areas where access is denied.
The representative of the Russian Federation said the repatriation of children from conflict zones was a “most acute issue”. He asked what could be done to revitalize these processes when States show no political will or desire to do so.
Ms. GAMBA, responding to delegates’ comments and questions, outlined measures taken by her office since the pandemic to protect children, including enhancing cooperation at the technical level, and maintaining networks of monitoring officers. She said Member States could support her mandate by advocating for resources and positions to engage in practices to protect children. Governments also can urge fellow Member States to support accountability measures and sign instruments, such as the Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups.
Also participating in the dialogue were representatives of Colombia, Morocco, Belgium, Italy, Qatar, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, France, Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates, Slovenia, Azerbaijan, Argentina, Estonia, Malta, United Kingdom and Syria, as well as the European Union.
Ms. M’JID, presenting the annual report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children (document A/75/149), outlined actions taken since the beginning of her mandate in July 2019, including visits to China, Indonesia, Maldives, Mozambique and Oman. However, planned visits to countries including Jordan, Iceland, Vanuatu and Senegal had to be postponed due to the pandemic. COVID-19 has made it even harder to achieve target 16.2 of the 2030 Agenda, to end all forms of violence against children, she said, adding that its “far-reaching long-term impact will especially affect the most vulnerable.” School closures, added family stress and the disruption of child protection services all amplify the risks faced by children. Moreover, financial instability drives up child poverty, child marriage, and recruitment into gangs and armed groups.
In November, she will release a report detailing the many ways that the pandemic has impacted children, she said, featuring the responses of 30,000 children from 130 countries.
The Third Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. on Monday, 12 October, to continue its interactive dialogues with Special Procedure mandate holders.