World Leaders Address Women's Rights, Empowerment at U.N., but Key Countries Absent

China's President Xi Jinping addresses a meeting on Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment at the United Nations headquarters in New York on September 27. Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

World leaders packed a meeting at the United Nations on Sunday morning to reaffirm their commitment to improving gender equality domestically and internationally, although several key players were absent. The gathering was co-sponsored by China and U.N. Women, the U.N. agency dedicated to women's rights and empowerment.

Heads of state and government from more than 80 countries and international organizations, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, spoke about what has been achieved in their countries and what more can be done to improve the status of women around the world. President Barack Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, both of whom are scheduled to speak later on Sunday at a meeting on the U.N.'s newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals, did not address the summit. Sunday's event began before Cameron arrived at the United Nations.

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., and Justine Greening, the U.K. development secretary, headed the delegations for their respective countries, but did not address the meeting as remarks were limited to heads of state. In a statement released by the White House on Sunday, Obama said the U.S. "understands that women's rights are human rights, and that empowered women and educated girls are critical to achieving lasting peace, security, and prosperity."

"But we know that much work remains," Obama said in the statement. "Women and girls continue to face violence and discrimination at home, at work, in school, and in their communities. Women continue to be paid less than men for equal work."

That China chaired the meeting is controversial, given its human rights record and jailing of activists. Three female Chinese activists, Wang Yu, Gao Yu and Liu Xia, are among 20 female activists included in a U.S. government human rights campaign launched last month by Power. The campaign, #Freethe20, highlights the plight of one woman every day for 20 days. A poster of the 20 women is displayed in the window of the U.S. Mission to the U.N.

The New York Times reports that U.S. officials were unsuccessful in attempting to get the U.N. to organize another conference focusing on the activists.

The U.S. and the U.K. were not the only permanent U.N. Security Council members absent from the meeting. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will address the U.N. General Assembly on Monday for the first time in a decade, didn't attend.

The leaders of France, President Francois Hollande, and China, President Xi Jinping, did address the meeting.

"Women are creators of material and spiritual wealth," Xi said during his opening remarks on Sunday. "Without women there would be no continuity of the human race or the human society."

In many parts of the world, Xi said, "disparities remain in the level of women's development and inequality still exists between men and women in rights, opportunities, and access to resources." Women also "bear the brunt of wars and epidemics," he said, a statement echoed by many world leaders on Sunday morning.

Hollande, who announced earlier Sunday that French airstrikes destroyed an Islamic State (ISIS) training camp in eastern Syria, said rape, forced marriage and prostitution are "everyday events" in Syria and Iraq, particularly in areas controlled by ISIS. He added that women and children are at risk of violence in refugee camps.

"Stopping the war [in Syria] is bringing an end to the suffering of women," said Hollande.

Merkel said women "have to play a more prominent role in politics and society," and said violence against women is a "cruel reality" in conflict in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and South Sudan. She added that the idea the world still needs to be reminded that women's rights are human rights is "disgraceful to humanity."

Cuban President Raul Castro also addressed the meeting, mainly reeling off statistics on the participation of women in Cuban society.

"It's necessary above all to have an equitable and just international order that eradicates poverty and hunger and puts an end to conflict, prioritizes human beings over capital and preserves the environment," Castro said.

The summit was held to mark the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a landmark treaty adopted by 189 countries at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Hillary Clinton famously addressed the meeting 20 years ago and declared: "Human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights."

"Women's rights and interests are basic human rights," Xi said, echoing Clinton's remarks two decades ago. Xi announced during the meeting that China will give $10 million to U.N. Women and will build 100 health clinics in developing countries.

In addition to the significance of dozens world leaders confirming their commitment to women's rights, there were some lighthearted moments. During the three-minute-long remarks by Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the lights went off three times in the conference room where the meeting was held.

"This is not the responsibility of Italy," he said, to laughs. "Mr. Chairman, we have a problem with energy."