CAMEROON, Cameroon — U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris told the U.N.’s premiere global body fighting for gender equality that “the status of women is the status of democracy” and the Biden administration will work to improve both.
America’s first female vice-president quoted the late U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the drafting committee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1948, as saying: “Without equality, there can be no democracy.”
Harris said in a virtual speech to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women’s annual meeting that the exclusion of women in decision-making — its focus this year — is “a marker of a flawed democracy,” stressing that their participation “strengthens democracy.”
But she warned that democracy is “increasingly under great strain,” with “a troubling decline in freedom around the globe” over the past 15 years, and experts saying the past year “was the worst on record for the global deterioration of democracy and freedom.”
The Biden administration is committed to upholding “the democratic values” in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Harris said, “and we firmly believe that, when we work together globally, we can achieve the vision within it.”
The decision to have Harris deliver the U.S. address marked a step up from the Trump administration’s lower level representation at commission meetings, and reflected President Joe Biden’s commitment to expanding the number of women in top decision-making jobs and to multilateralism after his predecessor’s “America First” policy.
Harris said the U.S. is strengthening its engagement with the United Nations and the broader international system, pointing to its re-engagement with the U.N. World Health organization, rejoining the U.N. Human Rights Council and revitalizing its partnership with UN Women “to help empower women worldwide.”
UN Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at Monday’s opening meeting of the commission, cited a number of positive developments including the increase in women ministers in the United States from 17 per cent in 2020 under former president Donald Trump to 46 per cent in Biden’s Cabinet, “a historic high.”
Harris pointed to other signs of progress: more women than men voting in every presidential election for the last 56 years, more women than ever before serving in the U.S. Congress, more women breadwinners, women becoming major decision-makers in local, state and national governments, and Biden last week appointing women to head two of America’s 11 military combat commands.
But she said the COVID-19 pandemic “has threatened the economic security, the physical security and the health of women everywhere.”
When women face obstacles to quality health care, worry about food for their families, live in poverty, are more vulnerable to gender-based violence, and disproportionately impacted by conflict and climate change, Harris said, it’s harder for them “to fully participate in decision-making.”
“Which, in turn, makes it that much harder for democracies to thrive,” she said.
Nonetheless, Harris stressed the Biden administration’s commitment to improving democracy and empowering women — and in another reversal from the Trump era to “partnering with all of you in the days and years ahead.”
“Looking around the world, I am inspired by the progress that is being made,” she said. “And I am proud to report that, while the United States still has work to do, we, too, are making progress — and that women strengthen our democracy every day.”
Edith M. Lederer, The Associated Press