A world first: Women at the helm of every UN Regional Commission

Although United Nations Regional Commissions have been in existence for more than 70 years, for the first time ever, each one is currently headed by a woman designated by Secretary-General António Guterres. This accomplishment underscores that, since the day he took office, the UN chief has been determined to achieve gender parity by 2030 as part of the Agenda for Sustainable Development.

UN Photo/Eskinder DebebeUN Secretary-General António Guterres is flanked by the Heads of Regional Commissions, from left to right: Rola Dashti, Executive Secretary of Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA); Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC); Oľga Algayerová, Executive Secretary for the Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE); and Armida Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), February 2019.

UN News spoke to some of these women leaders, about the steps being taken to make Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG 5), on women’s empowerment, a reality.

Latin America and the Caribbean: Alicia Bárcena

Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), by UN ECLAC

Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, known as ECLAC, detailed some of the battles her region faces, such as slow economic growth, high debt, a deterioration in quality employment and increased poverty.

She sees these “long-term challenges” as threats to gender equality, such as “gender gaps in labor markets, the overload of women’s unpaid work, their limited access to credit and productive assets, and women lacking their own income”.

At the same time, incorporating technological change “raises new questions about its disruptive effects on societies and especially on gender equality”.

Ms. Bárcena pointed out that although their political participation across the region has risen steadily over the past few decades, women only hold 30 per cent of seats in the region’s parliaments, which is far below the parity-based target.

“There is an urgent need to remove the key barriers hindering women’s participation in order to generate the conditions for the full exercise of women’s citizenship and autonomy in decision-making”, she stated. “To do so, it is important to achieve parity in the distribution of power, resources and time”.

Proudly, she said that under her leadership, ECLAC has achieved gender balance among in senior management, adding “and I am now progressively pushing forward for achieving a similar balance at other levels”.

Europe: Oľga Algayerová

Oľga Algayerová, Executive Secretary for the Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)., by UN Photo/Mark Garten

Oľga Algayerová, Executive Secretary for the Economic Commission for Europe, called UNECE, told UN News that by appointing women as UN Regional Commission heads, the Secretary-General is making “a clear call” to ensure that gender parity is “a reality in our regional organizations”.

“In the UNECE region, the political and economic landscape now looks far more balanced than it did some decades ago”, she asserted.

Ms. Algayerová explained that as a women leader, she is especially sensitive to women’s situations and needs. And as such, she can be more persistent in searching for gender-responsive solutions and broad-based decisions “in consultations with women’s groups” and others.

“I am often approached by women of different ages from civil societies, academia and governments, and I listen to their concerns”, she said.

“Gender equality and the empowerment of women has always been very dear to my heart”, she continued. “In all my previous positions which I have held both in my country, Slovakia, and abroad, I have been a strong advocate for gender equality”.

According to the ECE chief, meeting SDG5 means: ending all forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls; valuing unpaid care and domestic work; and ensuring decent work for all.

“It is a gigantic task, requiring urgent action and pooling all resources to eliminate the root causes of gender inequalities”, she argued. To address this, Ms. Algayerová flagged the need to measure inequalities and provide data to identify what drives gender gaps and why imbalances persist in all spheres of life at country, regional and community levels.

“Only policies based on empirical evidences can be effective instruments to tackle the multifaceted forms of gender inequalities” she concluded.

Armida Alisjahbana: Asia and the Pacific

Armida Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)., by ESCAP/Diego Montemayor

For her part, Armida Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, or ESCAP, told UN News that while “significant progress” has been made in her region, economic and social inequalities persist.

“Growing disparities in income and wealth disproportionately affect women, especially those in vulnerable situations”, she said, pointing out that “for every 10 men who are in employment, there are only six women working”.

What’s more, she lamented, “women are overrepresented in low-paying jobs, with little social protection provisions” and “have less access than men to financial services and productive assets, including land, capital, and information technologies”.

