Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Executive Director, UN Women


Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations; @RobinsonL100

Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations, Sorensen Lecture, and Women and Foreign Policy Program

Sima Sami Bahous discusses women’s rights in areas of acute crisis and how UN Women is supporting gender equality and the empowerment of women around the world.

The Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations was established in 1996 by Gillian and Theodore C. Sorensen to highlight the United Nations and offer a special occasion for its most distinguished and experienced leaders to speak to the Council membership.

ROBINSON: Thank you so much. I’m honored to moderate this year’s Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations, established by Ted and Gillian Sorensen. We are honored to have Gillian Sorensen with us tonight, and thank her for this commemorative event and for her own distinguished UN career and international contributions. And a special shoutout to the student fellows from the Sorensen Center for International Peace and Justice at the City University of New York Law School, and Camille Massey, who leads the program. (Applause.)

I’m delighted now to introduce her excellence, Sima Sami Bahous. She is the UN executive director of UN Women, which is the body’s global champion for women’s rights and equality. She previously served as Jordan’s ambassador to the UN, head of the United Nations Development Program’s Arab States Bureau, and the Arab States League’s head of social development. In addition, she has held ministerial posts in Jordan’s government and directed the King Hussein and Noor Al Hussein Foundations. That’s a short summary of the many positions and an illustrious career. And we’re just delighted to have you with us today.

BAHOUS: Thank you. Thank you. I am delighted to be here, Linda, and everyone. Gillian, it’s great to see you, and an honor to see you and to be here, and an honor to see everyone, including the students.

ROBINSON: So, per our usual format here at the Council, we’ll have a discussion here for a few minutes. Everything tonight is on the record, as has been described for our participants and members.

And I’d like to begin with your historic mission to Afghanistan recently, together with your colleague, UN Undersecretary-General Amina Mohammed. You two women went to Taliban Afghanistan. And I think that everyone here is aware that the situation has become increasingly desperate for the entire population, but in particular for women and girls. And I would just note one fact: Fifty-five of the eight-two decrees that the Taliban has issued since it came back into power have involved measures against women. So I think that you couldn’t have a more timely discussion here.

And with your having gone to Afghanistan, let’s start first with your meetings with the Taliban leaders, your call for them to reverse the measures they’ve taken, including most recently banning women from working in NGOs, which are vital to the survival of the people, and also to reverse some of the other measures banning them from education. At this point, anything above sixth grade. And really erasing them from the public sphere. So if you could just tell us about your meetings, how they reacted, what you feel you may have obtained, and what you see as the way ahead.

BAHOUS: Thank you. Thank you, Linda, for the question.

I would like to start by saying that, well, we had—when we decided to go, we had three objectives for the visit. One is to show solidarity with the women and girls of Afghanistan, and also to show solidarity with the UN staff, especially women, who are working and who stayed and delivered in Afghanistan at this particular time. And also to see whether we can reverse the edicts, talk about the edicts that have, you know, as you said, that have kept women out of education, out of work, out of the public domain, that has restricted their freedom, that has put them back again under the control of men, where they can’t go out except if there is a man accompanying them. And the third objective was to look at if there is any possibility for the political track that will help us all, as the international community, to see how we can deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan to help women and girls there, and their families.

So these were the major three objectives. Yes, we did go to Afghanistan. It was quite a tough trip. The country is very vast. It’s very cold, a lot of snow. And also, meeting with Taliban was tough for two women coming from—I come from the Middle East. The DSG Amina Mohammed comes from Africa. And we just went in and we didn’t know what to expect, actually. The only thing that I did not expect was that they received us. (Laughter.) And they were listening—they listened to what we said. The discussions were very tough. We spoke about the rights of women. We spoke about the fact that the edicts that they have put, you know, against women are not right.

We spoke about the principles of the United Nations, about the Human Rights Declaration, about the charter of the United Nations, about the fact that women are suffering in their country. And we had met women before we met the Taliban. We insisted that we will want to meet the women of Afghanistan in our tour, before we got into the country. And as we got into the country, we decided to meet with the women first. And the women there also, they entrusted us to amplify their voices to the Taliban leadership as we were meeting them.

But we spoke about a number of issues that were involving the women. And I tell you, sometimes the Taliban would listen and shake their heads. Sometimes they would not look at us when we were talking. They would look somewhere else. (Laughs.) And other times they told us that we’re not supposed to be there anyway because we don’t have our mahram men with us. So but they are out of the goodness of their heart they were meeting us. And of course, we went on to explain that they cannot really keep women out of education, and we cannot keep them out of the humanitarian work.

And then some of them would ask, why? We would explain why. We would explain why. We would explain exactly why. I would explain exactly why, because women need to be on the humanitarian support system. You are a conservative society that does not allow women to see men. Men cannot deliver humanitarian assistance to women. Ten percent of your households are female-headed households. So how are they going to access humanitarian support? Eleven-point-six million of your people and your women and girls are in need of humanitarian assistance. So what do we do? Sixty percent also, we said, of your young girls are not going to school. That’s almost half of the young girls. They have allowed them to go only to sixth grade. And so on and so forth.

