Women's issues at UN: Still 'too low down on the agenda'

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In this photo made from UNTV video, Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, speaks in a pre-recorded message which was played during the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, at UN Headquarters. (UNTV Via AP )

TANZANIA – Addressing the U.N. General Assembly last week, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina noted a milestone: the 25th anniversary of the Beijing women's conference that produced a global roadmap for gender equality and a ringing rallying cry that became part of the event's official declaration: "Women's rights are human rights.”

The international community has “come a long way to ensure gender equality” since then, Hasina said, but “we need to strengthen our resolve and mutual cooperation.”

Hasina didn't really have to say more to show that there was still a long way to go. She was one of nine women among the more than 180 presidents, premiers, monarchs and ministers who spoke at the planet’s top diplomatic meeting this year.

While the U.N. is preparing for a separate summit Thursday to mark the anniversary of the landmark female empowerment plan, women's rights were a steady thread but hardly a top theme of leaders' remarks at the world body's signature assembly.

Some leaders took time to recall the 1995 conference, detail domestic initiatives or lament that progress toward female equality is lagging or even retreating. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whose country has a rare majority-female Parliament, spotlighted the Beijing conference by mentioning it just a minute into his speech.

“The empowerment of women has made all of us safer and wealthier,” he added, "but true gender equality has still not been attained in any country.”

Yet with the coronavirus pandemic shoving numerous other issues out of the spotlight, many speakers gave the status of women and girls a passing mention, if any, even as the U.N. warns that the virus crisis is exacerbating gender inequities.

“If the General Assembly statements are a kind of snapshot into what the world is prioritizing at the moment ... this is too low down on the agenda,” says Rachel Vogelstein, who runs the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy Program.