Today is International Women’s Day. With the pandemic still occupying center stage in global affairs, the UN effort on its Sustainable Development Goal 5 to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” is in trouble. Women have been disproportionately adversely affected by the pandemic, tens millions leaving the workforce to take care of children, tens of millions losing jobs and having no safety net. Various reports have reviewed the disparities and the loss of progress towards achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. See, e.g., UN Women, From Insights To Action, Gender Equality in the Wake of COVID-19 (September 2020); (“The pandemic has widened gender and economic inequalities.” “COVID-19 is exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems. It is forcing a shift in priorities and funding across public and private sectors, with far-reaching effects on the well-being of women and girls. Action must be taken now to stop this backsliding.”); UN Women, SPOTLIGHT ON GENDER, COVID-19 AND THE SDGS, WILL THE PANDEMIC DERAIL HARD-WON PROGRESS ON GENDER EQUALITY?, https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/spotlight-on-gender-covid-19-and-the-sdgs-en.pdf?la=en&vs=5013.
It is against this backdrop that statements and actions today on the importance of Women to the achievement of sustainable development goals should be seen. Below are materials from the UN Women’s Executive Director, the heads of the three Geneva organizations with a trade mission or function that are headed by women, and the announced actions today by President Biden in the United States.
UN Women Executive Director Statement
The following statement was made today by the UN Women Executive Director. See International Women’s Day Statement by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women Executive Director, on International Women’s Day 2021, Change up the pace: women at the table, March 8, 2021, https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2021/3/statement-ed-phumzile-international-womens-day-2021. The statement is copied below in its entirety.
“International Women’s Day this year comes at a difficult time for the world and for gender equality, but at a perfect moment to fight for transformative action and to salute women and young people for their relentless drive for gender equality and human rights. Our focus is on women’s leadership and on ramping up representation in all the areas where decisions are made – currently mainly by men – about the issues that affect women’s lives. The universal and catastrophic lack of representation of women’s interests has gone on too long.
“As we address the extraordinary hardship that COVID-19 has brought to millions of women and girls and their communities, we also look ahead to the solid opportunities of the Generation Equality Forum and Action Coalitions to bring change.
“During the pandemic, we have seen increased violence against women and girls and lost learning for girls as school drop-out rates, care responsibilities and child marriages rise. We are seeing tens of millions more women plunge into extreme poverty, as they lose their jobs at a higher rate than men, and pay the price for a lack of digital access and skills. These and many other problems cannot be left to men alone to solve. Yet, while there are notable exceptions, in most countries there is simply not the critical mass of women in decision-making and leadership positions to ensure that these issues are tabled and dealt with effectively and this has affected the pace of change for women overall.
“There are breakthroughs to celebrate, where women have taken the helm of organizations such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank and we look forward to more such appointments that help to change the picture of what a leader looks like. Yet this is not the norm. In2020, as a global average, women were 4.4 per cent of CEOs, occupied just 16.9 per cent of board seats, made up only 25 per cent of national parliamentarians, and just 13 per cent of peace negotiators. Only 22 countries currently have a woman as Head of State or Government and 119 have never experienced this – something that has important consequences for the aspirations of girls growing up. On the current trajectory, we won’t see gender parity in the highest office before 2150.
“This can and must change. What is needed is the political will to actively and intentionally support women’s representation. Leaders can set and meet parity targets, including through appointments for all executive positions at all levels of government, as has occurred in the few countries with gender equal cabinets. Special measures can work; where countries have put in place and enforced quotas, they have made real progress on women’s leadership, as have those that have policies to address representation. Where these measures do not exist, progress is slower or even nonexistent and easily reversed.
“No country prospers without the engagement of women. We need women’s representation that reflects all women and girls in all their diversity and abilities, and across all cultural, social, economic and political situations. This is the only way we will get real societal change that incorporates women in decision-making as equals and benefits us all.