But, as I said, they listened. There was no expectation from our end that they would reverse the edicts. What we were trying to do by talking to them and engaging, at least, is to try to get some exemptions for the edicts, and not to reverse the edicts. We were under no illusion that they will reverse any edict, because we were both there. (Laughs.) And also, we had seen that probably it is a face-saving situation for them if they don’t reverse the edicts, but if they continue to do some exemptions that eventually will cancel the edicts out. And we tried to go that track.

We were—we were told that the edict will be lifted soon. Many of the ministers told us that. And that the edicts were to protect women. We said, no. We see them as oppressing women, and we explained why again. And we were also told that these edicts will be reversed, especially the edicts on education, that it will be reversed as soon as possible. When we asked, what does that mean, as soon as possible—is it a year, is it a month, is it fifty years—we got no answer.

But we were told that what they are doing now is relooking, revisiting the whole education system, where they would want girls to be educated in a certain way. That they want the teachers to be trained in a certain way. That they want the schools to be built in a certain way. And, most dangerously, that they would want the curriculum to be designed in a way that does not have any of the—what they told us—the Western values that they, of course, don’t—and that they would have the Muslim values, which would protect women.

We explained, and I coming from Jordan, I even quoted his majesty, King Abdullah, who has worked a lot on the issue of Islam and, you know, explaining the true spirit and the true Islam. I said, this is not Islam. You have hijacked Islam somewhere else. You have taken it so far away from what it is. Islam has never said that women should not go to school. Islam has never said that women should not work. Islam has never said that women should not be seen in public. And all these issues that they are telling us that they are—the Islam that they think is the real Islam or the right Islam, we explained that this is not it.

Also, my—Amina Mohammed, my colleague and my DSG, she’s actually also my boss—(laughter)—she was also explaining to them that, yeah, I am a Muslim woman. Look at me. I am educated. I am almost the head of the UN—you know, I’m number two at the United Nations. And what is this, you know, nonsense that you are talking about, basically. (Laughter.) Yeah. So many times we felt that we were talking across them, but they were not looking in our direction at all, mentally and physically. And so that was part—you know, this is part of the—

Another part I wanted to say is that—I used to be an interviewer, by the way, on television. So I’m always asking questions also. (Laughter.) But part of the—part of the ministers, some of them were more in listening more than others. For example, the minister—I maybe—one of the ministers, the first thing he said—he was the minister of agriculture. He talked about the role of women in agriculture. And he also said that women can be helpful in agriculture. So we said, OK, what about the edicts? How can they be, if they cannot move, go out? And he said, well, they will have some mahram with them to do that. But we feel there are some openings, very narrow, very narrow openings where—for engagement only, and nothing else.

ROBINSON: Yes, those openings. I’d like to ask a couple of follow-ups, because you’ve raised so many important issues here. The openings, and Save the Children, one of the big organizations providing humanitarian aid, actually received assurances that allowed them to start—restart some of their health and nutrition programs. And in a bulletin yesterday, they said some schooling. But they’re trying to make sure that they have the assurances to be able to go ahead. So it sounds like there may be some cracks in the wall. And do you think that pressure—or, what suite of tactics will help move this forward?

BAHOUS: Look, the exception that they made on education helped to have more and more young girls, up to sixth grade, go to schools. One of the ministers there actually was the deputy foreign minister—deputy prime minister. Is why don’t you go to the provinces? And he did like that. So it’s, like, go away from where the power is, or the power structure is, and go and, you know, look at education there, try to do something there, when we were talking about humanitarian support. So this is where there would be a few days of hope where you can just go out into the provinces and see and talk maybe to the less fundamental Talibans, who would agree to do that, to reopen the schools, for example, or have different arrangements for schooling.

We even discussed different arrangements for schooling among ourselves—remote learning, remote teaching, things like that. But these are things that, you know, we will have to continue to talk about. And the exemptions on health, they have allowed women to continue to work in health because they need them. And this is where another—that’s why you said that Save the Children is now being able to do that, to work in—continue to work in health, because women can work in health. Other parts of the humanitarian support, no, women cannot work until today. And we need to find ways and means of, you know, working around that, so that women can continue to work.

They also told us that they have—they are very upset with the international community, because the international community is not recognizing the good things that they have done for women. And we said, what are those good things? (Laughter.) And they said, we have passed—we have passed gender-based violence law against that. So one law against that. They said, we have reversed the laws that allowed women to be traded for blood money. They used to trade women for blood, if there is a problem in a tribe or something. And they also said that, you know, they have also stopped—they have looked at inheritance law within sharia of Islam, and they have instituted that which, within sharia, it gives women a fair amount of the inheritance.

