Last week leaders from countries around the world gathered in New York for their annual meeting at the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA). Usually at this event, leaders address various hot topics – security and economic concerns most often make headlines. But UNGA is also an opportunity for experts and activists to talk about issues affecting millions of people. These conversations don’t always get the same news coverage, so today we’re dedicating Podium to beyond-the-headlines UNGA stories.
Several leaders mentioned Afghanistan in their high-profile speeches – but, to me, the more important voices were Afghan women and girls speaking on various panel discussions. I participated in one of these conversations with U.N. Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohamed. We were joined by Somaya (a member of the Afghan Girls Robotics Team), Fawzia Koofi (the first woman Deputy Speaker of Parliament in Afghanistan), Zarqa Yaftali (Executive Director of Women and Children Legal Research Foundation) and Shaharzad Akbar (Chairperson of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission).
As the Taliban is once again keeping girls from school and women from work, the moderator asked the Afghan panelists how the international community could support them. Their answer was clear: any acknowledgement or legitimisation of the Taliban must be contingent on full rights for Afghan women and girls.
I encourage you to watch the full discussion here. So far, no nations have formally recognised the Taliban government. I hope leaders everywhere will follow the advice of these Afghan experts and activists and hold the Taliban accountable for their treatment of women and girls.
The current U.N. system was created after World War II and is long overdue for an update. People around the world are justifiably skeptical of a United Nations that too often lacks the power or the will to enforce global agreements and protect innocent civilians. As Ryan Heath recently asked in Politico, “Is the U.N. relevant because big problems exist, or relevant because it solves big problems?”Last week, Antonio Guterres, the U.N. Secretary-General, released a report called Our Common Agenda, aimed at modernising multilateralism. I am particularly interested in the report’s points on closing the digital divide. The ambitious to-do list calls for connecting all people and all schools to the internet, as well as tackling the “exacerbation of gender bias and male default thinking when women do not have an equal role in designing digital technologies, as well as digital harassment that has particularly targeted women and girls and pushed many women out of the public conversation.”The aggressive goals outlined in Our Common Agenda would be a great investment in rebuilding public trust in multilateralism – but only if the U.N. can deliver them.
According to the U.N. Foundation, “a record 235 million people — 1 in 33 worldwide — were expected to need humanitarian assistance this year.” The number of displaced people keeps growing, due to conflicts and violence, climate-related disasters, economic crashes and more. In recent weeks, Afghanistan and Haiti have added to the number above. The U.N. estimates that nearly half Afghanistan’s population — 18.5 million people — will require humanitarian support this year. In Haiti, a major storm and earthquake last month affected more than one million people and left half a million children without access to safe shelter, water or nutrition.
Afghanistan and Haiti are just the latest crises. Also this year, as the U.N. Foundation reports, “conflicts in Yemen, Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Syria and Central America have forced millions to flee their homes and continue to strain financial resources for humanitarian aid.”In his General Assembly address, Guterres said "In places like Yemen, Libya, and Syria, we must overcome stalemates and push for peace."
Today 24 of 193 countries in the world have women as heads of state or heads of government. 11 of them spoke at UNGA so far this year. We can only hope this number rises significantly in years to come.
In her speech, President Samia Suluhu Hassan of Tanzania said, “As the first female president in the history of my country, the burden of expectation to deliver gender equality is heavier on my shoulder."Here are links to videos of all the women heads of state who spoke at UNGA this year: