RIGHTS: Rise And Fall Of Gender Empowerment
By Thalif Deen
The 45-member Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), presiding over one of the largest gatherings of women at the United Nations, listened Monday to dozens of speakers spelling out the successes and failures of gender empowerment worldwide.
The stories covered a wide range of issues, including political under-representation, discrimination in employment, rise in maternal mortality, widespread sexual violence and the benefits of paid parental leave, Norwegian-style.
The European Union (EU), whose 27 member states are far ahead of the developing world in gender equality and advancement of women, was constrained to admit its own shortcomings.
Bibiana Aido, Spain's minister for equality, pointed out that the EU has come close to its goal of attaining 60 percent female participation in the labour force, with rates ranging from 37 percent to 73 percent.
Still, she said, "women remain also largely under-represented among decision makers in the economy."
Currently, women represent only 11 percent, on average, of the members of the boards of directors of top companies in the EU, and a mere three percent of directors of these corporate boards.
And more than six million women between the ages 25 and 49 are unable to work or can only work part time due to family responsibilities, she added.
The two-week meeting, which runs through Mar. 12, will focus primarily on the Beijing Platform for Action which was adopted at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women held in the Chinese capital.
The action plan, covering 12 critical areas relating to women, called for an international commitment to the goals of equality, development and peace for all women worldwide.
"The Beijing Declaration remains as relevant today as it was when it was adopted," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday.
He said many challenges to gender equality and women's empowerment, including maternal mortality rates, violence against women, and women's equal participation in senior decision-making positions, require urgent and priority attention from governments.
Citing gender empowerment in his own backyard, the secretary-general has claimed he has appointed by far the largest number of women under-secretaries-general and assistant secretaries-general, all of them in decision-making posts, in the U.N. system, since he took office three years ago.
Still, Ambassador Abdullah Alsaidi of Yemen, the current chair of the 130-member Group of 77 developing countries, complained that the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW), based in the Dominican Republic, has been without a head since last December.
"This seriously affects the Institute's capacity of carrying out its training and research programme in a critical moment when it needs to be revitalised to allow for an adequate and efficient preparation towards its future consolidation into the new (proposed) composite gender entity," he said.
Fiame Naomi Mata'afa, the minister of women, community and social development of Samoa, pointed out that the Pacific Islands region ranks the lowest in the world in terms of gender-balanced parliaments.
In the 16 countries in the region (excluding Australia and New Zealand), about 95.8 percent of seats are held by men and only 4.2 percent by women.
"Much work remains to be done," she said, even as Deputy Secretary General Asha-Rose Migiro told delegates that only 25 countries had reached 30 percent or more women parliamentarians in 2009.
"This marks a significant increase from 1995, but is still insufficient," Migiro said.
Mata'afa said that violence against women was a "major concern" in the Pacific region, with as many as two-thirds of women experiencing physical and/or sexual violence - "violence that is widely culturally tolerated."
Pansy Wong, New Zealand's minister of women's affairs, was apologetic about sexual violence in her country.
"We deeply regret that we have not made greater progress in combatting violence against women," she said, pointing out that in New Zealand one in five women will be subjected to violence in their lifetime, compared to one in 20 men.
"We are also well aware that the real incidence of violence against women is far worse than is reported in official statistics," she added.
Spearheading the campaign against sexual abuse is the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).
UNIFEM Executive Director Ines Alberdi said that a Trust Fund managed by her office is now a recognised source of support for seriously under-resourced efforts to battle sexual violence.
Last year alone, the Fund managed a portfolio of 81 active grants across 76 countries with a total value of nearly 30 million dollars.
"The accomplishments of U.N. Trust Fund grantees during 2009 make a compelling case for how much can be done with strategic support," Alberdi said.
And the achievements of the Fund's grantees are one of the many success stories singled out Monday.
A grantee in India initiated a national television campaign, in partnership with the government, which reached over 124 million people in just four months resulting in increased awareness of women's legal rights to end violence against women and girls.
In the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo, another Fund grantee equipped 300 civil society leaders with new knowledge of paralegal services that permitted thousands of women survivors of sexual violence, including many with HIV, to access justice, said Alberdi.
Striking an equally positive note, Audun Lysbakken, Norway's minister of children, equality and social inclusion, cited his own country as an example of how best to implement one of the world's most extensive paid parental leave schemes.
Under this scheme, women are provided with 46 weeks of paid leave -with 10 weeks for a father - along with full coverage of daycare.
"This is the answer to how 80 percent of Norwegian women can combine working careers with one of the highest birthrates (1.98) among developed countries," he said.
Lysbakken said over the last 15 years, and since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing which adopted a Platform for Action for gender empowerment, "women and girls around the world have made progress."
More girls have access to education, and more women are participating in the work force and in economic decision-making.
But there is no room for complacency, he warned.
"In many parts of the world, the most dangerous thing a woman can do is to give birth. There has been practically no progress at all in reducing maternal mortality since Beijing," he declared.