6 March 2007
General Assembly
GA/10573

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-first General Assembly

Informal Thematic Debate

AM & PM Meetings


OPENING GENERAL ASSEMBLY DISCUSSION ON WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT, SECRETARY-GENERAL


PLEDGES TO ENGAGE ENTIRE UNITED NATIONS SYSTEM IN WORK FOR GENDER EQUALITY


Day-Long Meeting Hears 46 Speakers


When women were fully empowered and engaged, all of society benefited, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asserted at the opening of a high-level debate in the General Assembly today, pledging to engage the entire United Nations system in supporting Member States’ work for gender equality and empowerment and seeking to strengthen the United Nations own “gender architecture”. 


Only by fully empowering and engaging women, he said, was it possible to take on the enormous global challenges of the day –- from conflict resolution to peacebuilding to fighting AIDS and reaching all the other Millennium Development Goals.  However, while there were global goals and commitments on gender equality and women’s empowerment in place, there was still a long way to go to fully implement them -– from school enrolment to women’s economic independence and representation in decision-making bodies.  Worst of all, violence against women and girls continued unabated in every continent, country and culture. 


Introducing the thematic debate, set to resume tomorrow, General Assembly President Sheikha Haya Al Khalifa of Bahrain said that gender equality had been on the United Nations agenda since the Organization’s inception.  Six decades of work had culminated in the Beijing Declaration and Plan of Action, in which it had been agreed to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women. 


Upholding those commitments was an important task, she said.  To achieve real equality, women’s empowerment must be given systematic and sustained priority.  The General Assembly, for its part, had an important duty, not just to celebrate women’s advancement, but also to facilitate an exchange of views among its Member States on effective measures to remove impediments to gender equality. 


Burundi’s Minister for Solidarity, Human Rights and Gender, Francoise Ngendahayo, said that one consequence of the 12-year war had been that half the households in the country were now headed by women; however, the majority of them lived below the poverty threshold.  While women dominated the agricultural sector, they could not own or inherit land, and they had no access to bank loans or credit because they did not have guarantors.  If the women appointed to decision-making positions did not reverse those trends, they would have failed in their mission.  In the post-conflict period, Burundi, engaged in peacebuilding, also needed to invest in female economic players who were working towards peace. 


Women’s economic empowerment was seen as a key to surmounting the obstacles.  Bangladesh’s Adviser in the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, Geeteara Safiya Choudhury, said that the impact of microcredit was helping to provide a sustainable means of income, which had made entrepreneurs of many rural housewives.  So far, 18 million had benefited from microcredit programmes.  Taking the profits from their businesses, women had reinvested in growing their endeavours into the health and education of their children, and thus, into their families’ futures.  More often than not, women were the “main bread earners”, and everyone knew that the person who controlled the purse strings made the decisions.


Saudi Arabia’s representative said that the Council of Saudi Ministers recently had adopted a nine-point plan to increase employment opportunities for women, and it had asked ministries and national agencies to create jobs for women.  Businesswomen in Saudi Arabia now numbered nearly 200,000, and the percentage of women’s investment was up to 21 per cent.  In addition, the eighth development plan had been dedicated to the role of women in development and contained broad outlines for the role of women in the economic sphere.  A business centre had been created entirely for women, and by royal decree, a council of women’s chambers had also been created. 


Sudan’s Deputy Minister for Social Affairs, Women and Children, Khadega Hajamad, said her Government had taken several measures affirming the rights of women, the family and children.  The provisional constitution stated that there could be no marriage without the consent of both parties.  It also protected maternity and children’s rights and enhanced gender equality.  The State also guaranteed equal rights for women, including equal pay for equal work.  Women’s participation in various parliaments had increased, and the Sudan had been among the first Arab and African countries in which women had entered the judicial arena, as judges in the Appeals Court.  Yet, despite the many efforts deployed, the rate of maternal mortality remained high; female circumcision was prevalent; and the school dropout rate among girls and the illiteracy rate among women were also high.  The repercussions of the armed conflict had led to an increased number of displaced and disabled persons, and the spread of HIV/AIDS. 


The First Lady of Bahrain, also President of that country’s Supreme Council for Women, addressed the morning meeting.


Also speaking in today’s debate were Ministers from the Dominican Republic (on behalf of the Rio Group), Indonesia, Italy, Belarus, Slovakia, Nigeria, United Arab Emirates, Belgium, Pakistan, Haiti, Denmark, Namibia, Paraguay, Zimbabwe, United States, Benin, Egypt, Tunisia, New Zealand, Liberia, Norway, Chile, Albania and the United Republic of Tanzania.


Representatives of the following Member States also spoke:  El Salvador, Liechtenstein, Brazil, Japan, Australia, Netherlands, Uganda, Cuba, Syria, Algeria, Philippines, Sweden, Colombia and Canada.


Also this afternoon, the Assembly held a panel discussion on women in decision-making. 


The General Assembly will meet again in the Economic and Social Council Chamber at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 7 March, to conclude its thematic debate.  It will convene a second panel discussion on empowerment of women, including microfinance, also in the ECOSOC Chamber, tomorrow at 10 a.m.


Background


The General Assembly met this morning for an informal thematic debate on the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.


Statement by General Assembly President


Sheikha HAYA AL KHALIFA ( Bahrain), President of the General Assembly, welcomed participants to today’s thematic debate on the promotion of gender equality, saying the empowerment of women was integral to reducing poverty and to achieving other Millennium Development Goals.  The thematic debate would consist of two segments:  the current general debate, expected to continue into the afternoon, would take place in parallel with a panel discussion on women in decision-making, to be held in the Economic and Social Council Chamber; and a second panel, on the empowerment of women, including microfinance, would take place tomorrow morning, in the same Chamber.


She said gender equality had been on the agenda of the United Nations since the Organization’s inception and that the Charter called for the rights of individuals -- regardless of sex, and whether they came from large or small nations -- to be respected.  Six decades of work by the United Nations had culminated in the Beijing Declaration and Plan of Action, in which it was agreed to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.  Upholding those commitments remained an important task today, especially at the grass-roots level.


To achieve real equality, women’s empowerment must be given systematic and sustained priority by the international community, she said.  Member States were encouraged to consider the recommendations of the High-Level Panel on System-Wide Coherence positively and constructively.  The General Assembly, for its part, had an important duty not just to celebrate the advancement of women, but also to facilitate an exchange of views among its Member States on effective measures to remove impediments to gender equality.  That task did not fall exclusively to women, but must involve men on an equal basis.  All Member States were urged to participate openly and frankly.


Statement by Secretary-General


BAN KI-MOON, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said achieving gender equality and empowering women was a goal in itself and a condition for building healthier, better educated, more peaceful and prosperous societies.  When women were fully empowered and engaged, all of society benefited.  Only in that way was it possible to take on the enormous global challenges of the day –- from conflict resolution to peacebuilding, to fighting AIDS and reaching all the other Millennium Development Goals.  Leaders at the 2005 World Summit had declared that gender equality and human rights for all were essential to advancing development, peace and security.


He said, however, that while global goals and commitments on gender equality and women’s empowerment were in place, there was still far to go to implement them fully -– from school enrolment to women’s economic independence and representation in decision-making bodies.  In almost all countries, women continued to be underrepresented in decision-making positions.  Their work remained undervalued, underpaid, or not paid at all.  Of more than 100 million children not in school, the majority were girls.  Out of more than 800 million adults who could not read, the majority were women.  Worst of all, violence against women and girls continued unabated in every continent, country and culture, taking a devastating toll on women’s lives, families and society as a whole.  Most societies prohibited such violence, yet the reality was that, too often, it was covered up or tacitly condoned.


