With cascading crises casting a pall over the proceedings at this year’s United Nations General Assembly, Slovakian President Zuzana Čaputová had this reminder on the first day of debate: “We cannot save our planet if we leave out the vulnerable — the women, the girls, the minorities.”
But gender parity at the world’s preeminent forum of leaders still seems far out of sight. Eight women are set to speak at the UN General Assembly on Friday. That’s more than double the number — five — of women that spoke across the first three days of the summit.
On Friday, three vice presidents and five prime ministers — including Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina and New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden — will take the rostrum or give their address in a prerecorded video.
“As the first female president in the history of my country, the burden of expectation to deliver gender equality is heavier on my shoulder,” said Samia Suluhu Hassan, the president of Tanzania. When it comes to such equality, she said, ”“COVID-19 is threatening to roll back the gains that we have made,”
Hassan was the lone woman to address the General Assembly on Thursday.
Despite those 13 women making up less than 10% of speakers over the first four days, the 13 represent an increase from last year, when just nine women spoke over the course of the session. There are also three more female heads of state or heads of government — 24 — than there were at this point in 2020.
“There can be no democracy, no security and no development without one-half of the humankind,” Estonia President Kersti Kaljulaid said Wednesday, also underscoring women’s vulnerability in society.
The theme of vulnerability has been at the forefront during a week haunted by the ever-looming specters of climate change, coronavirus and conflict. Most of the speeches have taken on the tenor of pleas issued at the precipice, batting away the summit’s theme of “building resiliency through hope.”
Dire predictions were not limited to the General Assembly. At a UN Security Council meeting Thursday, the high-level officials urged stepped-up action to address the security implications of climate change and make global warming a key part of all UN peacekeeping operations. They said warming is making the world less safe, pointing to Africa’s conflict-plagued Sahel region and Syria and Iraq.
Scores of leaders have already spoken, and many have left New York altogether. But some of the most anticipated countries have yet to deliver their addresses: North Korea, Myanmar and Afghanistan — all perennially but also lately much in the news — are expected to close out the session Monday afternoon.
Friday alone promises fireworks, with a slate of speakers from countries roiled by internal and external conflict.
The president of the ethnically divided Cyprus is scheduled to open the proceedings, soon followed by a Lebanon also riven by internal strife. The morning plenary will also see addresses from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the prime minister of Armenia, lambasted Thursday in Azerbaijan’s speech in the aftermath of the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
The afternoon will see both Albania and Serbia, perpetually at odds over Kosovo, as well as a Pakistan feeling pressure on its eastern border with India and western border with Afghanistan.
“Their victory has instilled a tremendous hope. It’s a shot in the arm, at a time when we are not even allowed to speak openly,” a former Kashmiri rebel who has fought against India said last week of the Taliban’s ascension in Afghanistan.
Pakistan and India, which goes Saturday, are historically eager users of the “right of reply” function, which allows diplomats to lob polemics defending their countries in response to speeches from unfriendly nations. That window of opportunity opens Friday night, after the leaders’ speeches conclude.