UN Women created the HeForShe campaign to attract one billion men and boys as advocates for equality for women and girls worldwide. Lori Perkovich reports.
Wolf Blitzer, anchor of The Situation Room for CNN, recently launched the gender equality event HeForShe at the United Nations, but the actress Emma Watson, UN Women’s goodwill ambassador and event co-host, stole the show.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, UN Women executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and General Assembly President Sam Kahamba Kutesa, as well as actor Kiefer Sutherland and Gary Barker, international director of Promundo-DC, each described what gender equality meant to them. The men all pledged to stand up for women.
During her speech, Mlambo-Ngcuka said that “the single greatest threat to a women’s health is men,” adding that roughly half of the women killed in 2012 were murdered by intimate partners or family members.
Ban Ki-Moon was in a lighthearted mood and received a warm response from the crowd when he joked about Watson’s film roles, saying, “She’s been waving a magic wand. I hope you use your magic wand to end violence against women!” The Secretary General said that he has created more senior level positions for women at the UN during his tenure than there were during the past seven decades.
The highlight of the night though, was the poignant speech on gender and feminism by Emma Watson. “I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word,” said Watson. “Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men and, unattractive.” Watson’s speech garnered applause throughout and she received a standing ovation at the end.
While the HeForShe campaign strives to raise awareness about gender equality by seeking one billion signatures from men and boys, it is a stepping-stone in a long, difficult process. And it must not be the end of their commitment to inequality and empowering women and girls. It is not enough for men to click a button online that shows they support women. That sentiment needs to translate into action, something tangible.
Gary Barker started his speech with, “I want to trouble you a little.” He addressed the need for men to stand up for women in their communities and insist that girls be able to go to school and that they not be treated as second-class citizens in their communities. In the workplace, men need to stand up and say that women should receive equal pay for equal work.
Barker clearly stated that the action part of this plan would be a hard sell in reality because men will need to be willing to relinquish some privilege and power in order to effect change.
Backlash against Watson for standing up for gender equality and harsh criticism for the campaign began immediately. Watson was the target of online bullying by users at 4chan who threatened to release nude photos of her and tweeted #RIPEmmaWatson in an attempt to scare or belittle her for her beliefs. Individuals have also criticized the campaign for using “He” in the title. Some critics seem pessimistic about asking men to make way for women to be better off; others view the campaign as depicting men as liberators and women as victims.
Ultimately, Watson brings intelligence, excitement and celebrity to an issue that she is clearly passionate about. She has chosen a role that can introduce a younger generation to the UN and to gender equality.