The Pandemic Forces UN Women to Shelve the Feminist Forums Until 2021

 by Barbara Crossette

UN Women’s executive director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ncguka
UN Women’s executive director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ncguka, speaking at the Commission on the Status of Women’s annual meeting in March 2020, at UN headquarters. The conference had been cut to a single day from 11, as the Covid-19 virus began racing from China to the rest of the world. Now, the Generation Equality Forum is postponed until 2021. RYAN BROWN/UN WOMEN

UN Women is postponing two long-planned international meetings designed to give civil society groups a leading role in advancing gender rights 25 years after a landmark 1995 Beijing conference on women.

The two sessions of the Global Equality Forum that had been planned for Mexico City in May and Paris in July will be postponed until next year. As a voice for nongovernmental organizations, the Forum was intended to discuss and recommend actions to follow this year’s annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women, an intergovernmental event held in New York City at UN headquarters. The event was cut short in early March, just as the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was beginning to hit the world.

“In light of this crisis, the Generation Equality Forum will be postponed until the first half of 2021,” a statement from UN Women, the convener of Beijing+25 events, said. “The new dates will be announced in the coming months.”

Meanwhile, UN Women said, “a series of virtual engagements will be organized with partners to foster continued momentum, participation and commitment of all stakeholders.”

At the International Women’s Health Coalition in New York, which has been a leading partner with UN Women as well as Mexico and France in planning the Forum sessions, Shannon Kowalski emphasized the importance of using the time well until the Forum sessions can be held.

“The Generation Equality Forums are intended to spark concrete actions to drive a feminist agenda for equality,” Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy, said in a statement.

“In light of the COVID-19 crisis, which has amplified and exacerbated existing gender inequalities, this mission is more important than ever. It’s critical that we use this extra time to maintain momentum, mobilize the necessary resources, and build broad coalitions behind a shared vision to deliver generation equality in every corner of the world.”

In the run-up to the Forum sessions, as originally planned, disagreements arose among and within various groups over the agenda and content of the meetings. One major concern was whether the voices of the poorest women from developing countries would be heard in meetings and action dominated by generously funded, mostly Western organizations.

Missing from the formal agenda, for example, was a separate status for groups such as the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, whose founder and chief executive, Mavic Cabrera-Balleza, had been asking about how, in the conflict-ridden state of the world — before Covid-19 became a pandemic killer — the often-tragic situations of millions of women could be downplayed.

In January, her organization participated in an open letter to the Forum’s main decision-makers, noting, among other problems, “Many grassroots women’s rights and youth organizations have found it impossible to participate in Beijing+25 processes due to lack of information, awareness, funding, capacity, access to internet, and language restrictions.”