The Advancement of Women : A Failing Report Card

06/07/2000
Five years after the Fourth World Conference on Women, and its the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and 10 years after a similar conference in Nairobi and the adoption of the Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women to the Year 2000, the United Nations is convening a Special Session (5-9 June, New York) to assess how far the global community has progressed in addressing the concerns expressed by women for gender equality, development and peace.

At Beijing, women demanded action to address 12 areas of concern for them: a chance to pull themselves out of the grinding poverty that retards their political, economic and social development; empowerment and power sharing; protection from violence, armed conflict, harmful traditional practices and discrimination against the girl-child; access to education and training, health care, the media, exercise of their human rights, and an environment to promote sustainable development.

How faithfully have Governments and the international community fulfilled the commitments they undertook in 1995? The evidence shows that progress towards women's empowerment and gender equality has been incredibly slow to non-existent in a many countries, one example of which is Afghanistan.

The Charter of the United Nations reaffirms faith in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women. More than half a century after the founding fathers penned those words, can we honestly say that such equality exists, even though gender equality has been a focus of the work of the United Nations since its creation in 1945?

The answer is a resounding no, and the reason is simple: the commitments made at Beijing, and at other international forums before that, have not been backed up with the resources necessary to turn lofty promises into reality. What has been lacking is the political, economic and legislative will. As a result, targets for achieving equality between women and men have not been met, and whatever progress made has been marginal.

Governments and international organizations tout their achievements in advancing the rights of women, so let's examine those claims, starting with the position of women in the United Nations Secretariat. For years now, the General Assembly has issued directives on achieving a target of 50 per cent gender balance at the professional and highest levels in the UN Secretariat.

A cursory look at the composition of the Secretariat reveals that, at the highest levels, that goal remains elusive. The most senior-ranking woman is Louise Frechette of Canada, who was handpicked by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to serve as his Deputy. What is most glaring is the fact that not a single woman heads a UN department -- not political affairs, disarmament, peacekeeping, economic and social affairs, General Assembly affairs, public information or management. Out of a total of 19 Assistant Secretaries-General, only four are women. Rafiah Salim (Malaysia) heads the Office of Human Resources Management, but that office comes under the Department of Management, headed by Joseph Connor (United States).

Women have proven that they can run UN programmes, funds and agencies: Sadako Ogata, as UN High Commissioner for Refugees; Mary Robinson, as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of the World Health Organization; Dr. Nafis Sadik, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA); Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF); and Catherine Bertini, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP). Given the successes of these women in such demanding jobs, why are the top posts in departments within the UN Secretariat allowed to remain male bastions, indeed an all-boys club? This situation must be addressed as contracts in senior management come up for renewal. Angela King (Jamaica), Assistant Secretary-General and Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, would be an excellent choice to head up a department. She is in charge, on the Secretariat side, of preparations for the Special Session on Women, and has previous experience in peacekeeping and human resources management.

For their part, Governments point with pride to their accomplishments in advancing the rights of women. They report on promoting employment and income-generating activities, literacy gains, increased enrolment of girls in schools and on improved health care services. However, the statistics tell a different story. How else can one explain why women continue to demand full and equal participation in decision-making in all areas that affect their lives?

The problem with Governments is that they lack the political and economic will to mobilize the human and financial resources needed to implement gender equality policies leading to women's equality and empowerment. They also lack the legislative will to enforce the revision and repeal of laws and practices that discriminate against women.

The low representation of women at the senior levels in the UN Secretariat is a reflection of the situation throughout society, including in political and public life. Of the 188 Member States of the United Nations, only seven have a woman Head of State, three of which are monarchies: Britain, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Netherlands and Sri Lanka; and only four have a woman as a Head of Government: Bangladesh, Lithuania, New Zealand and Sri Lanka. As for those Governments' Permanent Missions to the United Nations, only 11 are headed by women: Australia, Barbados, Estonia, Finland, Guinea, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Liechtenstein and Turkmenistan. A major obstacle to women's equal participation in leadership roles appears to be the stereotypical and prejudicial attitudes towards the roles of women and men in society.