‘This is the vision of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals and the vision of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. It is the vision of civil society and multitudes of young people who are already leading the way and of all those who will join us in the Generation Equality Action Coalitions. We need bold decisive action across the world to bring women into the heart of the decision-making spaces in large numbers and as full partners, so that we can make immediate progress on a greener, equitable and inclusive world.”
Video of Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of the WTO, Acting Secretary-General Isabelle Durant of UNCTAD, and Executive Director Pamela Coke-Hamilton of the International Trade Centre
For International Women’s Day, the three heads of multilateral organizations in Geneva involved in trade put out a video entitled, International Women’s Day — Leading global trade: Three women, three organizations. The note accompanying the video states “For the first time, all three major global trade organizations have women leaders: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the WTO, Isabelle Durant at UNCTAD and Pamela Coke-Hamilton at ITC. On International Women’s Day, they talk about the importance of looking at trade through a gender lens, and how trade can help tackle the challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic.” https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news_e.htm.
Top priorities to boost recovery outlined by the three leaders include the following. For Director-General Okonjo-Iweala, her first priority to boost economic recovery, is the health aspect. “It is absolutely a top priority for me that we should look at how to make equitable and affordable access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics happen. It is unconscionable that any countries or peoples should be waiting for any of these medical products. And we know that until we tackle the health challenges, we will not be able to really get a handle on the economic challenges and return to a sustainable growth path that would spell recovery from the pandemic. So that’s a really important priority. Second is what can trade do to boost the economic recovery? How can we liberalize trade in certain sectors to make sure that supply chains stay open and work and that countries can produce more and sell more? So what can trade contribute to that? It’s a priority for me that export restrictions and prohibitions that have been put by countries during this time of the pandemic be dropped or minimized or phased out very quickly so that we can have a freer flow of goods and intermediate inputs. So those are two top priorities that I think we need to focus on to boost economic recovery.”
For Acting Secretary-General Durant, her first priority is “to ensure that our institutions contribute to making trade a real tool for recovery, especially for those countries, groups and sectors that have paid a high price due to the pandemic. My priority is that everything we provide them in terms of analysis, data, technical and intergovernmental support helps them steer their recovery towards more inclusive and greener sectors and strategies. Climate change is indeed the greatest threat to current and future generations. Countries need urgently to start planning and implementing actions to adapt their production and trade to the ruthless effects of climate change: what does this imply for better production methods; new comparative advantages; investments; diversification of their economies; and regional integration and value chains? I have the same concern for fairness in the digital revolution. How can developing countries derive the greatest benefit for their development, and become players in it, when digital technology has become the driving force of the economy? COVID has shown the importance of digital infrastructure, policies and skills. More than ever, we need the cooperation, expertise and experience of all to build the road to recovery, because we all know that countries we are far from being equal when it comes to these issues.” (English translation from French as provided in the video).
For Executive Director Pamela Coke-Hamilton, her first priorities are “empowerment and equality — empowerment by building resiliency for MSMEs through partnership; empowerment for recovery by moving towards greener trade. ITC is starting a new initiative to support MSMEs and green trade, helping MSMEs adopt more sustainable practices, pursue opportunities in the circular economy and participate in greener supply chains. Empowerment through digital inclusion by promoting greater integration of MSMEs in digital economies and facilitate digital access for all. Empowerment of women and youths. A dedicated program at ITC will lead the way to women’s economic empowerment, and we will continue to work with governments to build an eco-system of new and innovative jobs for youths. And secondly, equality. Ultimately we want to make sure that no one is left behind as we seek paths for recovery, and build resilience against future shocks. COVID-19 has loaid bare the depths of inequality still prevailing from the global economic system. We must choose to challenge the status quo, and as women we will.”
