With resounding success, the largest United Nations gathering on gender equality, the 2023 Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 67), concluded on Saturday. Member States joined forces in calling for the full and equal participation of women and girls in the development of digital technologies.
The focus of this year’s CSW, a two-week-long annual event that has been championing women’s rights since 1946, was the prevalent discrimination, abuse, and misogyny faced by women in the virtual world. The overarching goal was to advance towards levelling the digital playing field and tackle persistent issues that disproportionately affect women and girls, such as limited access to technology, underrepresentation, gender bias in tech industries, and online violence.
The Commission’s outcome document, known as the “Agreed Conclusions” of the 45 Member States, acknowledges the pivotal role of technology and innovation in achieving gender equality. UN Women released a statement on Saturday describing the document as a “blueprint for all stakeholders, including governments, the private sector, civil society, and youth, to promote full and equal participation and leadership of women and girls in the design, transformation, and integration of digital technologies and innovation processes that fulfil the human rights and needs of women and girls.”
The second week of events commenced with a poignant dialogue between women civil society leaders in the prestigious UN General Assembly Hall on Monday. During this event, Secretary-General António Guterres attentively listened to the pressing need to ensure women and girls equal participation in global conversations, both online and offline, as well as the critical need to make the internet safer for them.
Additionally, civil society representatives used the platform to advocate for more action on other critical issues faced by women and girls, such as increasing their representation at the UN, ending the war in Ukraine, and eradicating all forms of gender-based violence.
In his remarks before the dialogue, the Secretary-General lamented the regression of women’s and girls’ rights globally after years of incremental progress. He emphasized that many of the obstacles faced today, ranging from conflicts to climate chaos and the cost-of-living crisis, result from a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture making the key decisions that shape our world.
Mr. Guterres highlighted that digital technology, the creation of a predominantly male industry, is now a new source of discrimination and bias. He expressed concern that technology based on incomplete data and poorly-designed algorithms is digitizing and amplifying sexism, often leading to deadly consequences.
He cited examples of how medical decisions based on data primarily from men can harm women’s health and how safety features in vehicles designed for men’s bodies can endanger women’s lives. The gender digital divide, he stressed, is quickly becoming the new face of gender inequality. Online spaces are not safe for women and girls as they are continuously targeted, attacked, and denigrated.
Moreover, he lamented that despite the advancements in science, engineering, and mathematics, no woman has ever walked on the moon. He pointed out how stereotypes continue to discourage girls from pursuing these fields, ultimately choking the careers of women scientists.
Through his powerful remarks, Mr. Guterres brings attention to the detrimental effects of gender inequality and bias in the technology sector, reiterating the need for increased representation, diversity, and inclusivity in this field.
Onwards and Upwards
Mr. Guterres emphasized that change must occur, even in the face of patriarchal pushback. He called on the international community to continue pushing forward for women, girls, and the world.
He urged policymakers to create transformative change by promoting equal rights and opportunities for women and girls, breaking down barriers, and shattering glass ceilings. Additionally, he called on all leaders to urgently take up UN recommendations to promote education and training in digital skills for women and girls, implement algorithms that align with human rights and gender equality, and other measures.
Through his strong message, Mr. Guterres inspires action and reinforces the importance of promoting gender equality to create a more just and inclusive world.
Other topics are discussed.
At the start of the dialogue, moderated by Sima Bahous, Executive Director of UN Women, the Secretary-General encouraged participants not only to ask him questions but also to offer comments, suggestions, and ideas.
He attentively listened to their interventions in groups of three, first taking in their remarks as a whole before addressing the individual issues raised.
The first speaker, Houry Geudelekian, Chair of NGO CSW New York, emphasized the need for countries to hold perpetrators accountable for online violence against women and girls. She advocated for cybercrime to be punishable in the same way as any other crime and urged Member States and the private sector to use their power to advance gender equality and uplift women and girls in all their diversity.
Speaking in her personal capacity, she also called on the international community to reduce military spending by five per cent and direct the funding towards sustainable development efforts.
Through this open dialogue, the Secretary-General demonstrated his commitment to engaging with civil society and fostering an inclusive and collaborative approach towards promoting gender equality and sustainable development.
In the dialogue, Prabhleen Tuteja, Executive Director of YP, the Youth Foundation, raised a question on the importance of increased representation of young women at the UN. Specifically, she emphasized the need for “feminist, intersectional and inter-generational leadership” to ensure that the voices of all women are heard.
Rania Harrara from Morocco expressed disappointment that the town hall coincided with a youth representative dialogue, which hindered the participation of many young leaders from the Global South due to access barriers such as lack of funding and visa issues. She further stressed the importance of digital access, literacy, and safety for all adolescent girls, adding that adolescent girls are tired of being tokenized and must be involved in policymaking to achieve meaningful youth engagement and equality.
The youth took centre stage in discussions
CSW made history by incorporating an interactive youth session, allowing young people, youth representatives of delegations, civil society, and United Nations organisations to engage in dialogue and provide recommendations on how to ensure young women and girls are included in the digital transformation.
Numerous civil society organizations, including members of the Action Coalition on Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality, played a vital role in offering insights. The Action Coalition, established as part of the Generation Equality Forum, a civil society-focused group convened by UN Women, has been instrumental in forging partnerships between Governments, the private sector, civil society, and the UN system. It has helped to generate momentum and pledges to advance gender equality through technology and innovation.
At the end of discussions, UN Women Executive Director, Sima Bahous, hailed the recently concluded negotiations by stating, “The Agreed Conclusions of this year are a game-changer and align with our vision of an equitable and interconnected world for women and girls of all diversities. As we depart from here today, it is our responsibility to actualize them. The real success of these Agreed Conclusions goes beyond their finalization today; it is in how we will jointly carry them forward. Let us make them a reality for all women and girls.”
Sima Bahous, Executive Director of UN Women. Photo: UN/Manuel Elías.
In addition to reiterating the significance of women and girls’ full participation and leadership in science, technology, and innovation, the Commission expressed concern about the limited advancements made in closing the gender gap in technology access, connectivity, digital literacy, and education. The Agreed Conclusions also condemned the interlink between offline and online violence, harassment, and discrimination against women and girls.
The Commission called for a considerable rise in public and private sector investments to bridge the gender digital divide, more comprehensive innovation ecosystems, and the advancement of safe and gender-responsive technology and innovation. It also emphasized the requirement for inclusive and equitable quality education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, information and communications technology, and digital literacy to guarantee that all women and girls can flourish in an ever-changing world.