U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers a speech before the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, Feb. 25, 2019, in Geneva. -
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers a speech before the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, Feb. 25, 2019, in Geneva. -

UNITED NATIONS - The annual meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women began at the United Nations on Monday, with a clear call for gender equality.

"Gender equality is fundamentally a question of power," U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the scores of delegates gathered in the General Assembly hall.

He said male-dominated culture has historically marginalized, ignored and silenced women and that needs to change.

Guterres welcomed the mobilization of women worldwide who are raising awareness and fomenting change, but he warned that there are also forces that are trying to resist the advancement of women's rights.

"That pushback is deep, pervasive and relentless," he said. "So let us say it loud and clear: We will not give ground; we will not turn back; we will push back against the pushback and we will keep pushing."

"Women and girls have a vital role to play in shaping the policies, services and infrastructure that impact their lives," said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of U.N. Women. "Their voices must be meaningfully included."

FILE - Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director,
FILE - Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of U.N. Women, speaks at World Bank headquarters, Washington, May 14, 2014.

The theme of the two-week-long gathering this year is social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality, and the empowerment of women and girls. CSW Chairwoman, Irish Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason, said that includes issues such as maternity protections, pensions, safe roads, public transport, education, women's access to health care, and the fair distribution of care and domestic work between men and women.

"The job of empowering women and girls is not for wimps," Nason said. "What we are trying to achieve is that men have their rights and nothing more, and that women have their rights and nothing less."

Last year, the United States pushed for language in the final communique on sexual and reproductive health that many delegates found to be regressive, particularly around the issue of access to contraceptives and abortion. Activists were gearing up for the possibility of more U.S. pushback again this year.

Monday's gathering began against a somber backdrop. The United Nations lost 21 staff in a Sunday plane crash in Ethiopia. The secretary-general noted that they were "junior professionals and seasoned officials" from all corners of the globe.

"They all had one thing in common — a spirit to serve the people of the world and to make it a better place for us all," Guterres said.

The assembly held a minute of silence in observance of the victims.