Help women prosper and society as a whole will benefit, UN Assembly president says

General Assembly President Sheika Haya

7 March 2007 – Increasing women’s ability to procure financial services is not just a boon to economic development, but is beneficial to society as a whole, the President of the United Nations General Assembly today told participants at a panel discussion on women’s economic empowerment in New York.

“Improving women’s access to microfinance and financial services is one important element of economic empowerment,” General Assembly President Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa of Bahrain said on the eve of International Women’s Day. “It is also a basic human right, and one that can be achieved quickly, so that women are in a better position to empower themselves.”

“When women have opportunities to increase their incomes and reduce dependency on men, the benefits for family welfare and local development are striking,” she added.

Sheikha Haya, a legal expert whose long career included championing women’s rights, made her remarks at the opening of an interactive panel discussion on “the economic empowerment of women, including microfinance,” which is part of a special Assembly informal debate she convened on gender equality and women’s empowerment a legal expert whose long career included championing women’s rights.

In a related development, three top UN officials jointly briefed the press urging more concerted efforts to bring an end to violence against women and children, which is the theme of the 51st session of the Commission of the Status of Women currently in session as well as of this year’s International Women’s Day.

“Violence against women is both a cause and consequence of discrimination against women,” said Rachel Mayanja, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women. “The scope and extent violence against women and girls are a direct reflection of the discrimination they face in society.”

Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Director of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), said that violence against women in peacetime is exacerbated during conflicts. “Rape is being used as a weapon of war on a larger scale,” she noted. “Women’s and girls’ bodies have become the battleground.”

UNIFEM administers a Trust Fund which has brought together 16 UN agencies, eight international and regional organizations and many women’s groups. To date it has distributed nearly $13 million to 226 innovative programmes to address violence against women in more than 100 countries.

The Deputy Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Rima Salah, who has seen first-hand the effects of sexual violence in times of conflict in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Sudan, said it is a “weapon of war with a strategic intent to humiliate communities, to demobilize individuals, to really disintegrate the fabric of society.”

The three officials stressed that much more needs to be done by all concerned, including by the UN, to curb violence against women and girls which persists in the face of numerous international legal agreements as well as national laws.

“Currently 89 States have legislative provisions on domestic violence, 104 countries have made marital rape a crime, 90 countries have provisions against sexual harassment, and 93 States prohibit trafficking in human beings,” Ms. Heyzer said. “Implementation of these laws, however, is often insufficient.”

“Enough is enough,” declared Ms. Salah, calling for an end to impunity for those who commit acts of violence against women and girls.

The United Nations, its agencies and regional offices as well as peacekeeping missions worldwide will commemorate International Women’s Day tomorrow.

Numerous events have already taken place in honour of the special day, including a discussion today on eliminating violence against women in Afghanistan, in which female Afghan Parliamentarians and non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives met under the auspices of UNIFEM to discuss issues such as self-immolation, abuse of elders and forced marriage of children.

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