The new head of UN Women made her debut in New York on Thursday with a call to better protect women activists who face threats and even assassination while pushing for change in Afghanistan, Libya and beyond.
In her first Security Council appearance since becoming executive director of the agency this month, Sima Bahous, a Jordanian campaigner and diplomat, said the UN was failing women activists who are putting their lives on the line.
At least 35 women activists, journalists and trade unionists were killed last year, said Ms Bahous, but added that this is a “significant undercount”, as data from only seven war-torn countries were being tracked by the world body.
“We are falling short of providing protection to these women, even those who risk their lives to collaborate with the UN,” said Ms Bahous.
She highlighted the Libyan and Colombian women who risked their lives while working on peace deals designed to end civil conflicts that had afflicted both countries for years.
“The rapid takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban was preceded by a wave of killings of women civil society activists and journalists, and the targeting of academics, vaccinators and women judges,” she added.
She also told the UN’s annual meeting on women and warfare that governments spend too much on guns and warplanes and not enough on women and girls' education and employment.
“The evidence clearly shows that high levels of military spending in post-conflict settings increases the risk of renewed conflict,” she told the 15-nation body, which includes the US, Russia and China.
“It also shows that investing in gender equality has a high return in peace dividends.”
Ms Bahous previously served as Jordan’s UN ambassador, was an adviser to King Abdullah II and the head of a charity and is now one of the highest-ranking officials from the Arab world in the UN system.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called Ms Bahous a “champion for women and girls” when he named her for the job in September.
She replaced Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka of South Africa, who ran the agency for eight years.
UN Women works globally to help level the playing for women and girls by bringing more of them into classrooms, workplaces, universities and parliaments while tackling rampant levels of violence against them.
In an opinion piece this month, Ms Bahous urged the world’s biggest G20 economies to keep up pressure on the Taliban as the hardliners started rolling back women’s rights after regaining control of Afghanistan in August.
The international community must use its leverage to “prevent the reversal of the hard-won rights of Afghan women and girls,” she wrote in The Global Governance Project, an online British-Canadian publication.