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Gender equality won’t be achieved for another 300 years at the current pace of progress, UN secretary-general says

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Women’s rights are being “abused, threatened and violated” around the world and gender equality won’t be achieved for 300 years on the current track, the United Nations secretary-general warned Monday.

Antonio Guterres told the opening session of the Commission on the Status of Women — the U.N.’s premiere global body fighting for gender equality — that progress won over decades is vanishing because “the patriarchy is fighting back.”

The U.N. chief pointed to Afghanistan where “women and girls have been erased from public life,” and said that in many countries women’s sexual and reproductive rights are being rolled back.

He also said girls going to school risk kidnapping and assault in many places, and he complained that there are police preying on vulnerable women they are supposed to be protecting.

“From Ukraine to the Sahel, crisis and conflict affect women and girls first and worst,” Guterres said.

In other setbacks, he said, maternal mortality is rising and COVID-19’s impact is forcing girls into marriage and keeping them out of school, while keeping mothers and caregivers out of paid work.

During its two-week session, the Commission on the Status of Women is focusing on closing gender gaps in technology and innovation. The secretary-general said the topic couldn’t be more timely because women and girls are being left behind as technology races ahead.

“Three billion people are still unconnected to the internet, the majority of them women and girls in developing countries, (and) in least developed countries just 19% of women are online,” Guterres said. “Globally, girls and women make up just one-third of students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Men outnumber women two to one in the tech industry and in the growing field of artificial intelligence only about one in five workers is a woman, he said.

He said “big data” is the foundation of political and business decisions, “but it often ignores gender differences — or turns a blind eye to women altogether — resulting in products and services that bake in gender inequality from the start.”

Guterres called for urgent action to equalize power between men and women.

He said there must be increasing education, employment and income for women and girls, especially in developing countries. He called for women’s full participation and leadership in science and technology to be promoted “from governments to board rooms and classrooms.”

Guterres also said a safe digital environment must be created that eliminates “misogynistic disinformation and misinformation” and “gender-trolling” on social media.

Sima Bahous, executive director of UN Women, told the commission’s opening meeting that “the digital divide has become the new face of gender inequality.” She said that last year there were 259 million more men than women online.

She also cited a survey of women journalists from 125 countries that found three-quarters had experienced online harassment in the course of their work and a third had engaged in self-censorship in response.

In Afghanistan, Bahous said, women who spoke out through YouTube and blogging had their doors marked by the Taliban and many fled the country to ensure their safety. In Iran, many women continue to be targeted for participating in online campaigns, she said.

She said the challenge is “to fix the institutions and harmful gender stereotypes surrounding technology and innovation that fail women and girls” and ensure that online spaces are free of abuse and perpetrators are held accountable.

“If we do not leave this session having said collectively, unambiguously, `Enough, no more,’ then we will have failed,” Bahous said.

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