And then we thought that, for example, some of the leeway where we can get into—for example, this law on gender-based violence. We need to see, as the international community, to be able to help those women. How can we use that law, for example? Because we told them that these laws are not being implemented, and we know that. So you’re giving something with one hand and taking the rest of the important issues also in the other hand. But we, as an international community, as the UN, need to see how can we leverage, for example, the gender-based violence law that they said that they have reinstituted to help women? How can we leverage it so that women can go back to work and help these women who are being—suffering from gender-based violence? UN Women has closed almost all the centers that were helping women who were suffering from gender-based violence and all these issues.

ROBINSON: May I ask about your visits to Herat and Kandahar? Because many people focus on Kabul. And of course, it was perhaps the city—was the city that saw the most change during the time before the Taliban took over and, thus, then, I think, suffered a real shock. But what Kandahar and Herat places, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Kandahar. And I’m just curious what your conversation with civil society women, political leaders, not the Taliban, what did you feel those parts of the country were experiencing?

BAHOUS: The visit to Kandahar was tougher than Kabul, because the ulema council there was extremely tough. And the deputy governor was even tougher, on the issues that we were talking about. So there wasn’t any interaction there that we felt moved anywhere. But in Herat, it’s where we met the civil society women. And it was also a different kind of shock. Because you see all these women who have entrepreneurial skills, who have been trained on having some entrepreneurial skills, some small businesses. They wanted—some of them wanted to continue their own education as mothers. They saw their girls not in school anymore. They don’t have money. There is nothing happening in their society, as such. So that was extremely heartbreaking to see.

This was in Herat. Some of the centers that the United Nations was running to train women on skills, to train them on how to make money, to train them on how to be entrepreneurs, to train them how to help their own families, to train them on literacy, to train them on education—everything has closed. It was all shut down. Some women had opened—we saw some small shops in the vicinity of the center there where women—one woman told me that I was selling. You know, women used to come here, and I was selling things I do at home or things other women do for me at home. And now I can’t sell anything, I can’t do anything. Therefore, I can’t—and also my daughter is not going—daughters are not going to school.

And she said, I was hoping that I would make some money from this training that I took and this entrepreneurial shop that I opened so that I, as a woman, can continue my education. And then she looked, and she started crying, and said, but now everything has gone. Now, we also met the women civil society organizations, who were very tough against, of course, the Taliban. They told us that we should judge the Taliban by their actions and not by their words, because they have seen so many, of course, broken promises. And they wanted us not to engage. And they told us that, don’t engage because, you know, you have seen what is happening.

But in the same vicinity of that meeting, we met the poor women from Herat, the extremely poor women who have no money. I mean, I keep telling, the amount of tears that I saw coming out of the ears—of the eyes of those women is—I have never seen in my life. It’s like a river. And with this river of tears that is coming out, you see the depression, you see the oppression, you see the poverty, you see the hardship of the life that they are living. One woman said that she doesn’t have any food or any money to give her kids tonight. Another woman said, I am suffering from depression, but I can only take the pill once every three days because I can’t afford. I have to buy something for my kids.

Another one said that my husband is addicted and, you know, she is suffering from gender-based violence and other things, but can’t do anything. There is no center to help her. There is no support to help her. And she can’t get out of the house because she’s alone. And so many of the other tragedies that you see with these women, many of them said—one woman—when we first started, we said we hope that things will become better and that one day you will see. One woman stood up and said, look at you two. We wanted—we want to be like you, but how? And she kept saying, how, how, how? And she collapsed into crying.

So when you see these women, when they start, even the nongovernment organization women who are strong, they start being very strong. They tell you what the issues are. You see them as resilient. You see them as very strong. And then towards the end of the conversation they collapse into tears because of the oppression and because of the—yeah, oppression, basically, deep oppression that they feel. And we just need—that’s why we say that we need to continue to engage to see how we can help these women, how we can help those poor women as well, and also how we can find strategies to do that.

ROBINSON: I’m sure we will come back to this very important topic in our dialogue with the members and our both virtual and in-person. It is, I think, at a critical point. Not just the psychological harm that’s been done, but literally millions on the brink of famine and, as you noted, a very difficult winter. And it seems to me there is a real choice the international community has to make between engagement to try to get concessions, step by step, and relief to people, versus those who have really—no countries have yet recognized the Taliban government. They don’t want to behave in ways that would appear to legitimize them. But at the cost, as people are not there to provide help, except for these humanitarian providers. It’s, I think, a really—a deep conundrum.