Changing required that women and men work together for enduring change in values and attitudes, he said.  That meant transforming relations between women and men at all levels of society.  It meant working in partnerships -– Governments, international organizations, civil society and the private sector.  It meant men assuming their responsibility, and it meant ensuring that women and girls enjoyed their full rights and took up their rightful place in society.  It meant moving forward on several fronts at once, including ensuring that men took on a greater role in household and family care, and challenging traditions and customs, stereotypes and harmful practices that stood in the way of women and girls, and ensuring that women had access to education and health care.


He said he had made gender balance a fundamental consideration in shaping his senior management team, which included Asha-Rose Migiro as his very able Deputy, and pledged to work for a collaborative and coordinated approach to gender perspectives -– one that involved and engaged the entire United Nations system in supporting Member States’ work for gender equality and women’s empowerment.  He had also been studying proposals to strengthen the United Nations “gender architecture”, as presented by the High-Level Panel on United Nations System-Wide Coherence.  Hopefully, the possibility of replacing several current structures with one dynamic United Nations entity focused on gender equality and women’s empowerment would be considered.  Such an entity should mobilize the forces of change globally and inspire enhanced results at the country level. 


Statements


SHAIKHA SABEEKA BINT IBRAHIM AL KHALIFA, First Lady of Bahrain and President of the Supreme Council for Women, said her country’s reform process had been comprehensive and ambitious, and had provided Bahraini women with opportunities to broaden and expand their participation in society.  The Supreme Council for Women had been established to set policies and develop strategies to help improve the status of women, protect their rights and help them develop the capacity to perform their duties as responsible citizens.  Progress would be monitored under the new phase of the Supreme Council’s work plan, set to begin soon.


She called attention to the “Bahraini Woman’s Political Empowerment Programme”, developed jointly by the Supreme Council and the United Nations Development Programme, which had helped prepare women to take part in the 2006 elections.  So far, one woman had won a seat on the Representative Council and ten had been appointed to the Shura Council, increasing women’s participation from 7.5 per cent in 2002 to the present 13.75 per cent.  That same programme had also helped spread awareness of women’s rights, including by providing legal consultations and other necessities required to run and manage election campaigns, and encouraged society to support girls and boys in forming a more tolerant future.  The world should correct any weaknesses in, or indeed absence of, infrastructure for organized official and civil society work, and provide more financial resources to help develop women-oriented national systems.


FLAVIA GARCÍA, Secretary of State for Women of the Dominican Republic, speaking on behalf of the Rio Group, said its members had been working assiduously to ensure the empowerment of women, both individually and collectively.  The Rio Group was heartened that, across the region, women and girls were benefiting from increased access to education and represented a growing percentage of university graduates and entrants into the labour force.  Also, the development of sex-disaggregated data had aided gender mainstreaming programme design and implementation in all areas.


But in spite of those developments, the Rio Group recognized the need for greater action in eliminating domestic violence, trafficking in women, addressing HIV/AIDS and its effects on women, and tackling the complex issue of feminized poverty.  It had become acutely evident that political will and national efforts alone were insufficient to achieve significant progress.  International action was needed to complement those efforts, and, to that end, the Rio Group commended the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW), the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and other agencies that continued to play key roles in aligning the efforts of world Governments in the area of women’s rights.


She said women made up most of the population in the Rio Group’s geographic region and, in order to strengthen democracy and democratic processes, it was vital that women have every opportunity to exercise the right to participate in every level of decision-making.  Although the Beijing timeframe for placing women in 30 per cent of decision-making positions by 1995 had already passed, that strategic objective remained a priority and a challenge, given that only a few Rio Group members were close to reaching, or had reached that target.  To that end, education, training and experience in advocating women’s rights had contributed to increased participation by women in decision-making positions, though other mechanisms, such as parliamentary quotas, had been used.


After touching on the feminization of poverty, economic disparities between men and women, and the importance of microcredit to developing employment-generation strategies, she turned to the ongoing reform of the United Nations, saying it was essential to mainstream gender issues into every facet of the Organization’s architecture.  Any decision taken in that area must be the result of open discussions among Member States, and should take into account the expertise and practices that had so far provided tangible results on the ground.


Speaking in her national capacity, she said the Government of the Dominican Republic and President Leonel Fernandez Reyna worked tirelessly to achieve equal opportunity and to guarantee that Dominican women had the same opportunities as men to participate in public and political life, as well as to rise to decision-making levels in education, health, politics, the economy and labour, among other fields.  The State had conducted a participative constitutional-reform process which included active participation by women.  It had led to the creation of the “Forum of Women”, which represented the interests and strategic necessities of all Dominican women.


She said that, in the area of violence against women, a gender perspective had been integrated into the State policy of citizen and democratic security as a step towards increasing awareness of that problem and raising the profiles of various avenues of redress.  Efforts in that regard had been focused on applying the Law of Intra-Family Violence in order to improve the quality of services that assisted women victims of violence.


MEUTIA HATTA SWASONO, State Minister for Women Empowerment of Indonesia, said her country had adopted various measures to bring about the empowerment of its women, including the preparation of a National Plan of Action on Gender Mainstreaming, which would help accelerate implementation of Presidential Instruction No. 9/2000 on Gender Mainstreaming in National Development.  Moreover, the Government had channelled its efforts along the following four lines:  protection of women against extreme violence and suffering; enhancement of the quality of women’s lives according to the Human Development Index; promotion of women’s participation and contribution in public life and decision-making positions; and guaranteeing the enactment of fair, non-discriminatory and non-gender biased national laws and regulations.


She said the President of Indonesia had called for an open electoral system that would enable more female candidates to participate in elections and become representatives in Parliament.  On economic empowerment, there was substantial use of microfinance and microcredit to support the economic activities of poor women.  The Government had established a Forum on the Increase of the Productivity of Women in the Economy and developed models on promoting the economic empowerment of women in several provinces.  Finally, to expand the role of women and deepen their participation in the economy, five priority programmes were being emphasized, including the development of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, allowing women to develop entrepreneurial and competitive advantage, and increasing the quality of cooperative institutions.


BARBARA POLLASTRINI, Minister for Equal Rights and Opportunities of Italy, said her country’s decision to invest in women through schooling, information, science education, rights awareness and microcredit provided critical leverage for dialogue, coexistence and growth.  To that end, the quality and courage shown by non-governmental organizations and social movements was irreplaceable.  Additionally, any United Nations reform should acknowledge the importance of non-governmental organizations.  At the dawn of a new century, the freedom and dignity of women and girls stood out as the key condition for the well-being and dignity of all.


In Europe, there was still a huge gap between what women represented in terms of knowledge, work and talent, and what institutions and society offered them, she continued, adding that Italy would no longer tolerate that gap.  As such, a special multi-year action programme had been proposed to provide equal opportunities and rights for women and young people in the field of human rights.  It would comprise, among other things, a plan to fight the ongoing harassment of and violence against girls, women, gay people and lesbians, as well as a programme to combat trafficking in human beings, primarily women and children.  In the field of civil rights, a law would expand the rights and responsibilities of domestic partners as well as citizenship rights through new provisions on the reception and integration of immigrants.  Regarding social rights, there was a multi-year plan on women’s employment that would reward talented career women, and a law providing women with equal access to lists of candidates for political, governmental or other public office.


NATALYA PETKEVICH, Deputy Head, Administration of the President of Belarus, said her country had a traditionally caring attitude towards women and mothers and their rights.  It was no accident that 2006 had been declared the Year of the Mother and 2007 the Year of the Child.  Those initiatives were substantiated by an all-around and systematic work of the State in support of women, families and children.  Belarus had been working hard in that regard for more than a decade, implementing two five-year national plans of action on gender equality since 1996.  A draft third five-year plan had been elaborated with the goal of completely eliminating any gender-based discrimination in all spheres of social life, with a view to further improving women’s employment status and opening up activities traditionally reserved for men.


