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Nelson Mandela Peace Summit Highlights Women’s Rights

The Member States of the United Nations held the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit on September 24th to demonstrate a recommitment to upholding and promoting peace and human rights around the world.  The Summit was held the day before the beginning of the 73rd UN General Assembly Debate, in honor of what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday. The Summit featured a number of high-level speakers from both the UN and various Member States, and several speakers from inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations. It also included the adoption of a resolution of recommitment to the values of Nelson Mandela by the attending UN Member States.

The most memorable moment for people outside of the bubble of the UN, however, was the address of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. While Prime Minister Ardern’s address was one of the most memorable of the day, it was instead what was happening on the floor of the General Assembly that will be most remembered. Prime Minister Ardern made history at the Summit by bringing her infant daughter, Neve, onto the assembly floor, in a first for the United Nations General Assembly. Sending a powerful message about motherhood to attendees and the wider public, she also pushed a powerful message about working toward peace for the sake of the future of humanity.

Prime Minister Ardern has proven herself a strong supporter of women’s and parents’ rights, and she and her husband are both redefining traditional gendered parental roles. Ardern is the youngest female head of state in the world, and is only the second head of state to give birth during her term. She has already proven herself a fierce advocate for workplace equality among working mothers, while also asserting her position of privilege as someone who cannot only bring her daughter to work, but also rely on a spouse to care for her daughter full time. By bringing her daughter to the General Assembly, Ardern reminded the attendees of the ongoing struggle for gender equality, and the struggles mothers around the world face.

Prime Minister Ardern brought her baby onto the General Assembly floor nearly a year after Japanese Assembly Member Yuka Ogata brought her infant onto the floor of the Kumamoto Municipal Assembly to make a point about the struggles of women raising children in Japan. Ogata decided to make this point after requesting a childcare facility in the building and being denied. She was then forced to remove her infant from the chamber, despite the absence of a rule banning children from the Assembly floor. This incident served as a reminder that inclusion of women in leadership roles must be accompanied by services that help break traditional gender roles. Ogata’s experience highlights just one of the many barriers mothers who work in politics face both in Japan, and around the world. With the UN Member States asserting the benefit of increased gender parity in leadership roles, governments must address barriers faced by working parents, and help them overcome these issues. 

Prime Minister Ardern’s historic move comes at a time of increasing gender parity in national governments, and within the UN Secretariat. Secretary General António Gutteres has made public his efforts toward reaching gender parity in leadership roles within the United Nations, and introduced the System-Wide Strategy on Gender Parity, with the goal of improving workplace gender parity between female-identifying and male-identifying employees, and encouraging gender-inclusive spaces and language. These efforts by the Secretary General include the selection of Amina Mohammed as the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, which is the second highest-ranking position in the United Nations.

The 73rd UN General Assembly also saw the election of a woman to the position of President of the General Assembly. María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés is the Foreign Minister of Ecuador, and only the fourth woman to hold the position of President of the General Assembly. María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés also served as Ecuador’s first female Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and has served in various other governmental roles. The presence of both María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on the public stage provides great visibility for women in leadership roles, and gives young women strong role models. While there is still a long way to go before we reach gender parity in international organizations, Secretary General Gutteres has worked to achieve parity in high-level positions in the UN Secretariat. By giving female leaders a platform to make issues facing women around the world so visible, the UN has demonstrated a clear commitment to equity.

The results of increased numbers of women in government are undeniable. Countries with higher representation of women in government see an increase in policies that benefit women, including increased support for working parents. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was elected the first female Prime Minister of Iceland in 1980, which made her the first elected female head of state in the world.  After her election, the rates of Icelandic women running for office and participating in politics increased drastically. Iceland now has the most equal parliament in the world out of countries with no gender quota system, and is consistently ranked one of the best countries to be a woman in.  

When Prime Minister Ardern brought her infant daughter onto the General Assembly floor, it sent a message to the world that mothers deserve equal access to high-level positions, and reaffirmed the importance of commitment by national leaders to making leadership roles accessible to all people. It is only through accessibility for those who have been traditionally excluded from positions of power that parity can be reached. It is only fitting that Prime Minister Ardern chose to make this statement at a summit that symbolized a recommitment to the values of peace, justice, and equity. The facts are clear: when women are represented in government, the world becomes a safer, more equitable place for women. Prime Minister Ardern reminded us to look to the future, and reevaluate our collective values.