UN conference asks men to speak out for women's rights

UN conference asks men to speak out for women's rights

UNITED NATIONS, United States - A controversial conference on gender equality opens at the United Nations on Wednesday with its focus squarely on getting men and boys engaged in promoting women's rights.

Organized by Iceland, the "Barbershop Conference" draws global ambassadors and UN officials into a conversation about what men can do to stop violence against women and advance equality.

Iceland, home to Europe's first female president, had initially touted the event as a men-only conference but decided to include women in some sessions in response to criticism.

"There is a need to engage men more," Iceland's Ambassador Greta Gunnarsdottir told AFP. "When you look at meetings on gender equality, wherever you go, the vast majority are women in attendance." "The point is not to exclude women, but to include men," she said.

The barbershop theme is meant to evoke a space where men can speak with ease - even at the United Nations where more than 160 of the 193 countries are represented by men.

The conference hopes to build on the HeForShe Campaign launched last year with British actress Emma Thompson, who said men were also being boxed in by gender stereotypes and needed to speak out.

During a session on Thursday, ambassadors are expected to make commitments on behalf of their governments on encouraging male participation in the gender debate.

"This will be a one-off conference, but I sincerely believe we will get the ball rolling," said Gunnarsdottir.

Ending inequality by 2030

The conference comes as the United Nations is preparing to mark 20 years since the Beijing Women's Conference and has set a new goal of ending gender inequality by 2030.

Todd Minerson, director of the White Ribbon Campaign, a worldwide effort of men and boys to end violence against women, said the conference is timely given the new push on gender equality in international circles.

Minerson is to lead a workshop with ambassadors titled "What Makes a Man?" that will include women.

"When we talk about engaging men on this, we have to understand that talking about gender equality necessitates that we listen and learn from women," Minerson told AFP.

"Sometimes there is a fear that men will be unwilling or unable to talk about gender issues in the company of women. I think that's an overblown consideration," he said.

Iceland, which ranks number one on the global gender gap index, is co-hosting the event with the South American country of Suriname, which ranks 109.

All five top spots on the index compiled by the World Economic Forum are held by Nordic countries - Finland (2), Norway (3), Sweden (4) and Denmark (5) - while Germany takes the 12th position, followed by France which ranks 18th.

Britain lags behind at 26, below the United States which ranks 20th. Yemen takes the last spot at 142.

Organizers said it was unclear how many countries will be represented at the Barbershop Conference, but the ambassador said there was much enthusiasm at the United Nations surrounding the event.

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