Women already held significant senior management positions in the President’s Administration, in the Government, in big business and banking, she noted.  A third of Members of Parliament were women, who comprised nearly 45 per cent of all those elected in January’s national elections.  Belarus had also achieved much in addressing unemployment.  However, women’s average salary was about 80 per cent of that paid to men, and certain disparities remained inherent in education.  The word “woman” always stood next to the word “mother”, which was why a comprehensive protection of motherhood and childhood was a priority of the State policy.  Much work had been done in recent years to protect the labour rights of mothers.  For example, a prohibition had been enacted against terminating the employment of pregnant women and those on childcare leave.  More and more attention was also being given to the protection of reproductive health.  Belarus had authored several international initiatives to combat human trafficking and prostitution, and a State programme on that was being implemented.


GEETEARA SAFIYA CHOUDHURY, Adviser, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, Ministry of Industries, Ministry of Textile and Jute, Ministry of Social Welfare of Bangladesh, said her Government had given a high priority to girls’ education.  Since 1993, primary education had been free for all children, with a special focus on the girl child and, since 2002, it had been free for girls up to grade 12.  The literacy level of women had increased significantly and the country had achieved gender parity in enrolment at the primary and secondary levels. 


The impact of microcredit was helping to provide a sustainable means of income, which had made entrepreneurs of many rural housewives, she said.  So far, 18 million had benefited from microcredit programmes.  Taking the profits from their businesses, women had reinvested in growing their endeavours into the health and education of their children, and thus, into their families’ futures.  More often than not, women were the “main bread earners”, and everyone knew that the person who controlled the purse strings made the decisions.


She noted that the health and social indicators for Bangladeshi women had shown a consistently improving trend.  The rise in literacy and economic power of women had enabled them to increase the use of contraceptives and reduce the total fertility rate.  That had also reduced maternal and childhood mortality and morbidity, and raised the average longevity of the population, particularly women.  That had been made possible by Government actions, the dedicated efforts of many non-governmental organizations and development partners.  Economic empowerment had led women to political empowerment, and one third of the members of the Union Parishad –- a form of local government -– were women elected directly.  More than 13,000 women held elected office, and 45 seats in Parliament were reserved for women.  The number of women recruited in various civil service cadres was also rising, and there were four women judges in the High Court Division of the Supreme Court.  Despite all those achievements, however, it would be “pretentious” to assert that women’s role had improved in all sectors. 


VIERA TOMANOVÁ, Minister of Labour, Social Affairs and Family of Slovakia, said her country was building an administrative structure to implement its gender mainstreaming strategy, through which selected participants would be trained to draft national, regional and municipal policies and to participate in decision-making.  While 20 per cent of Slovakia’s parliamentarians were women, their representation in the executive branch had remained low over the last 10 years, she said, noting that she was currently the only woman Minister in the Government.  Fortunately, however, women were well-represented at the municipal level.


As for their participation in the workforce, she said Slovakia’s labour market demonstrated significant gender segregation, with low representation of women in managerial positions.  To increase the number of women at the top management level, motivational competitions and awards were given to employers in order to increase gender awareness.  Anti-discrimination agreements had also been signed between management and employees’ representatives, so that gender equality would receive more attention in the collective bargaining framework.  In the meantime, women were encouraged to run their own businesses to help increase their self-confidence.  Measures to bring about a better work-life balance had also been developed, and barriers to employment caused by gender stereotypes had also received attention.


U.JOY OGWU, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Nigeria, said her country had reached an advanced stage in the incorporation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women into domestic law.  The Federal Government, through its national gender machinery, had taken the lead in promoting and protecting women’s rights, including equal access to life for baby girls, both born and unborn, the right to equality before the law, equal access to education, and equal opportunities for employment and participation in politics and national life.


She said a new national gender policy had been formulated to strengthen the legislative and administrative framework for the promotion of the rights of women and girls.  It drew heavily from relevant regional and international protocols and instruments, including the Beijing Platform for Action.  However, gender equality could not be attained with economic empowerment, which, in turn, required the eradication of feminized poverty.  Neither could be sustained without maternal health.  The Federal Government had embarked on several policy initiatives at all levels across the country that would “give teeth” to the process of elevating women’s status by outlawing customary, traditional and religious practices that were harmful or discriminatory.


In an effort to effect the strategic gender mainstreaming into national programmes, she said, the Government had made it mandatory for Federal and State ministries and agencies to give due consideration to gender issues in their annual budgets.  To alleviate poverty, it had established a women’s business development fund and, in the area of health-care delivery, it continued to pay particular attention to women’s special needs.  The Federal Ministry of Education had introduced a national adult education scheme as part of the free universal basic education programme, which involved literacy programmes for rural women.  While some remaining obstacles could be surmounted through political will and socio-cultural reorientation, concerted international efforts and development assistance, capacity-building and training were also needed.


MARIAM MOHD KHALFAN ALROOMI, Minister for Social Affairs of the United Arab Emirates, said empowering women and preparing them were considered the most important requirements for the success of the country’s development strategy and the fulfilment of overall national objectives.  With support from public and private institutions, that strategy had empowered women to achieve “big accomplishments”.  They now occupied two Cabinet seats and were represented in the Economy and Social Affairs Ministries.  For the first time, women could vote and run for election to the 40-seat Federal National Council, which had both a legislative and supervisory role.


The presence of Emirati women in leadership and decision-making positions was not a recent development, she said, but a continuation of the march towards women’s advancement led by Sheikha Fatma Bint Mubarak, who had spearheaded a number of institutions, including the establishment of the Family Development Institutions in 2006.  Since the country’s founding, it had always had laws and regulations ensuring the constitutional rights of women and equality with men.


Women also participated actively in the labour market, where they represented 22.4 per cent of the total work force, she said.  They formed 66 per cent of the labour force in the Government sector, including 30 per cent in decision-making posts.  Women also enjoyed equal investment opportunities and could conduct their own businesses and private projects in all fields, including trade, real estate, tourism, contracting and services.  The newly established Ministry of Social Affairs sought to assist women suffering financial hardship and private sector companies were allocating a percentage of their shares to financial assistance for women, and, in some cases, providing them with permanent sources of income. 


GISÈLE MANDAÏLA, State Secretary for Family and Disabled Persons of Belgium, said 45 per cent of senators in her country were women, as were 35 per cent of members of the House of Deputies.  However, the presence of female elected officials was not necessarily an indication of their full integration into society and, in recognition of that, the Federal Institute for Gender Equality had been developed in 2002 to address all forms of gender discrimination and promote equality between men and women.  In addition, the Minister for Equality of Opportunities had proposed -- and the Parliament had passed -- a law to systematically monitor implementation of the Beijing Plan of Action.


She said a forum on families convened recently had issued a national plan of action against all forms of violence, including genital mutilation.  It had also given participants a better understanding of the multidimensional nature of poverty, which was often linked to social exclusion.  Meanwhile, Belgium’s activities abroad included the promotion of microfinance in parts of rural Viet Nam.  A similar project would soon be under way in Niger.  In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a programme to combat sexual violence against women was being developed in the hope that it might inspire similar activities in other countries.


