Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at Commission on the Status of Women

Presbyterian delegation responds favorably to her speech

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

The official portrait of Kamala Harris taken when she was a U.S. senator from California. The Vice President addressed the 65th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women Tuesday. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Vice President Kamala Harris addressed the United Nations’ 65th Commission on the Status of Women Tuesday, linking the status of democracy to the status of women as delegates from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Presbyterian Women watched online.

“Democracy requires constant vigilance, constant improvement. It is a work in progress and today we know that democracy is increasingly under great strain,” Harris said. “For 15 consecutive years, we have seen a troubling decline in freedom around the globe. In fact, experts believe that this past year was the worst on record for the global deterioration of democracy and freedom. So even as we confront a global health crisis and an economic crisis, it is critical that we continue to defend democracy.”

With that, Harris announced that the United States would be strengthening its engagement with the United Nations and the broader multilateral system and rejoining the UN’s Human Rights Council because “we know the status of democracy depends on our collective commitment to those values articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Harris also noted that the status of democracy depends fundamentally on the status of women, “not only because the exclusion of women in decision-making is a marker of a flawed democracy, but because the participation of women strengthens democracy, and that’s true everywhere.”

Harris said that she is inspired by progress that women are making around the world and in the United States. Indeed, “women strengthen our democracy every day,” she said.

For example, more women than men vote in U.S. presidential elections and more women than ever are serving in the United States Congress and being their family’s breadwinner, Harris said. She also noted that President Joe Biden recently nominated women to take the helm of two combatant commands.

However, Harris warned that women’s progress cannot be taken for granted, especially given the setbacks that the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt on a number of fronts.

“As women struggle to get the health care they need, the pandemic appears to be reversing the global gains we’ve made in the fight against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, malnutrition, and maternal and child mortality,” Harris said.

So one of the Biden-Harris administration’s first steps was to rejoin the World Health Organization as a member state and leader, Harris said. She also made note of a revitalized partnership with UN Women to help empower women worldwide.

“When women face obstacles to obtaining quality health care, when women face food insecurity, when women are more likely to live in poverty and therefore disproportionately impacted by climate change, more vulnerable to gender-based violence and therefore disproportionately impacted by climate, well, it’s harder for women to fully participate in decision-making, which in turn makes it that much harder for democracies to thrive,” she said.

Nearing the end of her speech, Harris quoted Eleanor Roosevelt, who shaped the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and once said, “Without equality there can be no democracy.”

Toward that end, the United States is “committed to upholding the democratic values embedded in the Declaration and we firmly believe that when we work together globally we can achieve the vision within it,” Harris said as she concluded her speech.

Harris’ appearance was the first time the United States was represented at the White House level at CSW, according to the United States Mission to the United Nations.

Her speech was applauded by members of the Presbyterians’ joint delegation to the two-week gathering, which has gone virtual this year because of the pandemic.

“I thought that it was striking that the focus was on democracy in light of the recent challenges posed on our democracy in the U.S., whether that be the presidential election result denial, the Capitol attacks, or the increasing efforts to restrict voter access across the U.S., and Vice President Harris centered women in the struggle for democracy, stating that ‘the status of women is the status of democracy,’” said Eileen Schuhmann, Mission Specialist for International Hunger Concerns for the Presbyterian Hunger Program.

Schuhmann also was encouraged to hear that the United States will “be working in cooperation and collaboration with international networks again.”

Joy Durrant, Presbyterian Women’s Vice Moderator for Justice & Peace, also was struck by Harris linking the status of women to democracy as well as the fact that Harris said CSW’s work is just as critical today as it was when it was founded.

Sue Rheem, Presbyterian representative to the United Nations, said Harris’ appearance at the gathering was significant and sends a message around the globe from the country’s new administration.

“To have Vice President Kamala Harris speak is to put the world on notice that U.S. is back at the United Nations and the world stage and that gender justice is a priority for the Biden-Harris Administration,” Rheem said.

The theme of CSW65 is “Women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.”

the Rev. Dr. Dee Cooper

“I liked that she (Harris) emphasized the importance of women, and women are essential to strengthen democracy,” Rheem said. “I loved what she said about U.S. strengthening our engagement with the UN and with UN Women.  It is welcome news for us to have her commitment that the U.S. will reengage with the world.”

The Rev. Dr. Dee Cooper, Interim Executive Presbyter of Heartland Presbytery, said, “These commitments were like balm to a weary soul. We have longed for leadership that invites and recognizes the value of women’s voices and participation. Her comments also reflected a core value of the PC(USA) of we can do more together than alone.”

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