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Presbyterians impressed with UN leader in town hall meeting

At Commission on the Status of Women, UN Secretary-General Guterres took questions from delegates

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

United Nations headquarters in New York City. (Photo by Daryan Shamkhali via Unsplash)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — The Rev. Dr. Dee Cooper has a certain expectation of how world leaders address large groups.

“When you get to high levels of government, even within diplomatic government agencies, typically I experience a lot of ‘let me share with you my thoughts about this.’ I just don’t always experience them as dialogue.”

So, Cooper was pleasantly surprised by Tuesday morning’s town hall meeting with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres at the 65th Annual UN Commission on the Status of Women.

“I felt this was very, very conversational,” said Cooper, the interim Executive Presbyter of the Heartland Presbytery in Kansas and Missouri. “I mean, we could have all been sitting in a room with coffee or tea. I felt his intentionality to address the specific concerns but also appreciate where people were coming from reflected he was listening deeply to their concerns and what they were raising and appreciating what they were accomplishing in the world.”

The Rev. Dr. Dee Cooper, the interim Executive Presbyter of Heartland Presbytery, is a delegate attending the online 65th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. (Photo courtesy of Heartland Presbytery)

Cooper is a Presbyterian delegate to the commission, which is being held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The town hall is an annual feature of the commission, typically packing thousands of attendees into one of the UN’s large meeting rooms where participants stand up and ask questions. Tuesday morning’s meeting had Guterres and other participants on camera, but like the live event, a handful of participants did get to ask him a range of questions from the lingering impacts of colonialism to LGBTQIA+ concerns.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic was a top concern for the Secretary-General, or SG, as UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka referred to Guterres. While some impacts of the pandemic in the United States such as rising unemployment among women and an increase in domestic violence have been noted in national media, Guterres also highlighted global impacts such as an increase in child brides.

“Despite these serious setbacks to gender equality and women’s rights, there is a huge gender gap in the task forces and panels that are supposed to be building the recovery,” Guterres said. “There is simply no excuse for this. Male-dominated teams will come up with male-dominated solutions.

“We cannot go back to the failed man-made policies that have resulted in the fragility we see around us — in health care systems, in social protection, in access to justice, and in the wellbeing of our planet. We need to take the opportunity of a reset, based on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to ensure that everyone enjoys the right to life, dignity, and security on a healthy planet.”

Equity in leadership was a theme Guterres returned to numerous times as both a response to the pandemic and broader global issues.

“A few women leaders are not enough,” Guterres said. “It is when we have many women in power that we transform power itself.”

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres (Screenshot)

To that end, Guterres proposed five “transformative actions to build women’s representation, participation and leadership:

  • First, realize women’s equal rights by repealing all discriminatory laws and enacting positive measures.
  • Second, take concrete steps, including special measures like quotas, so that women have equal representation everywhere: on company boards, in the media, at academic institutions, and in parliaments and governments.
  • Third, support women’s economic inclusion by enabling them to join and remain in the workforce in decent jobs with equal pay and a living wage. Protect their jobs in both the formal and informal sectors; give them equal access to credit; and invest in the care economy and social protection.
  • Fourth, address the violence against women and girls through emergency plans, backed by funding, policies, and political will.
  • Fifth, make space for the intergenerational transition that is underway. Seek out and support the young women leaders who are advocating everywhere for a more just and equal world.

Cooper said she had heard Guterres enumerate these goals elsewhere, and she appreciated their breadth, as well as the SG’s recognition of the intersectionality of many issues he was asked to address. She was one of the members of the Presbyterian delegation who was able to submit questions, but with hundreds of people queuing up and only a handful of people able to pose questions, like in live town halls, she was not surprised her question did not get asked.

Two questions Cooper wanted to ask involved managing women’s issues that cross a number of countries, such as refugee issues, and microaggressions. A lot of talk at the commission, she said, focused on macroaggressions such as rape and human trafficking, which are extremely important. She reflected on a talk she heard the day before from Kersti Kaljulaid, the president of Estonia, where the prime minister is also a woman, Kaja Kallas.

“She still gets asked, ‘How can two women lead a country?’” Cooper said. “And she’s like, you never asked how two men could lead a country. And so that, to me, is a microaggression. It’s a sexism that exists. It’s looking at the system as a whole … how these microaggressions contribute as well to the perpetuation of the minimization.”

Cooper, as well as other Presbyterian delegates who attended the town hall, also appreciated Guterres’ acknowledgement of the leadership of young women, another recurring theme at CSW, and the importance of developing more female leaders and getting them in place quickly, so the world does not have to wait generations for parity in global leadership.

“I think it was 165 years that we would reach parity, if we go as we are today,” Cooper said. “And I just thought, that’s astounding. It’s not just hang on, you’ll eventually get there. That’s generations down the line that we would get there, and to recognize we still have to intervene and make exceptional measures so that we can get there sooner. And it’s all for the common good. It is for the strengthening of the whole as opposed to being just because it will make women feel better, or something along those lines.”

In his opening remarks, Guterres equated female leadership with strong leadership: “Women leaders have won widespread praise for making decisions based on science, demonstrating their sound judgment and foresight leading their countries. In many cases, the results speak for themselves in lives saved and jobs protected.”

The Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations is one of the PC(USA) Advocacy Offices, which are part of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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