By Carole Landry, AFP
UNITED NATIONS — A controversial conference on gender equality opened 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 U.N. 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 �X even at the United Nations where more than 160 of the 193 countries are represented by men. U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power tweeted that she was ��excited to be part�� of the conference, the first of its kind at the U.N., which has set a goal of ending gender inequality by 2030.
During a session on Thursday, ambassadors are expected to make commitments on behalf of their governments on encouraging male participation in the gender debate. The conference hopes to build on the HeForShe Campaign launched last year with British actress Emma Watson, who said men were also being boxed in by gender stereotypes and needed to speak out. What Makes a Man? U.N. diplomats listened to a presentation on ��What Makes a Man?�� by Todd Minerson, director of the White Ribbon Campaign, a worldwide effort of men and boys to end violence against women. The session focused on some dire statistics: one in three women worldwide will experience violence in their lifetime; by the age of 12, 1 in 4 girls will experience street harassment. Joni van de Sand, an activist with the MenEngage alliance, told the gathering that while women have been vocal in the debate on gender equality for decades, ��when it comes to positions of power it is men who are doing the diplomacy.�� 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 �X Finland (2), Norway (3), Sweden (4) and Denmark (5) �X 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.