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Vice President Kamala Harris makes history with U.N. speech

Harris on COVID relief, role of women in democracy
Harris on COVID relief, role of women in demo... 06:42

United Nations — Vice President Kamala Harris told U.N. diplomats Tuesday "the status of women is the status of democracy," mentioning Eleanor Roosevelt's historic work at the global body.  

Harris made the remarks in a statement she delivered on behalf of the Biden administration to the 65th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the U.N.'s second-largest annual event. Her statement was pre-recorded because she is on a road tour to Las Vegas, Los Angeles and other cities to encourage Americans to receive COVID-19 vaccinations

Harris addressed the backsliding of women's rights and the increase in violence against women during the pandemic, stressing their impact on the overall health of a nation's political system.   

"When women face obstacles to obtaining quality healthcare; when women face food insecurity, when women are more likely to live in poverty, and therefore disproportionately impacted by climate change, more vulnerable to gender-based violence, and therefore disproportionately impacted by conflict, well it's harder for women to fully participate in decision-making," Harris said.  

"Which, of course, in turn, makes it that much harder for democracies to thrive." 

Harris also expressed a sense of optimism going forward: "Women in the United States lead our local, state, and national governments, make major decisions regarding our nation's security, and drive major growth in our economy." 

"These are signs of progress," she said. "These are signs of strength." 

Putting the gains in context she said, "Friends, we cannot take this progress for granted. Especially now. COVID-19 has threatened the economic security, the physical security, and the health of women everywhere." 

The vice president's address to the U.N. was historic, checking three boxes of "firsts" – not an easy task at the world body. She is the first Biden administration White House official to address the U.N.; she is the highest-ranking U.S. government official to ever address CSW; and she's the first female U.S. vice president to ever address the U.N., said Olivia Dalton, the spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the U.N.

"The fact that Harris is speaking is a clear way to demonstrate a new U.S. direction on women's rights at the U.N.," Richard Gowan, U.N. director of the International Crisis Group, told CBS News. "I think that it will go down exceedingly well with other delegations. … Harris brings an extra degree of political credibility to U.N. discussions." 

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, a South Africa leader who was actively involved in the struggle to end apartheid in her home country and is now an under-secretary-general of the United Nations and the executive director of U.N. Women, told CBS News: "The address by Vice President Harris signifies that the U.S. is recommitting itself to gender equality and to the U.N. at the highest level." 

"This is reassuring for the U.N. and its allies who support for a more ambitious stand on gender equality and on building back better in a gender responsive, equitable and greener manner," Mlambo-Ngcuka said. 

The theme of this year's session of the Commission on the Status of Women, which started Monday and ends March 26, is women's "full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls." The session is mostly virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, a women's rights advocate, told the opening session of the CSW on Monday, "We need to move beyond fixing women and instead fix our systems."  

He added that the coronavirus pandemic "has sparked a shadow epidemic of violence against women worldwide, online and offline." 

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield — a groundbreaker herself — was the one to make the announcement of the vice president's address, saying, "The U.S. is back at the U.N." 

The vice president on Tuesday ended on a broad note on the impact of gender inequality, saying, "The status of women is the status of democracy. For our part, the United States will work to improve both." 

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