18 September 2008
Press Conference

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

press conference to launch unifem report ‘progress of the world’s women 2008/2009’

Governments and multilateral organizations must do better in answering to women, Inés Alberdi, Executive Director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) said at Headquarters today.

“If we had stronger accountability on commitments that have been made to women, we would be a lot closer to achieving the Millennium Development Goals,” she said at a press conference to launch the agency’s latest report, Progress of the World’s Women 2008/2009: Who Answers to Women? 

Issued ahead of next week’s two high-level events on the Millennium Development Goals and Africa’s development needs, the report underlines the serious consequences that a lack of accountability to women has on poverty reduction and human development.

Pointing to “painfully slow movement” on maternal mortality -– which was declining at a rate of 0.4 per cent rather than the 5.5 per cent required to meet Millennium Goal 5 -– she stressed that existing accountability mechanisms in public services did not work for women.  Overcoming the accountability crisis would require more women decision makers in political, business and public service, as well as systemic change that put women’s needs at the core of public mandates.

Ms. Alberdi was accompanied by UNIFEM’s Anne-Marie Goetz, the report’s main author; Christiana Thorpe, Chairperson of Sierra Leone’s National Electoral Commission; and Shankar Singh, an activist with India’s Right to Information Movement.

Ms. Goetz said the question at the heart of the report -- “who answers to women” -- was rarely asked, despite the need for those in power to respond to the people directly affected by their actions.  It was posed in order to highlight how a lack of accountability was among the root causes of the international community’s failure to meet commitments to women.  For example, women were still outnumbered by an average of 4 to 1 in the ranks of elected decision makers, and without an increase in the current rate of change, it would take 40 years for the developing world to achieve gender parity in government.

Describing the treatment of violence against women in a manner that respected their rights and resulted in redress and prosecution as a “litmus test” of accountability, she said laws on women’s rights and crimes against women remained woefully underdeveloped in many parts of the world.  In fact, one study in the report showed that in no country did more than 30 per cent of women victims of violence report the crime to police.  Despite those obstacles, however, women around the world were creating innovative solutions to the accountability crisis.  Drawing from them, the report outlined clear policy guidelines to move from commitments on gender equality to results.

Sharing the successful results of her tenure as Chief Election Commissioner during last year’s presidential elections in Sierra Leone, Ms. Thorpe said she had approached her work as a sacred trust, upon which she had to account to her fellow citizens.  “Women in decision-making positions can succeed in turning situations around because we not only give account but also demand accountability.”

However, because the number of females in such positions was too low, women leaders should squeeze maximum results from their minimum numbers by using every opportunity to place women’s issues on every agenda.  Additionally, there was a need for access to information in order for accountability to make a difference on the ground.  Because women had been specifically targeted for voter education during Sierra Leone’s elections, the Electoral Commission had recorded a higher percentage of female voters than ever before.

Mr. Singh said that the Right to Information Movement, which had begun in the Indian state of Rajasthan before widening into a national struggle over the last decade and a half, proved that accountability and transparency were inextricably linked.  The Right to Information Act of 2005 had resulted from a public outcry, following a series of open hearings which had revealed the frequent falsification of Government records and the siphoning of large amounts of money meant for the people by corrupt officials and contractors.

He went on to say that in the last three years, the Act had been used by a broad range of citizens and individuals on a variety of issues, like seeking accountability from police precincts as they investigated allegations of rape and sexual molestation, getting telephone and electricity connections, and preventing the privatization of Delhi’s water supply.

Asked how those issues related to calls for the United Nations to create a separate agency for women, Ms. Goetz said the report showed there was a serious gap between commitments to women’s rights and results across multilateral institutions.  Within the United Nations and other multilateral institutions, there was no system-wide mechanism to track resources devoted to women’s empowerment and equality, or to determine their impact.  Given the need for “unswerving leadership” on the issue, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki‑moon’s focus on gender issues was welcome, but there remained a lack of staff, resources and authority for a voice on gender equality in the system.

To a question on the report’s evaluation of informal justice systems, she stressed that a variety of barriers to accessing formal justice systems -– which may be located in urban centres rather than rural areas, and sometimes required high levels of legal literacy or knowledge of a language other than the vernacular -– gave women little choice but to turn to informal systems.  But while they might work perfectly well, they were often unevenly regulated by national and international human rights agreements and constitutional frameworks.  To remedy that, the report recommended that informal systems be held at least to constitutional human rights standards if not international standards.

Asked about the report’s findings on women’s participation in and portrayal by the media, Ms. Alberdi stressed that, without the media and the channel it provided to spread information, research into women’s struggles would amount to nothing.

Highlighting the way in which media interest had benefited the Right to Information Movement, Mr. Singh added that the efforts of the “skirt brigade”, as women activists were dubbed in the Indian press, had been described as the country’s “second struggle for independence” by one prominent editor.

Further information is available at www.unifem.org/progress/2008/pressCentre.html.

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For information media • not an official record