And I think you’re—I want to just quickly acknowledge—you conducted an international tour to the Gulf states, to Asia. Important organizations like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, also echoing your statement. There’s nothing—it’s not against Islam for women to work and go to school. So these kinds of appeals. I just don’t know if that engagement strategy—do you see it coming to be the dominant strategy that more and more countries will adopt? Or do you think we’re—

BAHOUS: No, we—I mean, the reason we went on this tour before we entered into Afghanistan was to also listen from the countries, the neighboring countries of Afghanistan and the Muslim countries also, what are their thoughts on this and how we can build a coalition to be able to help the women and girls inside Afghanistan. And we heard support from every country we went that this is unacceptable, that this has nothing to do with Islam, that women need to be—needs to be helped. And that, of course, at the OIC in Jeddah, we also heard from the OIC themselves that this is unacceptable and that they will continue to engage, and to work, and to bring their clergymen to go and talk to them, and to explain. And also, OIC has also issued a statement, very strong statement, against what is happening there.

In Indonesia, for example, also, we noted that there are some engagement with the Taliban to explain also what is happening, and how the religious can be used positively to help women. And how sharia can be used positively to help women. And, of course, the Gulf states also were willing to help. We went to—we went to Qatar. We went to the UAE. We went to Saudi Arabia, to the OIC. We went to Turkey. We went to Indonesia. We went to Uzbekistan, to Kazakhstan, to Pakistan. And on the way back, we went, again, to Qatar, because Qatar, Doha, is the—you know, they had all the negotiations going on there, and they have some connections and relationships with the Taliban, as such.

And then we went also to the EU to explain what we saw and how we saw it, because some countries within the EU are, again, like you said, hesitant about what kind of engagement do we do, and should we engage or not? Are we—if we engage, are we legitimizing them or not? What we saw is that we are not legitimizing them if we engage for the sake of women and girls and their families. And we are not legitimizing them if we engage with the red line of women and girls are number one and you cannot replace them with men. So, I mean, the international community—also we said that the international community needs to come together so that we can decide what we want to do. Soon we will be having a conference with the OIC, led by the OIC and UN Women and the UN on the rights of women in Islam in OIC countries, to bring that understanding under focus, and then to show what is—what is Islam, and how the rights of women are under that religion.

ROBINSON: Before we open up, I want to have two quick questions so you can describe a bit about the global mandate of UN Women. You have—I’ll start with the next giant thing on your plate, which is the sixty-seventh annual UN Commission on the Status of Women coming up in March. And it is a large convening. The topic this year is about the gender divide in technology and how to address it, and also making the digital space safer. Could you just say a few points that the members here can pick up on to ask you more about, so we know what’s happening in March?

BAHOUS: Well, what’s happening in March? We have on March 8th International Women’s Day. And then after that, we have the CSW, which, as you said, the Commission on Status of Women Worldwide. It is a commission where every single country comes to New York with a delegation of women, sometimes with men also, to discuss—many times with men, actually. And we try to fight that and say we need gender-balanced delegations. We try to push the agenda—the normative agenda throughout the world for women’s rights, for women’s empowerment, for women’s leadership, and for gender equality.

And this year, as you mentioned, it is about innovation, technology, and the empowerment of women and girls, and also about education. How we can leverage the new technologies and the education for women and the positives of those to help more and more women become more empowered, more economically empowered, more socially empowered, and more in leadership positions. And also, how to look at the positive—at the negatives of this technology in terms of violence against women online, in terms of pursuing human rights defenders, in terms of pursuing also and being violent online against GLBTQ+ women, against women who are even climate change defenders, and all this. There is a lot of, you know, aggression online against these women. And we really need to see how to stop that and how to leverage the positives of the new technologies and education, in that sense.

ROBINSON: There’s been a surge of documentation, I think, shining a light on how big a problem that is. So my last question is really the biggest of all. You have the UN member states agreed that the year 2030 was the target date for achieving women’s equality. And of course, that’s seven years away, and we are not there. It’s also called Sustainable Development Goal Five—number five.

And you helped lead the Gender Equality Forum in 2021, which came up with an acceleration plan to try to advance more quickly. There was a report card produced in September, noting what pledges had been made and not made. The response wasn’t 100 percent, so the report isn’t complete. Also, there was a part of it that I noticed the OECD countries made the major commitments in Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, all of Asia. Eleven percent of commitments, and yet they have 55 percent of the women and girls. So those were just things I noted. But I’m wondering, looking at that big goal, what do you think is most important to really prioritize to try to tackle so that we get moving?

BAHOUS: Well, as you said, we are off track. And we are off track on all the SDGs, including SDG 5. And if we are on track on SDG 5, the track on all the other SDGs will continue to be off track, because SDG 5, on the empowerment of women, on gender equality, is embedded in each and every one of the—of the seventeen goals. This is one thing.

The other thing is we need to accelerate, as was mentioned. Our report card showed us that if we continue at the current rate that we are going, it will take us another 286 years to reach gender equality. And this is not something that we accept. And this is something that we will not accept. And we really need to move much faster, to be more activist in what we do, to see where the problems are in different parts of the world and tracking them. It also showed us that we need 140 more years still, if we continue on the same track, to be able to see that women are in leadership positions, and in powerful leadership positions, in the workplace. It also told us that we need forty more years to see equity in parliaments between women and men.

