UN General secretary Guterres predicts that overcoming gender inequality could take up to 300 years

UN General secretary Guterres predicts that overcoming gender inequality could take up to 300 years


Sophie Flemming

Women’s Rights Researcher, 

Global Human Rights Defence.

Today we celebrate the International Women’s Day (IWD) where the still ongoing injustice and discrimination against women receive global attention. Antonio Guterres, the general secretary of the UN, said in a message about the IWD that this day is not only to celebrate women’s achievements but also to recognize the grand obstacles they face – amongst others violence, marginalization and the denial of their personal autonomy. He said that IWD is a call to action “to stand with women who are demanding their fundamental rights at great personal cost” (Guterres (1), 2023).

In another statement of Guterres at the General Assembly, which was the kickstarter of two weeks of discussions led by the Commission on the Status of Women, he brought attention to the disturbing backlash against women’s rights that are happening globally but most importantly in Afghanistan. He said that the global progress on women’s rights is “vanishing before our eyes” and that “gender equality is growing more distant. On the current track, UN Women puts it 300 years away.” (Guterres (2), 2023).

On Monday, the 6th of March, young Afghan women gathered outside of Kabul University to protest a ban on female education imposed by the ruling Taliban. This ban also excludes women from other public spaces such as parks and gyms and limits women’s possibilities to work and travel (Subramaniam, 2023). It is effective since December 2022 and is justified by the Taliban with the belief that women in university did not comply with Islamic dress codes and other Islamic values and that interaction between female and male students is not allowed under Sharia law. This ban is devastating and outrageous to all the Afghan students and especially the female students who feel that they have been robbed of their future (Popalzai et al., 2023). In a report to the Human Rights Council on Monday the 6th of March Richard Bennett, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights in Afghanistan, stated that this ban on female education “may amount to gender persecution, a crime against humanity.” What increases the effects of this banishment and deepen the existing grave violations against women’s human rights in Afghanistan are the rise in forced and child marriages, sexual abuse and assault and the overall reduced access to public areas, says Bennett (ibid).

Guterres did not mention Iran, which was expelled from the Commission on the Status of Women on 14th of December last year due to the government’s forceful reaction to peaceful protestors (The Guardian, 2023). But Guterres indirectly condemned Iran’s actions by saying “in some countries, girls going to school risk kidnapping and assault (...) police prey on vulnerable women they have sworn to protect.” (Guterres (2), 2023)

Today, a campaign has come to life that is calling for “gender apartheid” to be a recognized crime under international law. A group of international lawyers, politicians and women’s rights activists from Iran and Afghanistan are giving expression to their concern that current laws are not covering the systematic discrimination of women through the policies imposed in Iran and Afghanistan. They are demanding that the crime of apartheid in international law should not only be applicable to racial groups but also to gender. “This campaign will seek to expand the set of moral, political and legal tools available to mobilise international action against and ultimately end systems of gender apartheid” says Gissou Nia, one of the human rights lawyers behind the campaign (Wintour, 2023). This could be a viable step towards prosecuting Afghanistans’ and Irans’ governments and therefore reducing the 300 years it takes to achieve gender equality.

Sources and further reading:

Guterres, A. (1) (2023, March 6). Video message by Antonio Guterres on International Women’s Day, Retrieved on March 8, 2023, from https://www.un.org/en/observances/womens-day/messages

Guterres, A. (2) (2023, March 6) Secretary-General Warns of ‘Baked-in’ Gender Discrimination in Technology, Decries Rights Roll-Backs, Opening Commission on Status of Women. press release SG/SM/21713. Retrieved on March 8, 2023, from https://press.un.org/en/2023/sgsm21713.doc.htm

Popalzai, E, et al. (2023, March 6). Afghan women protest outside Kabul University as male students return to class. Retrieved on March 8, 2023, from https://edition.cnn.com/2023/03/06/asia/afghanistan-university-women-protest-intl-hnk/index.html

Subramaniam, T. (2023, March 7). Gender equality will take 300 years to achieve, UN chief warns. Retrieved on March 8, 2023, from https://edition.cnn.com/2023/03/07/world/un-gender-equality-300-years-intl-hnk/index.html?utm_source=ground.news&utm_medium=referral

The Guardian (2023, March 6) Gender equality still ‘300 years away’, says UN secretary general. Retrieved on March 8, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2023/mar/06/antonio-guterres-un-general-assembly-gender-equality

Wintour, P. (2023, March 8). Campaign calls for gender apartheid to be crime under international law. Retrieved on March 8, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2023/mar/08/campaign-calls-for-gender-apartheid-to-be-under-international-law