HINA RABBANI KHAR, Minister of State for Economic Affairs of Pakistan, said gender equality was a cross-cutting issue, involving political, social and economic aspects.  Pakistan’s Constitution guaranteed the equality of all its citizens before the law, irrespective of religion, caste or gender.  An independent National Commission on the Status of Women, set up in 2000, had been working continuously towards achieving the emancipation of women and providing them with the same socio-economic opportunities as men.  The Ministry for Women’s Development, led by a Federal Minister, provided the policy inputs used in developing women-related laws.


She said women in Pakistan had benefited from the promulgation of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2004 (also known as the honour killing law), the Law Reform Ordinance 2006, granting the right to bail to women prisoners accused of all crimes except murder and terrorism, and the recent Protection of Women Act 2006, which was designed to eliminate historically entrenched discrimination against women, particularly rape victims.  Laws to outlaw early and forced marriages were presently under consideration.  As for political representation, Pakistan had 28,000 women political leaders, or 33 per cent of local government representatives.  A political school had been developed with help from UNDP to train additional women politicians, and the number of women in the Foreign Service and the judiciary had grown.  The Central Bank was currently headed by a woman.


JOCELYN LASSEGUE, Minister for the Situation of Women and Women’s Rights of Haiti, said Government actions were designed to have a tangible impact on the status of women and were part of a framework of international commitments, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.  In keeping with its cross-sectoral nature, the Ministry had taken on two critical functions:  the analysis by gender of countrywide statistics; and the defence and advancement of women’s rights.  Among other projects, it had disseminated a kit on gender analysis and developed a system to integrate gender into all national statistics to ensure it was taken into account in all policies and projects.  A campaign to combat violence against women and girls had launched a forum that brought together the State, civil society and agencies.  A national plan involved the training of health-care personnel and national police. 


She said an official for women’s affairs had been appointed in the Haitian police, and awareness-raising was under way in the judiciary.  A hot line had been opened for victims of violence, in partnership with various institutions, and a South-South project with Brazil was being drawn up, with the support of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).  The Government had set out clear and vigorous measures against gender-specific violence endured by women and girls.  In education, the critical problem was the dropout rate resulting from poverty.  A programme of sexual education had been developed and an overhaul of textbooks begun to review stereotypes, which often spawned violence.  A campaign to promote girls’ education was bearing fruit.  Among the Government’s other short-term priorities was the drafting of a law on gender equality. 


EVA KJER HANSEN, Minister for Social Affairs and Gender Equality of Denmark, said women constituted a huge untapped resource that was critical to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals.  By empowering women, families and societies were similarly empowered, leading to huge dividends for society.  Although Denmark had come a long way, one important area lacking progress was women’s representation in top management positions.  A recent Danish study had shown a positive effect on performance and turnover at companies where women were in top positions, and that study was being used to initiate a dialogue with companies to spur their attempts at achieving gender equality.


Noting that gender equality could not be established overnight, she said it took time to build schools, provide access to health care and education, train staff and change attitudes.  Such work also required political will and strategic planning.  To facilitate women’s entry into decision-making positions and the labour market, a focus on girls was necessary -– namely, to provide access to education; to combat violence against girls; to give women and girls freedom of choice over their lives; to ensure good sexual and reproductive health; and to change negative stereotypes and attitudes towards girls.  Society must begin to perceive girls as an essential resource for development and change.


MARGARETH MENSAH-WILLIAMS, Deputy Chairperson, National Council of Namibia, said gender equality strategies could only be effective if they were systematically and effectively implemented.  Namibia’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare had been created to provide the appropriate political support and to promote accountability.  Gender mainstreaming was promoted through the country’s National Gender Policy of 1997, bolstered by laws aimed at eliminating barriers that impeded women’s access to jobs, such as the Affirmative Action Act.  A Labour Act was being reviewed to ensure women fully enjoyed their maternity leave benefits.


She said that, as part of Namibia’s National Development Plan, women were the beneficiaries of poverty reduction strategies through programmes promoting small and medium enterprises and the distribution of low-interest loans.  On other fronts, education policies had also been developed to ensure universal access to primary education and close gender gaps in schools, while a strategic plan had been created to reduce women’s and girls’ susceptibility to HIV/AIDS.


Greater numbers of women were entering politics, with the Deputy Prime Minister, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly and Deputy Chairperson of the National Council being women, she said.  In addition, 33 per cent of management-level officers in the public sector were women.  Namibia called upon Member States to do everything in their power to substantially increase the number of women participating in peacekeeping missions, and congratulated the Secretary-General for leading by example in appointing women to senior positions, including Deputy Secretary-General.


MARÍA JOSÉ ARGANA MATEU, Minister at the Women’s Secretariat in the Presidency of Paraguay, aligning herself with the Rio Group, said States parties to the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, adopted in 1995, were working to promote cooperation and exchange regional best practices on the elimination of violence against women.  From 2004 to 2006, the Vice-President had convened an inter-American commission of women belonging to the Organization of American States to combat gender violence at the international level, incorporating the programmes developed as part of the follow-up on the Inter-American Convention.


Meanwhile, she said, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was viewed as a “State commitment”, and thematic roundtables were held around the country to follow up on progress in implementing that Convention.  Institutions had been strengthened to enhance the national capability to achieve the Beijing objectives, with attention to good budgeting and legal advice, as well as autonomy to State-level bodies.  A presidential decree had made the elimination of violence against women a national priority, as was the need to care for victims.  The focus had also been placed on combating poverty, facilitating women’s employment and improving access to health care and education.  There had been eight women Cabinet Ministers in 2003; the head of the Central Bank and Director-General of Customs were women; and the first woman Minister for the Supreme Court of Justice, appointed in 2004, had gone on to become that body’s President.  But more must be done to overcome cultural patterns that fostered inequalities.


O.C.Z. MUCHINGURI, Minister for Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development of Zimbabwe, said her country had put in place policies as well as a legislative framework to support initiatives to improve the status of women and girls.  As a way to incorporate key international instruments into domestic law, the Government had adopted a national gender policy in 2000 to provide an institutional framework for gender mainstreaming.


The Government had recently developed an implementation framework for a policy to guide the activities of various stakeholders in mainstreaming gender into their respective sectors, she said.  The Constitution prohibited gender-based discrimination and a recent legislative achievement had been the enactment of the Domestic Violence Act, which sought to prevent domestic violence and protect victims.  The Government was working closely with civil society, particularly women’s organizations, in promoting an integrated approach to gender inequalities.


For the first time, the women of Zimbabwe held key Government positions, including those of Vice-President, President of the Senate and Judge President, she said.  Women constituted 17 per cent of the House Assembly and 36.6 per cent of the Senate.  Significant progress had also been made in terms of female representation in local governance.  However, there remained a need to continue strengthening women’s capacity in decision-making.  The Government also sought to empower women through targeted interventions geared towards women’s participation in such key economic sectors as mining, agriculture and small- and medium-scale enterprises.  In addition, the Constitution did not effectively eliminate gender-based discrimination based on customary law, which took precedence over the Bill of Rights in matters of family and personal law, a situation not unique to Zimbabwe, but widespread across Africa.


FRANÇOISE NGENDAHAYO, Minister for Solidarity, Human Rights and Gender of Burundi, said her country had just emerged from a 12-year war and was still experiencing the devastating effects.  One consequence was that half the households were now headed by women, the majority of whom lived under the poverty threshold.  While women dominated the agricultural sector, they were also the most affected by poverty.  In the post-conflict period, Burundi, with the international community’s support, was engaged in peacebuilding, needed also to invest in female economic players who were also working towards peace.


Women’s organizations, civil society, and national and international non-governmental organizations had realized that, in a democracy, rights were not handed over on a silver platter but must be earned, she said.  In addition to the presence of women in Parliament, the Senate, the civil service and the Government as a whole, they had for the first time been appointed as local governors and administrators.  But it was also a matter of deep concern that 80 per cent of women lived in the most abject poverty.


