By Lisa Buttenheim
MORE THAN a century ago, a mass movement of men and women grew to demand women’s right to vote, hold public office, work, and receive vocational training. They also protested to end discrimination against women and war. Now in 2015, why do we still mark International Women’s Day?
Is it for women and girls being targeted by violent extremists, forced into sex slavery, traded as ‘prizes’ to fighters, maimed and killed by competing factions?
Is it for women and girls who do not feel safe walking streets unaccompanied, going to school or taking a job, in fear they’ll be exposed to horrific assaults or rape?
Is it for working women who are paid less than their male peers, who struggle to break the glass ceiling to reach top positions, influence policies that have a direct impact on their lives, or who are pressured to compromise family life for professional success?
Perhaps it’s for women who don’t feel concerned or can’t see the point, or men who don’t know what the fuss is all about but have a way of talking over women when they have something to say, preferring to compliment them on their looks rather than their ideas?
What about women in conflict and post-conflict zones who long for peace but are excluded from decision-making fora that might help to bring it about?
International Women’s Day is for them all. It exists because the situation around the world demands it. We mark this day because we must.
Twenty years ago, a landmark conference on women in Beijing adopted a ‘Declaration and Platform for Action’ agreed to by 189 governments, setting the agenda for a future of women’s equal rights.
In 2000, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, recognising the importance of women’s participation in conflict resolution and political decision-making.
In 2010 UN Women was established by the General Assembly, a historic step to accelerate the UN’s goals on gender equality and the empowerment of women.
No doubt, there has been progress, such as increased access to education, a significant drop in childbirth deaths, and women’s enhanced leadership roles in business, government and global organisations. But we are nowhere near the finish line.
In conflicts around the world, women and girls are often the first target of brute force.
In peacetime, in neighbourhoods, towns and cities, in government offices, universities, businesses and other organisations across the globe, the struggle for equal rights for women is still being waged. There is no country in the world where we, as a global society of men and women, can afford to say our job is done.
Apart from the self-evident moral argument to women’s participation in shaping, taking and implementing decisions that affect their lives, women bring their own understanding to both war and peace, helping to bring stability, prosperity, health and security for all. Put in simpler terms, the world would be a better place for it.
As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says in his message for IWD this year: “The world will never realise 100 per cent of its goals if 50 per cent of its people cannot realise their full potential.”
In terms of equality, we at the United Nations are not perfect. As a mosaic representation of its members, with a mandate to provide international peace and security and to promote sustainable economic and social development, the UN acknowledges that it has a responsibility to set an example.
Steps are being taken in the right direction – a start has been made. Here in Cyprus the UN Peacekeeping Force is ahead of the curve. We have come a long way since the late 1960s when our in-house magazine reserved a weekly slot for a photograph of ‘Miss UNFICYP’.
Today, UNFICYP is one of five UN peacekeeping missions headed by a woman. It boasts the first woman force commander of a UN peacekeeping mission, has achieved gender parity among senior management and better than average representation of women among the soldiers and police contributed by 21 member states.
There is a long way to go. Equal rights for women is not a bureaucratic matter. It’s not about “ticking a box” on gender. It is everyone’s concern and requires a sea change in the way women see themselves and are seen.
This change can’t be done by one section of society alone, it takes partnership. Everyone needs to get on board, men too, at all levels of society, because empowering women is empowering humanity. The quicker it’s done, the better for all – let’s make it happen. Then we can consign this issue to history, where it belongs.
Lisa Buttenheim, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Cyprus and UNFICYP Head of Mission