Action by President Biden
President Biden provided a statement on International Women’s Day and issued two Executive Orders. See Statement by President Biden on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/03/08/statement-by-president-biden-on-international-womens-day/; Executive Order on Establishment of the White House Gender Policy Council, March 8, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/03/08/executive-order-on-establishment-of-the-white-house-gender-policy-council/; Executive Order on Guaranteeing an Educational Environment Free from Discrimination on the Basis of Sex, Including Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity, March 8, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/03/08/executive-order-on-guaranteeing-an-educational-environment-free-from-discrimination-on-the-basis-of-sex-including-sexual-orientation-or-gender-identity/; Fact Sheet: President Biden to Sign Executive Orders Establishing the White House Gender Policy Council and Ensuring Education Free from Sexual Violence, March 8, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/03/08/fact-sheet-president-biden-to-sign-executive-orders-establishing-the-white-house-gender-policy-council-and-ensuring-education-free-from-sexual-violence/. The President’s statement is copied below as is the fact sheet on the two Executive Orders.
“Women’s history is American history — and world history. On International Women’s Day, we celebrate the achievements, contributions, and progress of women and girls in the United States and around the globe.
“My Administration is committed to honoring women by investing in their opportunity, security, and wellbeing. I was proud to issue an Executive Order today establishing the White House Gender Policy Council, to ensure that every domestic and foreign policy we pursue rests on a foundation of dignity and equity for women. My Administration is also committed to ensuring that women are represented equally at all levels of the federal government. That starts with Vice President Harris, who broke through a barrier that stood for more than two centuries. And it includes a record number of diverse women whom I’ve nominated to serve in Cabinet-level roles and appointed to senior-level positions.
“In our nation, as in all nations, women have fought for justice, shattered barriers, built and sustained economies, carried communities through times of crisis, and served with dignity and resolve. Too often, they have done so while being denied the freedom, full participation, and equal opportunity all women are due. Their contributions have been downplayed. Their stories have been neglected. That is why International Women’s Day is also a time for us to recommit ourselves to the cause of equity and equality for women the world over, and to shine a light on the systemic obstacles that fuel gender disparities and undermine women’s potential.
“Despite persistent obstacles, women are leading every day. Over the past year, women have played a critical, often outsized role in responding to the global coronavirus pandemic. They are our vaccine researchers and public health officials. They are our doctors and nurses. They are our essential workers — so many of whom are women of color — in fire stations and nursing homes, on farms and in grocery stores, in schools and in shelters.
“Around the world, we are seeing decades of women’s economic gains erased by this pandemic. It’s forcing millions more girls out of school, which could impact economic growth for decades to come. Incidents of violence against women in their homes and communities have spiked. And, as is so often the case, COVID-19 is hitting the poorest and most marginalized women the hardest. These global trends damage all of us, because we know that governments, economies, and communities are stronger when they include the full participation of women — no country can recover from this pandemic if it leaves half of its population behind.
“Elevating the status of women and girls globally is the right thing to do — it is a matter of justice, fairness, and decency, and it will lead to a better, more secure, and more prosperous world for us all. On International Women’s Day, let us recommit to the principle that our nation, and the world, is at its best when the possibilities for all of our women and girls are limitless.”
“Biden-Harris Administration establishes a government-wide focus on uplifting the rights of women and girls in the United States and around the world
“The full participation of all people – including women and girls – across all aspects of our society is essential to the economic well-being, health, and security of our nation and of the world. This is a matter of human rights, justice and fairness. It is also critically important to reducing poverty and promoting economic growth, increasing access to education, improving health outcomes, advancing political stability, and fostering democracy.
“Today, President Biden will sign two Executive Orders. The first establishes the White House Gender Policy Council to ensure that the Biden-Harris Administration advances gender equity and equal rights and opportunity for women and girls. The second directs the Department of Education (ED) to review all of its existing regulations, orders, guidance, and policies for consistency with the Administration’s policy to guarantee education free from sexual violence.
“A year into COVID-19, women are still contending with the public health crisis, an ensuing economic crisis, and on top of those challenges, a caregiving crisis. The pandemic has exacerbated barriers that have held back women, especially women of color, forcing many to leave the workforce, manage virtual schooling, and absorb additional caregiving responsibilities. Many women are also on the frontlines of the response to COVID-19 – as essential workers keeping our economy, communities and families going. As the country continues to grapple with the pandemic and reckons with the scourge of systemic racism, President Biden knows that we need a government-wide focus on uplifting the rights of women and girls in the United States and around the world, restoring America as a champion for gender equity and equality.