Pointing out that women at the bottom of the pyramid were largely illiterate, she said they lacked education and could not own or inherit land.  They had no access to bank loans or credit because they did not have guarantors.  If women appointed to decision-making positions did not reverse those trends, they would have failed in their mission.  However, the Government was working on two draft laws, one on inheritance of property and access to property at birth, and the other on a review of the Criminal Code, which would increase the penalties for violence against women and girls, and define rape and torture.


DOLGOR BADRAA, Social Policy Adviser to the Prime Minister of Mongolia, said her country had a National Committee on Gender Equality, headed by the Prime Minister.  The National Programme on Gender Equality had been put into action in 2002 with the goal of ensuring gender equality in economic relations and the labour market; to increase the participation of women in political decision-making; to ensure gender equality in rural development and within the family; and to establish a national mechanism for devising gender-sensitive national policies.  The implementation of those goals was connected to the implementation of Mongolia’s National Development Plan and the Millennium Development Goals.


She said only 6 per cent of the country’s Members of Parliament were women, while 5 per cent were members of the Government, meaning that increasing the participation of women in decision-making must be given a higher priority.  To deal with that, the Mongolian Parliamentary Election Law of 2006 would institute a quota mechanism guaranteeing that not less than 30 per cent of women candidates could run for elections.  Also, serious attention was needed in improving the quality of education directed at increasing the competitiveness of women in the labour market.  Mongolia looked forward to working with United Nations agencies towards achieving those objectives.


PAULA DOBRIANSKY, Under-Secretary of State for Global Affairs of the United States, said International Women’s Day was an important opportunity to underscore that women’s equal rights and empowerment underpinned free, peaceful and prosperous societies.  Without women’s strong voice, societies would not flourish and no country would thrive when half its economy was neglected.  Women’s empowerment also promoted strong families, civil society, responsible governance and economic development.  Empowering women helped bring about a brighter and more peaceful future. 


Strengthening women’s rights and empowering women were key foreign policy priorities, and the United States was pursuing concrete initiatives to bring about real results for women worldwide, she said.  One crucial area was education.  An educated woman was better able to provide for her family economically and more prepared to be an active participant in society and even a national leader.  Even a slight increase in the number of years of schooling could generate a substantial benefit.


She said her country strongly supported the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in educational endeavours, especially literacy programmes for girls.  Across a broad spectrum, the Millennium Challenge Account promoted economic growth and reduced poverty in developing countries.  Many participating nations had designed and implemented specific projects for women and established micro-enterprises.  It was also collaborating with partners to combat HIV/AIDS, counter gender-based violence and focus on improving the lives of the most vulnerable, especially refugees. 


MARIAM ALADJI VONI-DIALLO, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Benin, said that a key priority of her Government had been to assure women’s access to credit, and, as an enabling measure, it had developed microfinance institutions, where 50 to 80 per cent of the credits granted stemmed from social funds and programmes.  Adapting programmes to women had been an aim of the country for the past two decades, so in 2005 it created a ministerial department headed by a woman to allow for the better coordination of activities to ensure the integration of women in the country’s economic life.  Despite undeniable progress, however, poverty remained essentially “feminine”.  In fact, structural adjustment programmes and the persistent growth of foreign debt had produced instability and a precarious socio-economic situation, increasing the feminization of poverty and widening gender disparity in power sharing, both in the family and society at large.  Indeed, women’s empowerment was at stake, and it was important for a national strategy to help women in achieving the position in society that they deserved. 


She also stressed the importance for the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other institutions to underscore the integration of gender-specific attitudes in their programmes.  Reinforcing women’s decision-making power implied multidimensional measures, which would make it possible for women to take on their greater role at home and internationally.  Beyond a legal arsenal, the Government had created a ministry in charge of promoting women’s status, and now women held prominent positions in Government, including important positions in Parliament.  That participation had led to the adoption of policies that favoured women in legislation concerning the family, making it possible to eliminate taboos and other stereotypes and prejudices.  With the new Family Code, a great step forward had been achieved.  The presence of women was evidence of a true culture of democracy.  Education must also be a priority, and thus the Government had decided to provide free education for all children and to encourage young girls to go to school.  An emphasis on primary health care provided coverage for children up to the age of 5 and the care of mothers after birth. 


NAELA GABR, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Egypt, said the fact that an Arab Muslim was currently chairing the meeting was proof of how much the Arab world was interested in empowering women.  In Egypt, women occupied the highest positions in all fields of decision-making, whether as a Member of Parliament, Cabinet minister, ambassador representing the country abroad or a judge in the highest national judicial positions.  The National Council of Women, under the leadership of the First Lady, had been established to guarantee women their rights and to increase their participation in political, social and economic work.


She said the empowerment of women required a world free from conflict; better harmony among civilizations, cultures and religions; and balanced economic and trade relations between countries, with the aim of producing positive effects on developing countries, especially women.  As for the settlement of political disputes, the Palestinian issue should be dealt with as a top priority.  Attention should be given to women in post-conflict situations, especially in Africa.  Last June, a Global Summit of Women had been convened by the Suzanne Mubarak International Movement for Women and Peace, a non-profit organization in Egypt, to work towards achieving the economic development of women and guaranteeing their fair share in public services and aid, such as microfinance.


SAIDA CHTIOUI, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs in charge of American and Asian Affairs of Tunisia, said that, despite the United Nations, its specialized agencies’ and its Member States’ firm commitment to women’s empowerment, gender equality had still not been fully attained.  Today, women were most affected by poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, pandemics, discrimination, violence and trafficking -– obstacles preventing them from full emancipation.


In Tunisia in 1956, the Code of Personal Status had granted women equal rights and had included many provisions banning practices such as polygamy, forced marriages and out-of-court divorce.  Additionally, she said that, since the 1990s, several entities had been created to enforce women’s emancipation, including the Ministry of Women, Family and Childhood, and the Women and Development Commission. 


Today, Tunisian women represented 25 per cent of the Members of Parliament and 40 per cent of University professors, for example.  Her country had also hosted the first “Business Women Summit” in May 2005 by the Tunis-based regional office of the American Middle East Partnership Initiative.  In terms of employment, the proportion of women within the working population exceeded 25 per cent in 2006.  Those results had indeed demonstrated that microcredits and other support actions were successful in encouraging women -– especially those in less developed areas -- to undertake private initiatives.


SHENAGH GLEISNER, Chief Executive of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs of New Zealand, said the country’s Task Force on Action on Violence against Families had brought together judges, non-governmental organizations, women’s advocates and the Commissioner for Police.  Maori and Pacific peoples had likewise been at the table.  Together, they sought to tackle the urgent problems of violence against women and children in New Zealand. 


The Ministry of Women’s Affairs had also set up an accountability programme within the Government, called the Action Plan for New Zealand Women, through which departmental Chief Executives were required to submit annual progress reports to Parliament.  As for increasing women’s political representation, she said targets had been set up to bring women’s membership in State sector governance boards to 50 per cent by 2010.  The current figure stood at 41 per cent.


ANNIE DEMEN, Deputy Minister for Research and Technical Services, Ministry of Gender and Development of Liberia, said that achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment was one of the biggest challenges facing her Government as it moved from conflict to reconstruction and development.  Liberia’s greatest asset was the political will of its President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, to translate to reality the promises she made during her inauguration in 2006.  Everyone agreed that gender equality and women’s economic empowerment would have a ripple effect on the entire economy and go a long way to reducing poverty and achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Beijing Platform for Action. 