So this is alarming, in so many ways. But it is also a political decision to continue to move forward on the agenda of gender equality and women’s empowerment. And we need to continue to push for that as well. We know that what is needed is we need finance, we need data, and we need political will. And I’m not saying them in any order of priority, but political will is so important. Finance is important, and data. Unless we have data to be able to tell where we are progressing and where we are not progressing, and where we are regressing, we will not be able to really monitor very well this SDG and the others. I am told through this report also that 47 percent of what is needed in data is absent from the countries. So how can we really be able to move forward on the issues?

So these are issues important. Finance also, like you said, we need more countries to come to help each other. We need ODA. We need official development assistance to continue to flow in the countries where it is needed. I understand that we have a global recession. We all understand climate change. We all understand the COVID effects. We all understand all the issues that are taking place in the world today. But we cannot forget each other. And we need as an international community to come together to help each other to reach the development—the sustainable development goal, and to reach gender equality through SDG 5.

Otherwise, we will continue to lag behind. We will continue to be leaving millions of women behind—women and girls. And we will continue actually to have more crisis in the world, because poverty brings crisis. Crisis brings more crisis. Crisis brings gender-based violence. Gender-based violence brings more poverty. And it’s a vicious cycle. And we really need to concentrate and see how best we can move forward on all these issues. And this is the—this is the work and the mandate of UN women, is to push the agenda of women forward. To push it not only on our own, as the UN but with member states—all of the member states—with civil society, with the private sector, with young people, and with all the sectors that can do that for women and girls throughout the world. Thank you.

ROBINSON: Thank you. Now we’re going to open up to questions here. (Applause.) We will start—

BAHOUS: Thank you.

ROBINSON: I would like to start in the back. And we will toggle between the room and our online audience, including people in Washington in our office. Please state your name—please stand, state your name and affiliation, and ask your question.

Q: Thank you. Thank you for the presentation. I’m Maryum Saifee.

I’m a Foreign Service officer with U.S. Department of State, formerly worked in the Office of Global Women’s Issues and with the OIC. So I really enjoyed the remarks on Afghanistan, though very sobering. I’m now in the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy. And I wanted to hear a bit more about how technology can accelerate progress towards SDG 5, and specifically bridge the gender gap.

BAHOUS: We take a few questions or one by one? How do you want to do that?

ROBINSON: We want to go one by one, I guess. We’ll bundle later when we get squeezed for time. (Laughter.)

BAHOUS: OK. So, look, we know that with poverty and with all the disparities that are taking place in the world there is a lot of disparity. And there’s a big divide between the countries and between women and men as well. We know that women are 15 percent less, for example, in ownership of mobile phones. We also know that 45—they are 45 percent less equipped with skills that will help them to use technology for basic support of their life. And this is where we really need to leverage the education so that women can be reached. We also know that rural women have less knowledge of and access to technology. We also know that older women are also less privileged in that situation. And we also know that disabled women are also less privileged in that situation.

So we need to look at the countries. We need to look at the women, in particular, and zero in on where we really want to see education, technology bring about change—positive change for women in those areas. And, as I mentioned also earlier, there is a lot of negative influence on communities, on rural women, et cetera, and other women, from technologies. But there are many positives. And women, you know, are—last year we learned a lot about how women can bring also solutions to poverty, solutions to climate change, through smart solutions, actually, to agriculture. Smart solutions on how to deal with climate change, how to deal with other issues of their life. And this is where we will be encouraging countries and encouraging women to continue to work in that vein, and in that sphere of technology, innovation, and education.

We also need to continue to push women to go into the STEM fields. Certain parts of the world, they don’t push women at all to go into the STEM field. And certain other parts of the world—like, for example, where I come from in the Middle East—women have the highest numbers of STEM education in the Middle East, but they don’t look in those areas. So we are—this is what we will be looking at. And to see the research, to see the leverages, to see the opportunities, and to see how we can help—as a technical arm—how we can help the member states to reach the agreed conclusions that they want to reach, so that they can implement them in their home—in their home countries.

ROBINSON: Thank you. We will take a question from our virtual member audience.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Felice Gaer.

Q: Thank you very much. I very much appreciated your rather poignant description of how difficult it was when you were in Afghanistan meeting with the Taliban. But I’m wondering if you could comment on some of the criticisms of the visit. For example, there are a number of women who felt that your going, together with Amina Mohammed, actually—because of your rank at the UN—that you actually were legitimating the Taliban and their edicts. There were others who felt that the public statements that you made about the UN’s support of humanitarian—about the UN’s support of humanitarian issues that needed to be resolved in Afghanistan, were only humanitarian and that they didn’t deal with the basic human rights issues. And, well, I’ll stop there. But people felt that in this context you weren’t mobilizing opposition to the Taliban abuses adequately. You were somehow calming the waters, but not really doing the job. Could you comment on those criticisms?