On the political front, Ms. Alisjahbana said that women’s representation in Asia and the Pacific continues to be low in comparison with other regions of the world.

“As of 2018, the proportion of seats held by women in the national parliaments is 18 per cent, while the global average is 24 per cent”, she stated. 

“Addressing such gaps is not only a matter of attaining fundamental rights for women, but also critical to the inclusive economic growth and sustainable development of the region as a whole” Ms. Alisjahbana stressed.

Western Asia: Rola Dashti

Rola Dashti, Executive Secretary of Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), by ESCWA

Rola Dashti, Executive Secretary of Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), shared with UN News her view that leadership is “not a privilege” but a “responsibility with accountability”.

Woman or man, an “all-weather leader” must work “in a responsible, efficient and effective manner to achieve the desirable goals”, she believes. 

Ms. Dashti expressed pride in that she could be “a good example” of women’s ability to “carry out substantive tasks and achieve the mission assigned”.

Against the backdrop of an Arab region embroiled in conflicts, war, displacement and grave economic and environment crises, the ESCWA chief said this situation aggravates the already “complicated task” of meeting SDG5.

She painted a picture of the existing problems facing women, “such as domestic and sexual violence; unemployment; and discrimination in public office” and recommended, “within the few years remaining until 2030”, as “the best course of action”, to “identify common priority areas” across Arab countries to help implement responses at the regional level that would “benefit all”.

She assured that ESCWA places women’s issues “at the forefront of its work” and underlined that “despite gender stereotypes and cultural barriers”, the aspirations of women and girls “are attainable” with “self-recognition, confidence and perseverance”.

“To every woman and girl, she concluded by saying: “Your horizon is your dream!”

Although UN News was unable to arrange an interview with Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), prior to publication, it is clear that she too is committed to the Secretary-General’s 2030 Agenda and working tirelessly in support of gender equality on the continent.

Future of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh ‘hangs in the balance’ – UNHCR chief

The critical needs of 1.2 million mostly Rohingya refugees in south-eastern Bangladesh were top of the agenda for a fact-finding mission to the region by three senior United Nations officials, who called for continuing support on Friday for them from the international community.

© UNHCR/Will SwansonEmergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock with a group of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Kutapalong Refugee Camp, Bangladesh on 26 April 2019.

At the end of a joint visit to the country, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, head of UN migration agency (IOM) António Vitorino, and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi, reiterated their commitment to find safe and sustainable solutions for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, as well as helping them to make a safe and dignified return home.

Since August 2017, nearly 900,000 minority Muslim Rohingyas have fled violence across the border into Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar region, joining several hundred thousand others that had already settled there in overcrowded camps.

Mr. Lowcock painted a picture of “the most appalling brutality imaginable” during his first visit in 2017, when he “met with children who had seen parents killed” and women who, “just holding on”, recounted “horrendous stories of sexual violence they had survived”.

After visiting Cox’s Bazar this trip they noted that almost half of the 540,000 refugee children under the age of 12 are missing out completely on an education, while the remainder are only able to access very limited schooling. Moreover, just a handful of teenagers are currently able to access any form of education or training.

“With the current crisis almost two years on, we must give refugees the chance to learn, build skills and contribute to their communities while also preparing for reintegration when they can return to Myanmar,” said Mr. Grandi. “The future of the Rohingya refugees hangs in the balance.”

The visit came just prior to the onset of cyclone season, which is followed by the arrival of monsoons, both posing serious risks of flooding, landslides and disease outbreaks to thousands of vulnerable women, men and children.

“We are concerned for the welfare of the Rohingya refugees who live in such vulnerable circumstances in Cox’s Bazar, as well as for host communities which also face significant challenges, particularly in the lead up to the monsoon season,” said António Vitorino.

The UN leaders discussed with the Government ways that the international community can further support preparedness and response efforts.

