A telling magnifier of the long-standing legacies of prejudice, injustice and increasing inequalities, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the flaws and cracks of our social, political and economic structures while accentuating them to the extreme.
The impact on women and girls has been disastrous.
There are 527 million women workers in accommodation and food services, hospitality, real estate, manufacturing and trade – which have suffered the most from the crisis.
Everywhere in the world, women bear the brunt of the pandemic with insufficient recognition, wages, job opportunities, labour and social protection – as well as access to decision-making.
None of this is surprising – we all know the numbers.
Globally, women occupy less than a third of managerial positions.
In 2018, female employers across the world accounted for only 1.7% of total female employment compared to 4% among men. Africa leads by example with 38% of women in executive positions – whereas there are only 11% in the Arab region.
In 2020, the number of women running the largest corporations in the USA hit a new high: 37 of the companies in Fortune 500 are led by female CEOs. Nevertheless, the larger the company, the less likely the CEO is to be a woman.
Numerous factors are to blame – among them negative gender norms and stereotypes.
We tend to associate decision-making and breadwinners with men and caring and domestic roles with women.
Last November, the UN estimated that the pandemic would disrupt efforts to end child marriage, potentially resulting in an additional 13 million child marriages between 2020 and 2030 that could have been averted.
This month, the Crime Commissioner for England’s second largest police force warned that we are facing a ticking time bomb, I quote “as children out of school, particularly young boys, are looking for places where they can belong, places they can identify … and they can identify through violence, sadly.”
Practically everywhere you look, whoever you look, at you see devastating impacts with long-term implications for young people, and for society more generally.
My aim is not to catalogue these impacts and implications, but to outline how, at UNESCO, we are integrating youth and gender considerations into our work, in the hope that our experience may be useful for the OSCE in crafting its own approach.
Your participating States have already declared their commitment to gender equality in the 1999 Charter for European Security, and in the 2004 OSCE Action Plan for the Promotion of Gender Equality and related decisions.
UNESCO’s Member States designated gender equality as one of two global priorities in 2008, and it now runs across our programming in every sector. I argue for a systemic approach and methodology, since gender has links to just about every domain, from who has access to education to who is likely to suffer most from climate change.
The best metaphor is an ecosystem, where people and contexts interact to change each other. Young people are a priority target group for UNESCO and our work is guided by an Organization-wide Operational Strategy on Youth, and is also in line with the UN Youth Strategy. In this framework, our approaches and programmes contribute to shaping an enabling ecosystem for meaningful, effective and sustainable youth engagement.
Our gender and youth programmes, excellent though they may be, will fail if they operate in silos, separate from each other. In addition, they need to take into consideration the socio-economic and contextual dimensions. In other words, while challenges facing youth and women might be common across countries and regions, our responses both in terms of policies and programmes, should be informed by context. This is especially true now in the context of the pandemic, and its multifaceted impact on societies across the globe.
So how do the two priorities come together in our work? In our activities targeting young people, the Organization places special emphasis on the needs, expectations and aspirations of girls and women in disadvantaged positions. It also develops the capacities of men and boys to become strong gender equality advocates.
In practical terms, our approach is fourfold.
First, we ensure the equal participation of young women and men in all our youth-focused activities.
Second, we promote gender equality in and through education where we focus on improving data, policies, legislation,
and teaching and learning practices.
Third, we integrate gender equality principles and dimensions
in all our youth policy work and youth-relevant capacity-strengthening tools. For instance, in Lebanon, a regional training cycle on “Arab youth advocating for gender equality and women rights” involved representatives of Arab and European youth organizations. A toolkit for socially inclusive and gender-equal youth policy development has also been developed in Asia and the Pacific.
Fourth, we develop and implement gender-responsive or gender-transformative initiatives across our fields of competence, that place young people at the core. For example, the global YouthMobile Initiative has helped thousands of young women and girls develop digital skills in programming and mobile application development. Did you know that women only make up 35% of STEM students in higher education, barely 3% of ICT students, 22% of AI professionals, and 14% of AI paper authors? There is an urgent need to close this gap, and we work to ensure that women will not be absent from future digital conversations. Secondary school students are being mentored under a programme on unlocking the Potential of Girls in STEM. Fellowships are being awarded to Women in Science for the Developing World PhD students, particularly from scientifically lagging countries.
The overarching principle is to partner with young people, not pretend that we or any other organization can empower them. They must do that themselves, but we can help. This is particularly important if we speak of the nexus between youth and gender on the one hand, and comprehensive security on the other. I’d like to illustrate this with examples from a subject close to our joint preoccupations – peace.
In the project “Strengthening capacities of institutional actors, women, youth groups and local communities on peacebuilding for inclusive elections and social cohesion in Cameroon”, young women and men were trained around five modules including “Women and Youth in Conflict and Peacebuilding”.
In Panama, a “Diplohack” addressed the prevention of violence against women.
As part of the UNESCO-UNOCT project ‘Prevention of the Violent Extremism in Jordan, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia’, a series of gender-specific activities were implemented, including trainings on media and information literacy for young journalists and youth organizations on gender-sensitive reporting, the use of gender-inclusive language, gendered issues such as online harassment, hate speech and child marriage, as well as the elimination of harmful stereotypes.
Negative stereotypes destroy women’s and girls’ self-esteem, confidence and leadership skills. They create unattainable and dangerous standards for all of us, and if we do not annihilate them, there will be no sustainable progress or change.
That is why UNESCO is developing a Global Flagship against Gender Stereotypes, which aims to prevent violence and discrimination against women and girls by tackling the prejudices, biases and stereotypes at their roots. Within this Flagship, UNESCO will launch a global network of “role models” to fight against gender stereotypes at our Global Forum against Racism on 22 March, as part of our Roadmap to fight racism and discrimination.
We are also upscaling the scope of our Men 4 Gender Equality Initiative that seeks to foster positive redefinitions of gender norms and engages men and boys as proactive agents of change.
Finally, we are the custodian of UNESCO’s work for antiracism and antidiscrimination, sport as a catalyst for women’s empowerment, and artificial intelligence and bioethics.
Therefore, we recently drafted a Recommendation on the Ethics of AI that is shaping up to be a truly transformative normative instrument for promoting gender bias-free artificial intelligence and gender equality in digital technologies.
We will also establish a Global Observatory for Women, Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sports in Switzerland to foster the empowerment and leadership of women and girls, not only in sports but through sports as well.
In conclusion, I would like to congratulate the OSCE on this initiative, and assure you of UNESCO’s continuing support in your efforts to, as you put it so clearly, advance gender equality and the meaningful participation of youth in a synergetic way to build peace.