How will the obstacles and challenges to gender equality, development and peace be surmounted? Albeit incrementally, one can point to small successes. At the international level, gender-based crimes are now included in international statutes. Since Beijing, 16 States have ratified or acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Last October, the General Assembly adopted an Optional Protocol to the Convention, which affords women the right to petition against their Governments. It awaits entry into force. Governments must be persuaded to become parties to international instruments that protect the rights of women.

It would appear, therefore, that we still have a long way to go in achieving the goals set out at Beijing, in the Platform for Action. Much more needs to be done to transform the social, economic and political environment so that women and girls can develop their full potential. The private sector and civil society also have a role to play in promoting equality between women and men.

We can only hope that, five years hence, women will have achieved the goals of gender equality, development and peace, thus obviating the need for convening a Fifth World Conference. For that to happen, resources for gender equality goals must be secured by their inclusion in all budgetary processes.

Highights of the Adress by Dr. Theo-Ben Gurirab, President of the UN General Assembly to "Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the 21st Century" on June 5 2000

Today, the world is bedevilled by endless wars and armed conflicts. In those situations, women, along with children, are the main targets of hostile acts and abuse by warring States and rebel groups. This cruelty takes various forms, such as death, abduction of girls into slavery, including sexual slavery; the use of rape and other forms of sexual violence as a weapon of war; the total denial of basic rights of women; or revenge inflicted on women out of ethnic hatred. Women and girls have become the real victims in these wars and armed conflicts, the worst of them today in my own continent - Africa. Trafficking in women and girls and their exploitation through prostitution and pornography has become one of the most serious challenges facing the global community. We must condemn these heinous crimes; better still, we must stop them forthwith.

Moreover, discriminatory laws persist on marriage, the administration of marital property, as well as on land and inheritance rights. This deprives women not only of their right to equal status under the law, but also robs them of economic rights and opportunities for advancement. Also, women's health rights remain curtailed by unequal access to health care; maternal and infant mortality remain unacceptably high in many countries; and there are very few effective programmes to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic among women in many parts of the world, especially in Africa.

Women's reproductive health remains threatened by a lack of, or insufficient, family planning services. Women also lag behind men in enjoying work-related rights, whether it is equal pay for equal work and work of equal value, work-related social, health and retirement benefits, or equal opportunities in access to work, promotion and protection against lay-offs.

Women's representation remains low in political and economic life. It generally remains marginal in public and private-sector employment as well as in trade unions. Women are very poorly represented at higher levels of decision-making. In 1999, only in 14 countries was the participation of women in parliament above 25 per cent. Only seven States have a woman Head of State, and only 11 women head their countries' Missions to the United Nations. At the international level, only a few women participate in United Nations peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace enforcement. This includes involving women in preventive diplomacy, conflict-resolution negotiations and post-conflict peacebuilding and reconstruction. Perhaps the most insidious barrier to women's equal participation in leadership roles is the persistence of stereotypes towards women, which perpetuate discrimination and entrenched prejudices.

We still have a long way to go in achieving the goals set out in the Beijing Platform for Action. I believe, however, that the time for urgent and speedy progress has never been more propitious. We now have a deeper awareness of the retarding economic consequences of discrimination due to disadvantages that women face. We also see the negative social impact on families and nations when women are held back from developing their full potential and denied the unfettered enjoyment of their human, civil, economic and political rights.

In their gallant struggle for equality, women can count allies and partners. Enlightened men, youth and religious leaders are part of their struggle, in ever increasing numbers. Governments, intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations and the private sector are working together at many levels to promote equality between women and men. For example, companies have realised to do this as a matter of enlightened self-interest and because to do so makes good business sense.

At the same time, it must be stressed that Governments' policies on gender equality and the implementation of the Platform for Action cannot be an afterthought or remain simply at the level of political pronouncements or election ploy. Resources for gender equality goals must be mobilised and utilised. Resources for gender equality must be a visible part of international development cooperation.

This Special Session must strive to live up to the expectations of billions of women in the world. They are not alone in this struggle. Rather, we are all helping to advance ideas, commitments and concerns that have been generated in many parts of the world by many citizens who are genuinely committed to gender equality, peace and development. Our deliberations this week will encourage and strengthen the devotion of all those struggling but brave women. Let us not disappoint them.

SHEBA