“The Rohingya community is made up of so many young people who are in need of hope and opportunities if they are to build successful lives upon their return to Myanmar”, Mr. Vitorino added.

They also met families undergoing a joint Government-UNHCR registration process, receiving documents that for many are a first to confirm their identity in Bangladesh and enhance their rights to access services and protection.

“This remains one of the world’s biggest refugee crises,” maintained Mr. Grandi. “I saw a great deal of progress, but their situation, especially for women and children, remains fragile”.

While in the camps, they assessed ongoing work to address weather-related risks, including strengthening shelters, improving infrastructure, and training volunteers while recognizing the critical role the refugees themselves are playing in these efforts.

“A wise, far-sighted approach would see a stronger focus on helping the refugees not just recover from the horrors they have experienced, but also to prepare for a dignified longer-term future,” concluded Mr. Lowcock.

Aid preparations gear up as Mozambique braces for second massive storm

Emergency measures are being stepped up by the UN and partners in northern Mozambique, amid fears that another devastating tropical storm could batter coastal areas on Thursday evening, weeks after Cyclone Idai claimed hundreds of lives and flooded vast swathes of the south of the country.

© UNHCR/Luiz Fernando GodinhoFamilies affected by the Cyclone Idai leave temporary shelter of IFAPA, in Beira, to a transit center closer to their places of origin in the district of Buzi, Mozambique (20 April 2019).

“We are expecting that heavy rain will provoke flash floods and landslides impacting the north-eastern provinces of Cabo Delgado and Nampula,” Word Food Programme (WFP)  spokesperson Herve Verhoosel said.

“Another storm would be an additional blow for the people of Mozambique and further complicate the response in all areas.”

Confirming that the agency is “closely” watching the approaching weather system in the north and helping provincial authorities to prepare for the worst, Mr. Verhoosel explained that a joint WFP/ International Organization for Migration (IOM) assessment team, is already in place.

WFP has an office in the coastal town of Pemba – where the cyclone is expected to make landfall – and it also has some 300 metric tons of food aid in the northern coastal towns of Palma and Mocimboa da Praia, where humanitarian partners have been advised “to prepare the warehouses to protect the food and to weather the storm”, Mr. Verhoosel explained.

‘More than a million’ people still struggling after Idai devastation

Hundreds of kilometres away to the south, where Cyclone Idai made landfall six weeks ago causing massive devastation, a major aid operation is still ongoing.

“More than a million people (are) struggling to get back on their feet,” although floodwaters have receded in most areas, Mr. Verhoosel said.

In another development of serious concern, sex-for-aid allegations relating to food distribution for Idai victims in Nhamatanda district, Sofala province, have been strongly condemned by WFP.

Reacting to “shocking” allegations that emerged over the weekend of sexual exploitation and abuse relating to food distribution, the WFP spokesperson insisted that “no staff from WFP, or any UN agency or implementing partner” was involved.

“Upon learning of the allegations, which concerned demands for sex in exchange for food, WFP launched an immediate inquiry, interviewing women who said they had suffered abuse,” he said.

“Staff members heard of several cases of women and girls being asked for sex in exchange for food by community volunteers running food distributions.”

Stronger protection measures for vulnerable

In a bid to stamp out any sexual exploitation and abuse in the recovery effort, WFP intends to meet Government representatives to put in place “strengthened” protection measures for the most vulnerable, Mr. Verhoosel said.

Those affected by the alleged abuse will also receive additional support from UN agencies, the Government and NGOs, while partners in Mozambique are also receiving training to inform communities – before aid is distributed – that any person subjected to sexual exploitation and abuse should seek support from Government partners.

“WFP does not tolerate sexual harassment, exploitation or abuse (SEA) in any form. It is especially shocking if committed against those we serve and in the communities we serve,” Mr. Verhoosel said. “Zero tolerance means that a culture of impunity and complacency toward sexual exploitation and abuse is not accepted.”

