“We need to dismantle the entire system” – controversy over UN meeting for women’s rights opening with five male speakers

“We need to dismantle the entire system” – controversy over UN meeting for women’s rights opening with five male speakers

Written by Leila Hawkins

Photo: UN meeting / U.S. Department of State

A United Nations meeting on the rights of women and girls took place earlier this week, opening with five male speakers in a row. The line up has caused controversy online, even making some of the male attendees uneasy with Achim Steiner, head of the UN Development Program and the fifth man in line to speak, saying, “I am very conscious of the fact that I am yet another man standing at this podium addressing you.”

The event, on Monday 11th of March, opened the 68th annual Commission on the Status of Women, the UN’s largest annual gathering on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Members of governments and civil society organisations along with activists from around the world, gathered at the UN’s headquarters in New York to discuss ending women’s poverty and agree on actions to advance gender equality. 

Croatia’s UN Ambassador Ivan Šimonović also alluded to the lack of women speakers, explaining that he was there in lieu of Paula Narváez, the president of the UN’s Economic and Social Council, who had been called away due to a family emergency. “You are getting the male vice president, adding to the agenda disbalance of this opening.”

Chetna Gala Sinha was the first woman to take to the podium and the sixth person in line to speak. She was cheered on by the attendees as she stood up to talk about her work helping women in a village in India’s Maharashtra state to start a local bank. 

Nearly every speaker talked about the plight of women and girls in conflict, particularly in the Gaza region, with UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres saying that women and girls suffer most “from wars waged by men”. 

Why does this matter? 

It is vital that men are prominent in the effort to advance gender equality, however the decision to feature five male speakers in a row at a meeting to discuss the rights of women is problematic. 

Yasmina Benslimane, a women’s rights activist and founder of Politics4Her who has worked with numerous UN agencies including UN Women and the UN Development Program, notes that this is symbolic of the systemic issues that hinder progress on gender equality. “It’s a patriarchal system, a neocolonial system where men keep making rules and decisions about women without women,” she says. “Or if they involve them it’s tokenism and just to check boxes. This is absolutely ridiculous.” 

“If we want to change that we need to dismantle the entire system. Stop having only white men at high level senior positions and promote more people of colour and from the global majority, especially women,” she adds. 


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