Global Policy Forum

No More Excuses, No More Delays, Women Tell UN


By Haider Rizvi

Inter Press Service
February 25, 2005


Thousands of women leaders from around the world will gather here [in New York] next week for a major international assessment of what U.N. member states have done in the past 10 years to ensure equal rights for women in all walks of life.


Delegates at the Fourth World Summit in the Chinese capital of Beijing in 1995 had made specific pledges to revoke all laws that discriminate against women and adopt policies that would advance gender equality in public life. How far have they managed to translate their words into actions? Not far enough, according to senior U.N. officials and leading international non-governmental organisations.

"We are not content," said Kyung-wha Kang, who leads the 45-member U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. "There is much more that needs to be done." Carolyn Hannan, a senior official at the U.N. Department Economic and Social Affairs, agrees. "Progress has been achieved in some areas, notably in girls' education and women's legal rights," she said. "But there are many negative indicators that need urgent attention."

Those negative indicators include continued violence against women, lack of economic opportunities and unequal representation in decision-making in both wealthy and poorer countries. At Beijing, government leaders had agreed to adopt polices that would set aside 30 percent of parliamentary seats for women. But 10 years later, only 15 percent of parliamentarians in the world are women.

Development experts at the U.N. and civil society leaders suggest that while some worldwide economic trends have had a positive impact on women's lives, others have weakened their struggle for economic and political equality. Noting that easier access to information technology has increased women's networking and economic opportunities, they see millions of women farmers across the world becoming poorer and poorer, a situation caused by the shift from food production to cash crop production.

Some experts point out that aside from such economic globalisation trends, escalating military build-ups also undermine women's struggle for economic and political equality. "Considering the emphasis on military expenditures by governments, women are losing ground," says June Zeitlin, executive director of the U.S.-based Women's Development and Environment Organisation (WEDO), a broad network of hundreds of women's groups from different regions of the world.

Currently, countries spend more than 900 billion dollars a year on their militaries. Meanwhile, reducing world poverty by half in the next 10 years, part of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), would cost only 50 billion dollars a year in official development assistance. The MDGs include a 50 percent reduction in poverty and hunger; universal primary education; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; the promotion of gender equality; and the reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. "The rhetoric is great," says Zeitlin. "But there is no implementation."

Kang and other U.N. officials appear satisfied with progress in the area of laws that protect women from discrimination and violence. But many civil society groups are not. In a report released last year, Equality Now, an international rights advocacy group, pointed out that despite promises made in Beijing, more than 40 countries were still unwilling to change laws that institutionalise discrimination against women.

Women are subjected to state-sanctioned violence in many countries because laws condone practices like "honour killings", marital rape, and wife beating, according to the report. "Changing the law is just the first step toward addressing violence and discrimination against women," says Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of Equality Now. "How can governments claim that they are committed to sex equality if they cannot even eliminate the most blatantly discriminatory laws?"

Two days before the meeting, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called upon governments to take this issue seriously. "Redouble efforts to combat violence against girls and women," he said. "That means leadership in showing, by example, that when it comes to violence against women and girls, there are no grounds for tolerance and no tolerable excuses."

Recently, Annan also released a comprehensive report based on responses from 135 nations to questions about what they had done so far to promote gender equality. The report assesses the progress on the commitments made at Beijing and a General Assembly review meeting held in New York five years ago. U.N. officials say the report will be a launching point for discussions on the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action. It focuses on critical issues such as women's poverty, education, health, violence, armed conflicts, economic opportunities, contract and part-time labour and work at home. Other issues covered in the report include trafficking in women and girls, HIV/AIDS, indigenous women, information technology, the role of men and boys and the parallels with the MDGs.

An international meeting to assess the progress towards achieving the MDGs is due in September this year. Officials say the outcome of discussions during the next two weeks is likely to have some impact on the debate involving the future of the massive project. "Without bringing gender equality, you cannot achieve these goals, whether it's poverty or literacy," says Kang. The meeting will go until Mar. 11 when delegates are likely to renew their commitment to the Beijing Platform for Action.



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