BAHOUS: I would comment by saying that going to Afghanistan was an eye-opener, not only for me and Amina but for the Taliban as well. They needed to see women in power come and talk to them. And we will continue to go if we need to, if we find ways and means of engaging. Because otherwise who is going to take care of those women and girls who have been almost wiped out of the—of public space? Who have—their livelihoods have been wiped out. Their education has been wiped. Their future has gone, as they told us, in front of their eyes, and they don’t know what to do. This is one thing.

On the issue of the humanitarian—I mean, I have—as the head of UN Women, I have issued a number of statements that were extremely hard on Taliban. We have said that these are against human rights. We have said that this is against women’s rights. We have said that this is something that we have never seen in any country in the world. And this is not at all in congruence with anything that the international community, that the principles of the international community, the principles of the charter of the UN, and the principle of the—of the Declaration of Human Rights, which we will be celebrating this year also as well. So we have said all that.

But the—as I said, the reason for the trip was to show solidarity and to see whether there is any chance of engagement to help save those women and girls there. On the issue of the humanitarian, that we only spoke of humanitarian, it was the context then because it was on the eve of that edict that when they said that women cannot work in the humanitarian field that prompted maybe the criticisms, but also prompted us to continue to talk about the importance of women being in the humanitarian field, being a part of the United Nations response for the—in the humanitarian area.

Because then women will not be reached. Men will not reach women. We know that from our experience in humanitarian work. And we don’t want, as I said, to replace men with—women with men. And when men distribute humanitarian assistance, it never reaches women. Even in countries that are not as much conservative as Afghanistan, still it doesn’t. Men take it and sell it. Men take it and do something else with it. It is the women who keep—who keep the safety and the prosperity and the livelihoods of her kids, of her children, of her home, of her small community. It is the women. And women-to-women services must continue for us to be able to save lives. Otherwise, women and girls will die.

And I don’t think anyone in the world wants to see one more life lost, because one of us doesn’t want to engage one way or the other. Engagement does not mean recognition. Engagement will never mean recognition when it comes to women and girls, and how we are wanting to help them and to support them. And as the head of UN Women, that is my job.

ROBINSON: Thank you. (Applause.) So I see we do have several more questions here in the room. Let’s start with—yes, please, in the front.

Q: Hi. Thank you for that excellent answer. Allie Mazzara.

Until two weeks ago, I was with the State University of New York with a program funded by the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women to support underserved and underrepresented young women at SUNY to become global leaders. And my colleague is now the director. And she’s a graduate of the program, an amazing young woman. I’ve gone to another university. But my question is that we used you, and your life, and your example as a role model in our program. And you’re just a wonderful person that we loved learning about and your example.

So my question is, as we go back to our program, what could we say from you of what really is important in becoming a global leader as they graduate and become doctors, and lawyers, and human rights activists, and many other important jobs globally? Thank you.

BAHOUS: Thank you. You know what I always used to tell my students? I also used to teach at the university in my country. And I always used to tell my female students, continue to push the envelope. Continue to push the envelope, because this is the plight of women worldwide. And today we are seeing backlash, not only in Afghanistan but everywhere. It’s relative, but it is happening for all—for many, many countries. There is a backlash against women’s rights. There is a backlash against women’s participation. There is a backlash against even the language.

Now we will see during the CSW, the Commission on the Rights of Women, some people want to open paragraphs that we have discussed and agreed on years ago because it said something about sexuality, or it said something about rights, or it said something about issues that are so fundamental to women’s rights and to human rights that people want to look at it again. Again, we say this is something political. This is something—this is a space that is for women, and needs to continue to be for women. So women need to continue to push the envelope and never stop.

And men also are part and parcel of the work that UN Women does. We always say it’s about gender equality, but of course gender equality means equality between women and men, girls and boys. And there is a lot of work that we are doing also with men and boys to ensure that they are also in line with what we are saying. That they understand that education, from the very, very early stage, needs to teach about gender equality, to teach the value of gender equality, the value of women’s participation. The problem maybe with us these days is that we started teaching this or talking about it a little bit late in life. But if we do it from zero—from zero years, and we start on, I think we will probably be better off on the agenda of women and girls’ empowerment throughout the world. But we need to continue and never stop. And never accept anything less than being equal.

ROBINSON: Thank you. Let’s take a question from the virtual members.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Latanya Mapp Frett.

Q: Hello. It’s such a pleasure to be here with you. I’m Latanya Mapp Frett. And I’m in San Francisco. The CEO of the Global Fund for Women.

You know, Sima, thank you so much for your remarks. I think they really land on where we are, not just in Afghanistan but many places around the world. And you’ve probably seen the OECD data. We’re going backwards in resources that come from bilaterals. But also at a time when there’s a lot of conversation about resourcing women’s organizations, their movements, and their programs, how do you feel like we can tell the story correctly and hold accountable those who talk about these issues but don’t resource them? Thank you.