She said her Government, with its partners, was pressing ahead with implementation of those instruments and had offered such measures as free primary education, scholarships for girls, literacy programmes and microcredit schemes.  It had also introduced a plan of action to address gender-based violence and mainstream gender issues in poverty reduction strategies.  Empowerment was about people –- about women taking over their lives, setting their own agendas, building confidence and developing self-reliance.  She was pleased to report that, besides her country having the first female President in Africa, women were now participating in legislative and executive Government posts.  Their participation was minimal, but it represented a “big improvement”; women were ministers of commerce, finance, justice, youth and sports, and gender and development.  Challenges remained, however, in such areas as employing more women in non-traditional fields. 


ANNE F. STENHAMMER, State Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway, said the United Nations did not have the funding or appropriate structures to drive the gender equality agenda.  Creating a new and stronger gender entity that was capable of taking part at the decision-making level was important.  Its Executive Director must have the rank of Under-Secretary-General, and the body must have a stable source of funding, both from the regular United Nations budget and from voluntary contributions.  A minimum budget of $200 million was proposed.


She said Norway was ready to put resources into the new gender entity; already, the country was the fifth largest contributor to United Nations development activities.  In 2008, the country aimed to reach 1 per cent of gross national income for development aid.  Contributions to UNIFEM had been increased to 150 per cent in 2007.  Indeed, overall allocations for gender equality throughout the United Nations system must be substantially increased, and all agencies must be able to document how their money was spent.  To ensure that half of the world’s population could enjoy their rights, Norway counted on the leadership of the Secretary-General and the General Assembly President.


CARMEN ANDRADE, Vice Minister of “Servicio Nacional De La Mujer” of Chile, aligning herself with the Rio Group, said the first female President, Michelle Bachelet, had been elected on 11 March 2006 with 53 per cent of the vote, leading to significant cultural change in the country.  Chile currently had a Cabinet composed of equal numbers of men and women, a pattern that was carried through in regional political bodies throughout the country.  Unfortunately, women in Chile continued to be discriminated against in the labour market.  They continued to be mistreated in homes, and often carried a greater burden in terms of housework.  According to the World Competitiveness Report, published by the World Economic Forum, Chile ranked 27th among 125 countries, but held the 110th spot in terms of women’s access to the labour market.  It ranked 68th in terms of women’s participation in Parliament.  The current task was to broaden parity in those areas.


She said Chile was devoted to eliminating gender, ethnic and territorial inequality that persisted in society.  The country aspired to a democracy that integrated both men and women, through a social protection system that would provide lifelong security, called “ Chile grows with you”.  Under that system, women that did earn a formal living were given a solidarity pension if they were deemed to have contributed to the up-bringing of children.  To help further the full exercise of citizens’ rights, whether man or woman, Chile sought to replace its two-party election system with a more representative mechanism.  To ensure that women ceased to be invisible in Chilean society, the President had also instituted a programme called “Commitment of Government of Chile to Advance Gender Equality, 2006-2010”.


MARJETA ZACE, Deputy Minister of Labour, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities of Albania, aligning herself with the statement to be made by Germany on behalf of the European Union, said that her country was striving to implement the European Union standards, especially those regarding the promotion and protection of human rights.  Equality between women and men was a fundamental right and one of the democratic principles engraved in the Albanian Constitution. 


There was still a lot of work to be done when it came to the empowerment of women in decision-making and creating equal opportunities for all.  Furthermore, she said that equal access at all decision-making and leadership levels, for both men and women, was a necessary precondition for the functioning of democracy.  Following the implementation of gender-based policies, Albania now had a woman Speaker of the Parliament and two women had been nominated at the ministry level. 


KHADEGA HAJAMAD, Deputy Minister for Social Affairs, Women and Children of Sudan, said her country had shown great interest in:  women as fundamental to building society; enhancing women’s position socially, economically, culturally and politically; and in providing them with equal opportunity in the workplace and in decision-making.  Caring for the young and heeding the concerns of girls were fundamental guarantees for a better future, and the family was the lynchpin through which society enjoyed social security, prosperity and peace. 


The Government had taken several measures in support of human rights, focusing on affirming the right of women, the family and children, she said.  The provisional constitution had provided that the family was the basic unit of society, and that there could be no marriage without the consent of both parties.  Also under the provisional constitution, maternity was protected; gender equality was enhanced; and the rights of the child were protected.  The State had also formulated policies and means to care for children and it had guaranteed equal rights for women, including equal pay for equal work. 


She said that the provisional constitution also provided for combating customs demeaning to women.  The State had also mainstreamed gender by formulating national strategies and setting aside “special space” for women, including by creating quotas to ensure women’s participation.  The philosophy of equity and equality had been embraced by the State for decades, resulting in an increase in women’s participation in various parliaments, including in the present National Council.  Women also served as advisers to governors, and the Sudan was among the first Arab and African countries in which women had entered the judicial arena, as judges in the Appeals Court.  Sudanese women also accounted for 30 per cent of the labour force.  Armed conflict threatened women’s march on the road to advancement and development, but women had an effective role to play in conflict resolution and peace processes.  Sexual violence against women and rape were severely punished crimes under the law, and the State had adopted a package of actions to address the needs of victims and to establish rehabilitation centres.


Despite numerous strategies, she said there was still a high rate of maternal mortality, and despite the efforts deployed, female circumcision was still prevalent.  There had been qualitative achievements in education, but the dropout rate among girls was still high, and the enrolment rate was not optimal.  The illiteracy rate was also high among women.  The repercussions of conflict had resulted in increasing numbers of displaced and disabled persons, and the spread of HIV/AIDS. 


MARIAM MWAFFISI (United Republic of Tanzania) said that the debate taking place against the background of the discussion in the Commission on the Status of Women concerning violence against the girl child was opportune, since promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women had to begin with the girl child.  Although several measures at the national and international levels to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment had been implemented, women globally continued to be marginalized and were grossly underrepresented at all levels of decision-making positions.  Her Government had amended the Constitution to provide for affirmative action for 30 per cent of women in Parliament and was working towards reaching 50 per cent representation in 2010.  Gender had been mainstreamed in Government policies, including in the poverty reduction strategies.


She said that, since education was key to women’s empowerment, the Government was now pursuing gender parity in education and instituting programmes to encourage girls to take up science subjects.  However, the Government was faced with many challenges, including the patriarchal structure, lower level of education for girls, few women role models, inadequate gender disaggregated data and inadequate human and financial resources.  At the international level, she called for implementation of agreed commitments and gender equality, for power sharing at all levels, and for enhancing the role of men and boys in promoting gender equality.  Affirmative action for increasing the number of women in decision-making positions had to be considered as a short-term strategy.


CARMEN MARIA GALLARDO HERNANDEZ ( El Salvador), Chairperson of the Commission on the Status of Women, said that awareness regarding violence against women had increased, thanks to reports of the Secretary-General on the subject.  But a myriad of problems still required attention:  from discriminatory traditional practices such as early marriage, genital mutilation and female circumcision, to the vulnerability of women to HIV/AIDS, and the special challenges faced by women during times of armed conflict.  Discrimination often began at an early age and tended to continue unabated, leading to poor nutrition and lack of access to health care and education.  Stereotypes continued to hamper implementation of international and national legal frameworks. 