Security Council: UN calls for ‘spirit and letter’ of Ukraine agreements to be upheld, as Russia issues simplified citizenship decree

The UN’s political affairs chief has urged all parties to the peace plan protocol for eastern Ukraine known as the Minsk Agreements, to avoid “any unilateral steps” that could undermine efforts to demilitarize the eastern conflict zone.

UNICEF/Tomas VlachUNICEF distributes aid supplies to women in the village of Petrivske, Donetsk region, Ukraine. (February 2015)

Rosemary DiCarlo was addressing the Security Council on Thursday in a meeting requested by Ukraine, and in the wake of Ukrainian presidential elections and the signing of a decree by Russian President Vladimir Putin a day earlier, that reportedly aims to allow citizens in parts of eastern Ukraine, to apply for Russian passports, under a simplified procedure.

Conflict in Ukraine between Government forces and largely pro-Russian separatists in the east during the past five years, have resulted in the deaths of more than 3,300 civilians, up to 9,000 injured, with around 3.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance and protection.

Ms. DiCarlo quoted from the Russian citizenship decree, saying that the decision had been made “with a view to protecting human and citizens’ rights and freedoms”, adding that it had been welcomed by “entities in control in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.”

‘Unprecedented interference’ – Ukraine

Ukrainian authorities, in contrast, had “strongly protested the decree as an unprecedented interference by the Russian Federation in the country’s internal affairs and a violation of sovereignty…contrary to the Minsk Agreements”, she added.

“The United Nations expects that the spirit and the letter of the Minsk agreements will be respected by all concerned”, said the Political and Peacebuilding Affairs chief. “To that end, we urge all parties to avoid any unilateral steps that may potentially undermine the implementation of these agreements and to address concerns through constructive dialogue in the existing negotiation formats.”

She also underlined the UN’s commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

“Against the prevailing dangerous trajectory over the past five years, it is our sincere hope that at long-last, a new positive dynamic can emerge” she said. “This is essential for fostering national cohesion and lasting stability in Ukraine, and critical to the maintenance of peace and security in Europe.”

Solutions needed for Ukraine crisis ‘to avoid further suffering’

With half a million Ukrainians living within five kilometres of the “contact line” dividing the areas of military control, civilians on both sides face daily risks with “coping mechanisms” stretched to the limit, said Ursula Mueller, UN deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator.

She called on all parties to immediately stop using landmines, which were the leading cause of child casualties last year, noting that more than 1,000 civilians had been killed or injured by mines or explosive remnants of war since 2014.

Secondly, Ms. Mueller called for an end to “unpredictable” humanitarian access to the east, urging that it “should not be politicized”. Finally, she implored Council members and donors in the wider international community, to step up humanitarian funding.

The UN 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan, aims to provide 2.3 million people with “protection and assistance to restore their access to livelihoods, essential services and critical infrastructure”, she said, but so far only 9 per cent of the funding has been received.

She called on the parties involved with the 2014 Minsk protocol, to find “solutions to this crisis, in order to avoid further suffering. The people of Ukraine deserve nothing less.”

Talks in Minsk ‘inconclusive’

Latest talks between the Trilateral Contact Group, consisting of Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), proved “inconclusive” in recent days, on a new ceasefire recommitment, said Ms. DiCarlo, calling for a withdrawal of heavy weapons, disengagement of forces and more protection in the east, for civilians.

Briefing for the OSCE, alongside the Chief Monitor of the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, Ertugrul Apakan, Special Representative Martin Sajdik, said that a “deepening divide” between parts of the east and the rest of Ukraine, was making the task of unifying the country harder, with different currency being used, and increasingly difficult journeys across the contact line.

“It is not enough to mitigate the effects of the divide”, said the Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office in Ukraine and in the Trilateral Contact Group. “We have to undertake all efforts to narrow and even to eradicate it. Statements by the future leadership of Ukraine make me optimistic that there is resolve, to actively work against this divide.”