“Today’s actions will:
“Establish the Gender Policy Council. The first Executive Order formally establishes the Gender Policy Council within the Executive Office of the President, with a role in both domestic and foreign policy development. The Council will work in coordination with the existing policy councils to advance gender equity and equality, including by:
“Combatting systemic bias and discrimination, including sexual harassment;
“Increasing economic security and opportunity by addressing the structural barriers to women’s participation in the labor force, decreasing wage and wealth gaps, and addressing the caregiving needs of American families and supporting care workers, predominantly low-paid women of color;
“Ensuring access to comprehensive health care and preventing and responding to gender-based violence;
“Promoting equity and opportunity in education and leadership; and
“Advancing gender equality globally through diplomacy, development, trade, and defense, and by recognizing the needs and roles of women and girls in conflict prevention, peacebuilding, democratic rights-respecting governance, global health and humanitarian crises and development assistance.
“The White House Gender Policy Council will be an essential part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s plan to ensure we build a more equal and just society – by aggressively protecting the rights and unique needs of those who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, including individuals who are Black, Latina, Native, Asian American and Pacific Islander, people with disabilities, and LGBTQI+.
“The Executive Order requires the Co-Chairs of the Council to submit to the President a Government-wide strategy to address gender in policies, programs and budgets, and an annual report to measure progress on implementing the strategy. To prevent and respond to gender-based violence, wherever it occurs, there will be a Special Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor on Gender-Based Violence on the Council staff. The Executive Order also requires engagement with non-profit and community-based organizations, state and local government officials, Tribal Nations, foreign government officials and multilateral organizations.
“Ensure education free from sexual violence. President Biden will sign an Executive Order that will direct the Department of Education (ED) to review all of its existing regulations, orders, guidance, and policies to ensure consistency with the Biden-Harris Administration’s policy that students be guaranteed education free from sexual violence. It also directs ED to specifically evaluate the Title IX regulation issued under the previous administration and agency action taken pursuant to that regulation, to determine whether the regulation and agency action are consistent with the policies of the Biden-Harris Administration.”
The WTO at its 2017 Ministerial Conference held in Buenos Aires saw a joint declaration on women and trade released. There are currently 127 WTO Members who support the declaration. There was an interim report released in 2019 and an informal working group on trade and gender working on a voluntary basis to share information and best practices in ways to increase women’s role in global trade. Such activities are a start for the WTO, but much more could be done if there was greater support by the Members. The 2020-21 selection of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was an important action and will likely presage change at the Secretariat. Her priorities as reviewed in today’s video address trade issues that are important to economic recovery which may facilitate greater movement towards gender equality.
The challenges women face globally during the pandemic are significantly greater than those faced by men both in terms of lost employment, withdrawal from the workforce to deal with child care and much more. The UN Sustainable Development Goal of gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls is important for many reasons. In trade, gender equality will promote growth and innovation. This is true in all societies regardless of level of economic development.
The pandemic has pushed back progress in economic development for much of the world as has been often reported and has slowed or reversed the drive for gender equality and empowerment of half the world’s population.. More focus and efforts are needed to ensure achieving the UN SDG 5 by 2030. Trade is but one aspect of the challenge.
Today’s speeches by the three leaders of multilateral organizations handling trade show some of the broader issues facing global trade to recover from the pandemic and highlight the capabilities of women leading important organizations. The UN Women’s Executive Director highlighted the deep societal challenges that continue to retard gender equality in fact in many parts of the world.
Finally, the actions by President Biden and his Administration are the types of actions needed by countries who have not achieved gender equality to date. More can and must be done by nations around the world. International Women’s Day is a reminder of the enormous global opportunities that exist if gender equality and empowerment of women and girls is achieved.