BAHOUS: I think we need to keep talking about that. And we need to give examples of where, when there is good finance for the issues of women—for example, we do have some data that shows us that where money was put, for example, on maternal mortality, we went—you know, maternal mortality regressed in the world. So this is a good thing. When we put it in education of girls, there was more—better education for girls. So we need to continue to do that, and to continue to do the advocacy for, again, the importance of women and girls being at the top of the development agenda as well, and the top of the agendas of human rights and others. The international community believes in that.

I know that there is not much resources these days, and everybody is suffering from the resources. But deep down in my heart, I also know that there are resources. But we need to tap them, and find them, and continue to push forward and bring more people into the—into the arena, as we say. Private sector can help a lot, and others also can help. We are helping a lot also as UN Women amplify the voices of civil society and women’s organization everywhere, in crisis situations and other situations, where we see the value, and the benefit, and the support that they give to governments, to plans, to strategies. And therefore, we need to continue to do that. Part of the work that the UN does, and UN Women does, is to continue to keep that on the agenda.

ROBINSON: Thank you. Let’s come to the second row here. And, please, a reminder, we’re on the record, and state your name and affiliation.

Q: Hi. My name is Xeyal Qertel. I’m the president of the Kurdish Cultural Center.

It’s an honor and pleasure to listen to you tonight. And thank you very much for bringing voice of our sisters in Afghanistan. When Taliban took over, we saw that our sisters took to the streets and there were demonstrations. But I did not hear anything from you tonight about that resistance. What happened to those women to took to the streets, in spite of Taliban? Did you meet anyone, any group, for resistance? Thank you.

BAHOUS: I mean, we met—as I told you, when we first got into Afghanistan we met with the women organizations and the advisory group that is advising—women’s advisory group that is advising the humanitarians in the country. And they told us that they have been in protests many times. But, I mean, they finally decided that protest is not going to help much. They want to continue to raise their voices in different ways, and to continue to work in different ways. But we also met women group outside of Afghanistan. We met in Turkey and we met in—what was the other place—we met them in Pakistan.

And many of them had fled the country because they were journalists, they were those who also participated in the demonstrations. Many of them were threatened. Many of their families were threatened. And finally, they decided that they wanted to go out. So they were human rights defenders. They were women activists. They were journalists. As I said, they were bloggers and they were podcast—you know, and all this technology that they were—and they were very young also. And many of them had just decided to leave, to become, you know, refugees in those countries where we met them. But they continue the struggle. And they continue to raise their voices from where they are.

Maybe I need to say that when we met all these women, they gave me in particular, as the head of UN Women, a task. And they said, please, we entrust you to raise our voices to the Taliban when you meet them. And in every meeting, I said to the Taliban, I have a message to you from the women of Afghanistan, inside and outside Afghanistan. They want you to talk to them. They want you to see them as human beings. They want to be at the table with you. They want to discuss with you their future. And they want to be part and parcel of the decision making in this country. And they want to help you build this country, or to help build the country, not necessarily help you.

And I made that point maybe like in all the meetings that we were in. And it was—I think it was a powerful message from the women. One of the women told me: We don’t need your voice, Sima. We want you just to amplify our voice. I want my voice to be amplified for the Taliban. And that we were entrusted with, and I did. So we will continue.

ROBINSON: Thank you. Let’s take one from our members online.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Ellen Chesler.

Q: Hi. I wonder if you could add any insights to the relationship with UN Women to the women in Iran. I feel as though this meeting would be incomplete if we didn’t discuss Iran as well as Afghanistan. Thank you.

BAHOUS: You know, the situation in Iraq (sic; Iran) is awful. It is horrific, actually. And we have—as UN Women we have been, of course, in condemnation of anything that is—everything that is happening there for women, especially now that they are also, you know, passing all these laws for, you know, death penalty and so on for protesters. And this is something that we deplore. And we also have called for an independent investigation in Masha’s killing, and also in the killing of other females and other protesters in Iran.

What I can say also is that we are in continuous touch with our offices there. We don’t have an office in Iran as UN Women, but we have a UN office that we continue to follow the situation of the women there, and continue to prod the need for independent investigations, the need to stop that. And we continue to also amplify the voices of women from Iran inside from—inside Iran and also from outside Iran. In many of our meetings we bring these women. We facilitate their participation in the meetings for the international community to hear their own voices and what is happening to them inside their country and outside.

I have also briefed the Security Council about the situation in Iran in October. And we continue to do that, and to work very closely with our UN colleagues on the ground to see how best we can help the situation there as well for women, of course.

ROBINSON: Thank you. We have several questions in the room. Let’s try to get to a number of them. Please state your name and affiliation.

Q: Thank you. Mona Aboelnaga Kanaan with K6 Investments. Thank you for being here and, more importantly, for your work.

