No. 4 - "EMPOWERMENT OF WOMAN"
The third of four symposia on themes relating to Population and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was held 10 November at the Dag Hammarskjold Auditorium, United Nations. The event was sponsored jointly by Partners in Population and Development and the Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (OHRLLS). Featured were presentations by the Ambassadors and Permanent Representatives of Barbados, Tanzania and Venezuela, and by a senior official of an NGO, Management Sciences for Health . Mr. Anwarul Chowdhury, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative of the OHRLLS, introduced the speakers in turn and moderated the interventions, while Mr. Jyoti Shankar Singh, Permanent Observer, Partners in Population and Development, served as a discussant. Topic for the third event in the series was Empowerment of Women.
In his words of welcome, Mr. Chowdhury reminded both panellists and audience that the series of symposia was intended to explore the close connections known to exist between the broad range of population concerns and the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs. Topics of the first two events were Population and the MDGS and Family Planning, Reproductive Health and Development. Mr. Chowdhury said he was pleased with the insights presented to date by the discussants, and he acknowledged their value and importance for the 19 country members of the Partners in Population and Development as well as for all least developed countries, landlocked developing nations and small island developing states.
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H. E. Ms. June Yvonne Clarke, Ambassador of Barbados, held that the involvement of women in all sectors of social and economic activity was critical to the development aspirations of her small island state. She affirmed that improvements in women's health and in their educational opportunities were key to the promotion of other development goals, and that it was therefore "up to us as women to move the initiative forward." At the same time, she said, men needed to be sensitised to their roles and responsibilities in advancing the overall development agenda, or it might require a much longer time for countries to achieve the desired results.
Ms. Clarke referred to United Nations' international meetings of the recent past, including the Cairo and Beijing conferences, and she noted that their outcomes were inextricably linked to the Millennium Development Goals, with health and education serving as crosscutting issues. While the goals appeared to be admirable, she lamented the fact that the HIV/AIDS scourge was seriously undermining development efforts in many countries. In the circumstances, women had a duty to protect themselves, even if they perceived that they were in no position to exercise the necessary choices.
Reminding her audience that the Caribbean was next highest to Sub-Saharan Africa in the incidence of HIV/AIDS, Ms. Clarke invoked the observation of her Prime Minister that the disease was the greatest threat to national security. On the positive side, figures have shown that mother-to-child transmission of HIV infection was in fact decreasing in Barbados. The speaker attributed this small but notable achievement to continuing efforts to educate the people about reproductive health and encouraging them to access available services. It was fortunate, she said, that primary, secondary and tertiary education was freely available in her country; but more efforts were required in the area of technology so that the 'technology divide' might be broken.
In conclusion, she said that the issue of empowerment had to be approached from many angles, and that women needed to learn that they had to take such power into their own hands.
H. E. Mr. Augustine P. Mahiga, Ambassador of Tanzania, approached the topic from a policy perspective. "When we talk about issues such as population, development and women's empowerment," he said, "we lose sight of the message we want to convey to ourselves and to our people; but we are fortunate that we have the United Nations environment to help us focus on these issues." He noted the supportive framework of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and went on to list the recent international conferences, including the 1994 Cairo Conference, which articulated issues of women's empowerment and gender equity as they related to reproductive health, and the Beijing Conference with its resolutions centred about women, their empowerment, and human rights.
Linking the concerns about the role of women to the problems of population and development, Ambassador Mahiga declared that of all the UN deliberations nothing was more focused than the MDGs with their built-in attainment timelines. He remarked on how logical it was that that the concepts of women's empowerment and human rights should have been linked up with development goals.
Within the context of development, the Ambassador said it was important to look at the qualitative relationship between men and women in many developing societies, and to take note of the handicaps that exist for women deprived not only of any real say within their communities but also of their basic human rights. He referred to the need for strong government vision to implement policies promoting empowerment of women in areas where "the levers of power are still in the hands of men." Thanks to the establishment of the MDGs and the supporting environment of the UN, the plight of women would no longer be ignored, he maintained.
Mr. Mahiga spoke of the efforts undertaken in his home country to ensure that women would increasingly occupy key roles in decision-making in all areas of government and its institutions. The tide of change for Tanzania was irreversible, he said, and he added that the "litmus test" as to whether women will come to power is their level of education.
H.E. Milos Alcalay, Ambassador of Venezuela, reviewed international efforts to empower women and implement capacity-building at national, regional and international levels, particularly in the developing world. While noting that good progress had been recorded at the major international conferences during the latter part of the 20th century, the aspirations of women, in developing countries, to achieve full equality with men needed to be supported and reinforced.
