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story.lead_photo.caption FILE - In this Wednesday, March 7, 2018 file photo, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of U.N. Women, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, in New York. The U.N. health agency and its partners have found in a new study released Tuesday, March 9, 2021 that nearly one in three women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes, calling the results a “horrifying picture” that requires action by government and communities alike. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, called violence against women "the most widespread and persistent human rights violation that is not prosecuted.” (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, file)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N.'s premiere global body fighting for gender equality should be tackling the yawning gap between men and women when it comes to political leadership and ensuring women have a strong voice in rebuilding economies after the COVID-19 pandemic — not arguing about preserving sexual and reproductive rights for women as it is doing now, the head of UN Women said.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said in an interview with the Associated Press the pandemic has left women facing increasing domestic violence and being laid off from two-thirds of the jobs lost during the coronavirus crisis. In addition, 11 million girls are at risk of never returning to school, child marriage has increased, and there are more orphans and child-headed homes, she said.

"So whatever you touch, women are in a bad space, as a result of the pandemic" and the underlying discrimination "that has always been there," she said. "This therefore suggests that building back better is about gender equality, just as it's about green economies and any equitable sharing of resources."

What the pandemic has made clear, as U.N. Secretary- General Antonio Guterres said on International Women's Day earlier this month, is "this is still a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture."

However, he said the pandemic "has also forced a reckoning with global inequalities, fragilities and entrenched gender discrimination."

Mlambo-Ngcuka said all these issues are currently playing out at the two-week meeting of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women which ends Friday. And they are also certain to be on the agenda at two major upcoming events in Mexico City and Paris which are part of the delayed 25th anniversary of the 1995 Beijing women's conference that adopted a 150-page road map to achieve gender equality.

UN Women's executive director said one hope from the commission meeting is to spur governments to adopt mandatory measures to achieve political parity. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, only 25 percent of lawmakers worldwide are women and only 22 countries have a female head of state or government, with Europe topping the list.

Mlambo-Ngcuka quoted U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who addressed the commission last week, saying, "the status of women is the status of democracy."

"It is not doing women a favor," Mlambo-Ngcuka said. "It's actually giving democracy credibility by showing that the interests and number of women who participate in public institutions improve the quality of the decisions that are made."

However, she said the outcome document from this year's commission meeting, which is supposed to focus on promoting women's leadership and combating violence, is facing "pushback" on "the same old issues, sexual and reproductive rights" for women, that are part of the 1995 Beijing platform.

There are also countries "that do not want to talk about human rights, who do not want to talk about human rights defenders, who are watching that we don't do anything that acknowledges nonconforming gender roles," Mlambo-Ngcuka said.

"Asking about sexual and reproductive rights when we are asking about increased participation of women and making this a do-or-die issue is almost taking everyone away from the broader theme," she said.

Mlambo-Ngcuka was also sharply critical that 80 percent of countries have COVID-19 task teams to address problems created or exacerbated during the pandemic that are comprised predominantly of men.

Yet, these teams need to tackle issues affecting women, including gender-based violence, lost jobs and the digital gender gap that has left more women and girls without digital skills increasingly essential to get jobs in the 21st century, she said.

"How can you make decisions about women without participation of women?" she asked. "This is a recipe for disaster."

UN Women is now engaging countries to try to ensure adequate female representation, Mlambo-Ngcuka said in the interview last Thursday.

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