She said the agreed conclusions from the Commission’s current session -- its fifty-first -- would provide recommendations on specific policies for Governments and related bodies on the elimination of violence against women and girls.  Round table debates on women in decision-making processes, and the empowerment of women through microfinancing, would provide further inputs.  Meanwhile, the equal participation of women and men in decision-making processes had been the subject of the Commission’s fiftieth session.  That debate had revealed that, despite progress since the Beijing conference, obstacles to women’s participation at all levels of decision-making still remained.  At that time, Governments had been asked to establish goals, objectives and reference points intended to achieve equal participations of men and women in decision-making bodies.  Governments had also been called on to ensure women’s access to microcredit and microfinancing, to facilitate their full participation in the economy.  The Commission was expected to assess progress towards those agreed goals at its 2009 meeting.  The present informal debate of the General Assembly was itself an opportunity to hear lessons learned and exchange best practices in that area. 


ABDUL WAHAB ATTAR ( Saudi Arabia) said his country placed great emphasis on the educational sector, and increasing numbers of graduates were seeking jobs.  Saudi women, in particular, were attaining high levels of education and were now active in society in the economic, social and political spheres.  The Council of Saudi Ministers recently had adopted a nine-point plan to increase employment opportunities for women.  It had asked ministries and national agencies to create jobs for women and had asked the Chamber of Commerce and Industry to create a council to assist women by providing them with training and subsequent job offers.  In addition, the country had ratified the Women’s Convention in 2000; the Saudi Bank had been restructured in a way that was favourable to women; and a fund for Saudi industry had been created, which provided loans for small and medium enterprises.  Moreover, a development fund for human resources had been established, and vocational and technical training had intensified, also on women’s behalf. 


He said that women were also enjoying an enhanced role in decision-making.  Two years ago, they had participated for the first time in elections to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which, today, had 18 women members.  Businesswomen in Saudi Arabia now numbered nearly 200,000; the percentage of women’s investment was up to 21 per cent; and women accounted for 43,000 business transactions throughout the country.  In addition, the eighth development plan had been dedicated to the role of women in development and contained broad outlines for the role of women in the economic sphere.  A business centre had been created entirely for women, and by a royal decree, a council of women’s chambers had been created.  The Government was also striving to combat poverty nationally and internationally, with a special emphasis on the needs of the least developed countries, he added. 


CLAUDIA FRITSCHE ( Liechtenstein) praised the General Assembly President for taking the initiative to hold the current debate, saying that her leadership would serve as an inspiration to women and men in pursuing gender parity in decision-making.  She said her country welcomed the appointment of several women to senior posts within the United Nations, since the publicity surrounding them could encourage other women to undertake political functions.  Liechtenstein had long advocated for the appointment of women as special envoys and special representatives of the Secretary-General for diplomacy, conflict resolution and peacebuilding, since strengthening women’s capacity as peacemakers must be pursued in parallel with increasing women’s participation.  The presence of women would strengthen awareness of the need to mainstream gender issues, not only in the peace process but also in other political processes.  All too often, however, women were hardly represented in official groups that were common players in settling conflict, including political parties and armed groups.


She said that, during her tenure as Permanent Representative of Liechtenstein, she had joined forces with interested delegations and non-governmental organizations to help make the appointment of women to high posts a recurring reality, by gathering and disseminating information about qualified women candidates.  The fact that the International Court of Justice was, for the first time, presided over by a woman was encouraging.  Currently, 8 out of 18 judges of the International Criminal Court were women, a result brought about by a system of “minimum voting requirements”.  As for speeding up achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, the international community should address issues like equal access to education, health services, employment opportunities and financial services, and put an end to discriminatory practices like early marriage and unfair inheritance laws.


PIRAGIBE TARRAGO (Brazil), associating himself with the statement made on behalf of the Rio Group, said that it was impossible to attain gender equality unless all forms of violence against women and girls were eliminated, especially sexual violence and exploitation.  In regard to that, his Government had enacted the “Maria de Penha Law” in 2006, as part of comprehensive legislation to combat violence against women and girls. 


Gender equality also meant providing equal treatment and opportunities, as well as unrestricted access to public services, he said.  Women and girls needed to have access to adequate health care services, including sexual and reproductive health and rights.  Likewise, education was a fundamental instrument in attaining gender equality and empowering women and girls.  On that note, Brazil had achieved the same percentage of enrolment in school for boys and girls.


Finally, his Government would be organizing the II National Conference on Policies for Women, with a view to discussing the implementation of the national legislation and programmes.  One of the main issues to be addressed would be the empowerment of women in public offices, he noted.


AMARYLLIS T. TORRES, Commissioner, National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women, Philippines, said the gender equality framework used by her Government -- the Framework Plan for Women -- had, as its key components, the promotion of women’s human rights and economic empowerment and the development of gender-responsive governance.  As a result, new laws were developed that enhanced the rights of women in disadvantaged situations; instruments were created to support gender mainstreaming at all levels of Government; and there was fuller representation of women in decision-making assemblies, including among rural, minority and indigenous women.


She said, however, that women’s participation in the labour force continued to lag behind that of men.  Gender stereotypes, particularly in relation to reproductive responsibilities, had prevented women from entering the work force.  Those who did work were often found in the informal labour sector or in jobs that were insecure, lowly-paid and took little advantage of women’s formal education.  For example, educated women in information technology outsourcing establishments, and those who went abroad as migrant labourers, found themselves de-skilling in exchange for relatively higher wages, little time for leisure and emerging health problems.  The Government was cooperating with civil society and the private sector to enable women to enhance their entrepreneurial capacities and to obtain fair market share at home and abroad.  Finally, new projects were in place to eliminate traditional gender stereotypes, and to launch projects to sensitize women legislators to gender issues that impact on their constituencies.


YORIKO MEGURO ( Japan) said her Government strongly believed that progress for women meant progress for all.  However, there was a problem in achieving such a worthy end, as the gender issue was deeply rooted in traditional values and social norms.  For example, many women in Japan were struggling to strike a good work-life balance because of the traditional gender roles, including the gender–based division of work.  While women now made up a larger percentage of those taking a job for the first time, the number of women in senior managerial positions remained low.  There were still women who had difficulty joining the workforce for family reasons.


In order to address this, her Government had decided on the Second Basic Plan for Gender Equality, thereby increasing the ratio of men taking paternity leave from 0.56 per cent in 2004 to a target of 10 per cent by 2014.  Her Government was likewise engaged in programmes that would lead to a better balance between work and private life.  Lastly, she stressed regional dialogue as an effective way of sharing information, good practices and lessons learned in mainstreaming gender in similar and cultural contexts.  Moreover, that process could help identify ways to respond collectively to emerging gender-related problems, such as human trafficking, HIV/AIDS and natural disasters, to name a few. 


JULIA BURNS ( Australia) said that, today, the gender gap was at its widest in areas of economic participation and opportunity and political empowerment.  Australia had been one of the first countries to have sex discrimination legislation.  Many Australian women were able to participate in education and employment on a par with men.  As women’s safety and their leadership skills were critical to women’s empowerment, Australia had invested significantly in those areas.  Gender equality was also an overarching principle of Australia’s overseas aid programme.  The new AusAID Gender Policy, launched last week, outlined strategies and initiatives to advance gender equality through aid programmes, including how gender would be properly integrated and mainstreamed.


She said only 14 countries had reached the benchmark of 30 per cent of parliamentarians being women.  Australia had almost reached that level, but overall, the Pacific had an average of 4 per cent.  Yet, evidence showed that women being directly involved and strongly represented in national parliaments had resulted in positive policy outcomes, particularly in the areas of health and education.  The country was therefore developing two innovative programmes to advance women’s involvement in the national decision-making processes in the region.  “The Pacific Leadership Program” targeted current and emerging leaders to develop leadership skills, and “Building Demand for Better Governance” would support and augment domestic demand for reform and accountability within the Asia-Pacific region.  Australia supported the creation of an Under-Secretary-General position in the gender architecture of the United Nations.