So at forums like this we often talk about, obviously, the crisis of education of girls and women, when it seems that the biggest danger of all is so many uneducated men, which you talked about, of course. And more specifically, the lack of education, or miseducation, especially in countries with so much illiteracy, of Islam and Islamic jurisprudence. So I wonder if you could expand on the point and talk about specific initiatives that you have to partner either as UN Women or with other organizations within the UN and outside to educate boys and men, very specifically, not from a lofty goal of gender equality but from the very specific facts about Islam and the role of women historically in leading societies in Islam. Thank you.

BAHOUS: Thank you for the question. I have—you know, we work very closely with the OIC, all the countries of the OIC, on different initiatives and different countries—their countries, to educate boys, in particular, in schools about their own—it’s about education. We, as the UN Women, or as the UN, we really do not work in promoting one religion or the other, or educating or about one religious or the other. No. We support countries in bringing the best education for their young people. And this is part and parcel of what we do, as you said. Not necessarily only UN Women. For us, the inclusion of boys and men is about gender equality. And on these issues, the Afghanistan issue in particular, has put a big focus on the importance of educating men and boys on the issues of religion in general, and on issues of the rights of women in religions.

And now as UN Women, and as I mentioned earlier, we are working very closely with the OIC to see how we can bring this to bear, either through this conferences—one conference we will be doing very soon on the rights of women in Islam. Bringing men into the equation, bringing religious leaders. Also, we do have a number of papers and consultants working and helping us to understand the jurisprudence not only of—I mean, you know that in Islam there is the Sunni, and there is Shia, and there is Hanafi, and et cetera. We need to understand those better so that we can also be able to talk to any country eventually that is using that against its women and against its girls.

ROBINSON: I would like to take just one last minute. There has been a very patient gentleman here. I would like to have the last question, if you could be brief, and brief in the response. Thank you.

Q: Hi. I guess I’m the men and boys. (Laughter.)

BAHOUS: You are the brave man! (Laughs.)

Q: Jeff Laurenti, long with the UN Association of the USA, but currently making civic mischief with New Jersey’s Capital City Redevelopment Corporation.

I’m pretty sure that UN Women has a pretty small budget and staffing, and that it’s primarily engaged in norm, you can’t say enforcement, but propagation, and trying to bring folks, governments, and peoples along. But you have a lot of agencies in the UN system that actually have some money. You think of the UNICEF, which deals a lot with women and kids, and UNFPA, and World Food Program, and such. How much of your time is spent, dare I want to say battling, or would it be collaborating with, coordinating with all of these UN agencies and national, multilateral, or bilateral aid agencies in getting the women’s issue across in societies where, you know, the guys don’t feel it’s really that important, but when you come with money on the table, well, maybe they’ll pay a little more attention. So what is your role with the other pieces of the UN system? And do they listen? (Laughter.)

BAHOUS: Look, the mandate of UN Women is a triple mandate. It is a mandate to do the normative work, to do the coordination work, and to do program work in the countries. So we spent quite a bit of our time on coordination. And coordination for us means that every time there is a meeting—for example, I raise my hand, I know that every time I raise my hand people are going to say, oh, there she goes again. She’s going to talk about women. But I do it anyway. I raise my hand, and I do it anyway, and I do that. But also, through all the offices that we have in the countries and through the resident coordinator system, whether we are not in the country or in the country.

If we are in the country, of course, the coordination role of UN Women through the UN country team is always there, and we need to coordinate the efforts, the fundraising, the programming, everything on the ground. If we are not there, we are now fielding gender experts to just be there with the UN country team to help. We are also lucky now that we have a secretary-general who is a gender champion—Antonio Guterres. And he has been pushing parity within the UN, but also pushing gender equality throughout. And we use him and his power, his voice, to continue to keep that on the agenda on that.

Now, people eventually listen. I mean, sometimes not all of them, but, yeah, I mean, I understand where you are coming from totally, because—(laughs)—I’m in that space many times of the day. But generally, people will begin to listen when you keep at it, and also when you give the right incentives and the right information and the right success stories for the organizations and for the countries and for the governments. It is important to remember that the UN needs to work with member states, and to show member states the value of UN, whether it is UN Women, or UNICEF, or UNDP, or UNFPA, or others. What is the value-add for the governments, and for their prosperity, and for their governance, and for their—the welfare of their people in all that work? And this is something we try to do also with the governments for women and girls.

And of course, we always look for support. We always look for partnership. And we always look for people like all of you, who appreciate the UN, who understand fully the UN, and who also appreciate multilateralism and the importance of keeping multilateralism active and of keeping the United Nations the convening place for all of us to sit and talk about all these issues as members of the international community, and see how together we can bring solutions to all the issues and all the problems that we have around the world.

ROBINSON: Thank you. Thank you all for joining today’s Sorensen Lecture. (Applause.) And thank you. Lovely talk.


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