8 March 2005 The United Nations today marked International Women’s Day throughout its many agencies and across its multiple front-line outposts around the world with calls for bolder action to promote gender equality and events ranging from a cancer prevention workshop in Colombia to a hairdressing contest in Russia to a rights seminar in Uganda.
“New challenges have emerged,” Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a message, noting the tangible progress that has been made since the Beijing conference on eliminating gender discrimination was held 10 years ago.
“Consider the trafficking of women and children – an odious but increasingly common practice. Or the increasing targeting of women in armed conflict. Or the terrifying growth of HIV/AIDS among women – especially young women,” he added, stressing the crucial importance of women’s empowerment.
“No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, or to reduce infant and maternal mortality. No other policy is as sure to improve nutrition and promote health – including the prevention of HIV/AIDS. No other policy is as powerful in increasing the chances of education for the next generation. And I would venture that no policy is more important in preventing conflict, or in achieving reconciliation after a conflict has ended,” he declared.
In the trenches of conflict itself in Iraq, where the UN is seeking to help bring a peaceful transition to democracy and answer numerous educational, health and social needs, the role of women was held up as a shining example. “Despite the burden that war has placed upon them, Iraqi women remain the force that binds this nation together,” Mr. Annan’s Special Representative Ashraf Qazi said in a message in Baghdad.
“Through their continued efforts, I am confident that the women of Iraq will succeed in bringing peace and stability to their communities and thereby to the country,” he added, praising their role in recent elections, in developing hundreds of civil society organizations and in continuing to work despite threats against their lives and their families.
In camps around the world the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) organized a plethora of activities with a focus on education and leadership. In Apartadó, Colombia, where fighting between Government and militia forces has driven thousands from their homes, it was holding a workshop on cancer prevention and reproductive health. In Moscow, it organized a conference for Afghan, Iraqi and Nigerian refugee women and asylum seekers to discuss their return options and work opportunities, with a hairdressing contest as part of a training project to help them become more self-reliant.
In Uganda, UNHCR was conducting sensitization seminars on women’s rights, girls’ education and sexual and gender-based violence, while in Sierra Leone’s Kissy Town refugee settlement it was hosting a panel on empowering women for sustainable development in sectors such as education, employment, food security, health and HIV/AIDS.
In Kenya’s Kakuma camp the agency was organizing a talk for refugee women to express their views on the possibility of returning to war-torn south Sudan, and in Nepal winners of a poster competition for the elimination of violence against women were receiving T-shirts with the slogans such as “You educate a woman, you educate a community,” and “Men and women are two wheels of a chariot.”
Agency heads rallied with messages to throw their support behind the momentum for gender equality.
“Yet, while we celebrate progress, we know that it has been too slow. Thirty years after the beginning of the Decade on Women, and 10 years after Beijing, it is still a woman’s face we see when we speak of poverty, of HIV/AIDS, of violent conflict and social upheaval, of trafficking in human beings,” Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Director of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) said. “To break the cycles of poverty, violence and gender discrimination, we need to accelerate progress and expand its reach.”
The World Food Programme (WFP) stressed the need to ease the burden of women in their traditional tasks such as collecting food while the International Labour Organization (ILO) underscored its commitment to the promotion of gender quality and more and better jobs for women.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) threw the spotlight on systematic rape and sexual violence against women and girls during armed conflict while the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) noted that women are disproportionately affected by natural and weather-related disasters.
The President of the General Assembly, Jean Ping of Gabon, said the Day gave the international community as a whole an opportunity to assess the efforts done and those still to be achieved to advance the status of women worldwide. "Our nations' development requires women's active participation," he added.
The overall message was summed up by the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Thoraya Ahmed Obaid.
“Let us assert once again that each woman and girl is a unique and valuable human being who is entitled to equal opportunities and universally adopted human rights, no matter where she is born or where she lives. Now is the time to energize efforts to put gender equality at the top of the international peace and development agenda,” she declared.