FRANK MAJOOR ( Netherlands) said women must not only be granted rights, but be given a voice to exercise those rights.  Unfortunately, the low numbers of women in decision-making positions hindered the inclusion of a gender perspective in the political sphere, leading to continued discrimination in education, training, hiring, renumeration and promotion.  As for the feminization of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, measures should be taken to raise the level of education among women, since women with secondary or higher education were more likely to know more about AIDS and to use a condom.


He said violence against women was a major obstacle to the social and economic development of communities and States.  For its part, the General Assembly had negotiated a far-reaching resolution on Violence against Women, underscoring the importance attached by the United Nations to that topic.  Finally, in promoting gender equality, it was important to include men and boys in the debate, and to educate them in schools about women’s rights and the importance of women’s empowerment.


FRANCIS BUTAGIRA ( Uganda) said that, although significant steps had been taken to achieve the goal of gender equality and women’s empowerment, much still remained to be done.  On the international level, his Government had ratified and committed to the implementation of the major international instruments, including the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action.


At the national level, Uganda’s Constitution stressed the rights of women and the duty of the State to respect and promote those rights in the social, economic and political spheres.  It also guaranteed affirmative action to redress imbalances created by gender, among other things, he said.  On education, affirmative action had led to an increase in the enrolment of girls in public universities.  Other measures included the Universal Primary Education Programme and the Functional Adult Literacy Initiative (1992). 


On the issue of health, she said that rates of immunization had increased, and sexual and reproductive health programmes for women had been implemented.  Rural water services had also improved tremendously.  That had a direct impact on time and labour saved and the poverty of women and girls.  Lastly, regarding economic empowerment, Uganda had launched a “Prosperity for All” scheme -- a rural financial services scheme giving low interest loans to country-based Savings and Credit Cooperative Societies (SACCOs).


RODRIGO MALMIERCA DIAZ ( Cuba) said it had not been possible to carry out the Beijing programme with the current unjust world order, marked by increases in the gap between rich and poor and the feminization of poverty.  One could not talk of women’s empowerment when most victims of war, hunger, inequality, preventable diseases, racism and xenophobia had a feminine face.  Women were also the predominant victims of domestic violence, people smuggling, forced prostitution and HIV/AIDS.


He said that, in Cuba, women currently accounted for 45.6 per cent of the civil and State sector’s labour force.  Some 66.6 per cent of intermediate-level technicians and university graduates were women, while 48.9 per cent of them worked in the field of science and technology.  Cuba had the seventh highest number of women representatives in the world, and more women were judges and prosecutors in the country’s courts.  Cuban women also played an irreplaceable role in the country’s overseas projects, with more than a thousand women taking part in the Henry Reeves Brigade, which had provided medical services to Pakistan after the earthquake that hit that country in 2005.  His country was able to initiate such projects despite the United States blockade against Cuba, which itself was a form of violence against women.


WARIF HALABI ( Syria) said that, on the subject of women’s advancement, her country wanted to reaffirm its commitment to the international conventions.  Regarding women’s empowerment, the tenth five-year plan would ensure the quality and tangible development in the lives of Syrian women.  Her Government also attached great importance to combating poverty and establishing safety networks.  It had doubled its expenditures in social areas -- particularly in the fields of education and health.


Regarding economic development, she emphasized the importance of better integration of women into the labour force.  In light of that, the five-year plan had set goals to increase participation from 17 per cent in 2004 to 30 per cent in 2005.  Political empowerment and the representation of women in decision-making posts were also important.  Women were already members of the governing party, and general elections were coming in 2007. 


On reproductive health, Syria’s rate of maternal mortality had dropped.  Moreover, as of 2007, Syria had begun financing family planning programmes for the first time with the assistance of UNFPA.  On the outstanding issue of the occupied Golan territories, she said that ongoing Israeli aggression was hampering development efforts.  The suffering of Syrian and Palestinian women needed to cease. 


YOUSRIA BERRAH ( Algeria) said that both violence against women and women’s rights were still of concern.  The debate should not be limited to just that topic, however, as everyone was impacted by women’s rights.  The advancement of women’s rights also benefited children, and further, remained a prerequisite for sustainable growth.


Algeria had made women’s advancement part of its reform, she said.  Gender equality was rooted in its Constitution, guaranteeing women the same rights, as well as the same obligations, as men.  The number of women in economic and political posts was on the rise.  In addition, more than 50 per cent of university personnel, and more than 45 per cent of journalists, were women.  Her Government was taking measures to protect girls and ensure high-quality education for them. 


ANDERS LIDEN ( Sweden) said the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment was an essential and urgent prerequisite for sustainable poverty reduction and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.  The 2005 World Summit had reaffirmed that gender equality, among other things, was essential to advance development, peace and security.  The United Nations system as a whole had a leading role in contributing to women’s empowerment and gender equality, but needed a much stronger voice on women’s issues.  A commitment to gender equality should remain the mandate of the entire United Nations system, but mainstreaming needed to be supported by a strong “centre” and adequate resources in order to be implemented effectively.  He therefore supported the recommendations regarding the “gender architecture” of the Organization.


He said that, since 1995, progress had been made in women’s empowerment in decision-making and in economic processes.  The use of quotas and other affirmative action measures had played a role therein, but further action was needed in order to stimulate increased female participation in all areas of society.  Providing conditions for women to overcome the persistent inequalities of nearly all political and economic systems required a range of measures, including investments in health and education.  Women’s economic empowerment was also dependent upon the promotion of transparent and fair business and management practices.  Sweden worked in support of women’s economic empowerment -– including through microfinance -– in partnership with other countries in development cooperation.


CLAUDIA BLUM ( Colombia) said her Government, the judicial branch and the legislative power were working on cross-cutting gender issues and included that focus in their decisions and budget allocations.  Specific strategies for eliminating discrimination and empowerment of women included the “Women Builders of Peace and Development” policy, which concentrated on social participation, prevention of violence against women, employment and business development, and education.  The law on quotas and the Political Party Pact promoted the inclusion of women in politics.  Women Communal Councils existed in 323 of the country’s 1,096 municipalities.  The Women’s Rights Defence Plan had established protection measures against intra-family violence, the breaking of the marital union and labour discrimination.


She said programmes were being carried out in the areas of business training and for support for rural microbusinesses.  Women’s access to financial resources was another fundamental priority of empowerment, and the new Opportunities Bank had become the most ambitious microcredit support programme in her country.  The Government was also implementing a true education revolution with a gender perspective, through which the differences in access to education between women and men had virtually disappeared.  Cooperation of the international community, including the United Nations system, UNIFEM and INSTRAW, was significant in that regard.


JOHN MCNEE ( Canada) said that women and girls continued to struggle and had not achieved the equality envisaged by the United Nations and its Member States, 30 years ago.  Of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty around the world, 70 per cent were women, and two thirds of children being denied primary education were girls.  The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, “Ending Impunity for Violence”, sat firmly within the core values of Canada’s new Government, and further reminded the international community of the persistent and unacceptable nature of violence against women and girls.


Canada had a strong legislative framework for protecting women and girls from violence, including domestic violence, he said.  The Family Violence Initiative took action on violence through prevention, protection and treatment programmes.  His Government had also taken concrete measures to address the root causes of violence against aboriginal women and girls in their homes, and in the wider community. 


On the international front, Canada would continue efforts to address violence against women in the newly-formed United Nations Human Rights Council.  Lastly, his Government was presently finalizing its Action Plan for the implementation of Security Council resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.  That plan would address the four key areas covered by the resolution, including the full and equal participation of women in the peace processes and peacebuilding activities.


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For information media • not an official record