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UNITED NATIONS —The United Nations secretary-general warned Monday at the start of a major women's conference that at the current pace, gender equality is projected to be 300 years away.
"Progress won over decades is vanishing before our eyes," Antonio Guterres said at the start of the Commission on the Status of Women.
The CSW, as it is known, is expected to draw more than 4,000 government ministers, diplomats and civil society members for the annual two-week-long gathering to discuss how to improve the lives of women around the world. It is the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic that the conference is fully in person.
Guterres told the opening session that the CSW takes on even greater significance at a time when women's rights "are being abused, threatened and violated around the world."
This year's theme is "Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls." The conference and its dozens of side events will look at how a disproportionate lack of access to the internet is holding back women and girls globally.
"Three billion people are still unconnected to the internet, the majority of them women and girls in developing countries," Guterres said. "In least developed countries, just 19% of women are online."
Globally, the U.N. says men outnumber women 2-to-1 in the tech industry, while only 28% of engineering graduates and 22% of artificial intelligence (AI) workers are women. There is also a significant gender pay gap of 21%.
"The digital divide can limit women's access to life-saving information, mobile money products, agricultural extension or online public services," said Sima Bahous, executive director of U.N. Women. "In turn, this fundamentally influences whether a woman completes her education, owns her own bank account, makes informed decisions about her body, feeds her family or gains productive employment."
Bahous said these inequalities have created a new kind of digital poverty.
"We will not achieve gender equality without closing the digital gap," she said.
Women and girls also experience more harassment and sexual abuse online, the U.N. reported.
This week, the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has taken away many of their rights since seizing power in August 2021, will be in the spotlight.
Guterres said women and girls have been "erased" from public life there.
In January, he dispatched the deputy secretary-general and Bahous to the country with what he said was a "clear message" for the Taliban.
"Women and girls have fundamental human rights, and we will never give up fighting for them," the secretary-general said.
At a side event on Monday, several Afghan female activists took the podium, making a clear call for the international community to turn up the pressure to help reverse the Taliban's more than 30 edicts. The orders include banning women from secondary school and university, working outside the home, travel without a male chaperon and taking part in any political or cultural activities.
"The intolerable reality of a terrorist group seizing power has resulted in a complete breakdown of law and order in Afghanistan," said Fariha Easer, an activist and women's rights researcher who was evacuated from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. "The state of absolute chaos has led to anarchy and utter lawlessness, leaving women completely vulnerable and with nowhere to turn for justice."
Easer said the situation "is beyond dire" and choked back tears as she said Afghan women are committing suicide and are victims of gender-based violence.
"It's so hard to talk about today's realities of Afghanistan," she said to supportive applause and a standing ovation.
On Wednesday, which is International Women's Day, Pakistan is hosting a conference on the sidelines of the CSW on the challenges facing Muslim women. It will seek to dispel some perceptions of Islam as a religion that oppresses and discriminates against women, highlighting the contributions of Muslim women throughout history. And it will address obstacles to the empowerment of women.