"On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the International Year of Women," Mr. Alcalay said, "the Third Committee should take advantage of this unique opportunity to assess the current situation. Thanks to their struggle, women around the world have achieved major transformations over their disadvantageous conditions and realized the need for their full participation in the responsibilities, rights and duties within the national and international communities."
Echoing Ambassador Mahiga's note, Mr. Alcalay spoke about the value of having a supportive United Nations environment, marked by the Charter - a major step forward in the recognition of equality between men and women - and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reaffirmed the principle of equality. In 1976, the General Assembly recognized those achievements with the adoption of the Decade for Women, and in 1979, the international community adopted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, an additional step toward the universal recognition of the principles of equality. With the declarations of the Cairo and Beijing conferences of 1994 and 1995, respectively, as well as the ICPD + 5, frameworks were laid for the insertion of women's rights in national legal systems. The Cairo Programme of Action also promoted the participation of other relevant partners to balance men's and women's rights and strengthen their mutual responsibilities.
Venezuela, Mr. Alcalay said, had made much progress in its efforts to empower women. In respect of education, women enjoyed recognition to the same level as men. As for technical and superior education, Venezuelan women had achieved "tremendous success" in their efforts to share with men the task of building our country. "Women take part in education on an equal footing. Medicine, engineering, law, science, culture, business, and services, are all sectors where women are widely present and active."
Concluding his presentation, the Ambassador called attention to the fact that INSTRAW, the United Nations Institute for the Advancement of Women, was the only institution within the UN system whose objectives and functions were faithful to the Millennium Goals and to recommendations of the major UN conferences that had implications for the advancement of women.
Ms. Susana Galdos, Principal Officer, Community Development, for the NGO Management Sciences for Health (MSH), in Boston, brought her field-level observations and insights to bear on the topic of women's empowerment. A public health specialist, Ms. Galdos has been affiliated with MSH for the past three years, but she had worked earlier-for more than 20 years-with a women's community development NGO in her native Peru. Her experience has been sharpened by participation at the Cairo and Beijing conferences, among others.
Starting from a dedication to the empowerment of women, she observed in her field experiences that it was possible to promote acceptance and use of health services and to achieve thereby substantial improvement in illness prevention, despite low educational levels and varied social backgrounds. These results were obtained under a project (Repro Salud) developed by the Manuela Ramos NGO in Peru with support from USAID; they represent, Ms. Galdos said, a unique community experience in the health field.
ReproSalud was begun more than eight years ago with a number of basic principles in mind: commitment to gender equity and women's empowerment; commitment to participatory processes that put community members in charge; promotion of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and respect for indigenous cultures.
As part of project activities, community banks were developed, and these have already distributed $2 million in poor areas. An artisan products transformation program was also created according to international demand that was based in local raw material availability and women's skills. Women were thus assured an international commercial niche, and as a direct result, there has been marked improvement in their living standards and those of their children that go beyond health issues.
More than a million people have been directly and indirectly touched by the project, and the experience is being communicated to wider audiences and communities by means of regular radio broadcasts.
Ms. Galdos spoke of a finding in her experience that is often forgotten in development-oriented project designs: people have moral, spiritual and cultural needs that are as important as the construction of schools or medical services. "They need to sense the possibility of transcendence. After reflecting on their needs, the rural leaders could write into their community vision statements moral values that they, themselves, recognize as being basic to achieving their other objectives. "
Underlining one of her major concerns, Ms. Galdos said: "When we speak of community development or empowerment, even citizenship, we must focus on people and realize that just the construction of a bridge, better health care, roads or latrines will not resolve profound human processing of pain and grief, will not stimulate in themselves unity, reciprocity nor trust. MSH is working on that, trying to find answers and to offer a new approach for the communities' work, in which women's empowerment is a crosscutting component."
In his role as Discussant, Mr. Jyoti Shankar Singh, Permanent Observer, PPD, endorsed statements made in the presentations; they provided, he said, important international dimensions from a variety of countries. He was pleased to note the advance made by NGOs in their efforts to become involved in development activities at local levels. The situation represented a marked change from the 1970s, when NGO representatives appeared to have been marginalized at such international conferences as the 1974 Bucharest Conference on Population and Development. With the 1984 Mexico conference on population, focus had shifted to concerns about women, and more NGOs became involved. Today, the participation of NGOs is being actively encouraged by the international community in the field and at conferences.
Mr. Singh also observed that there is now a better understanding of the importance of gender issues and of the need to promote women's empowerment in pursuit of broader development goals, since "all of the development goals have a gender crosscutting dimension." But the fact remained, he added, that men still held the power in most countries and continuing efforts were needed to convince them to all allow their women folk full participation in the social, political and economic spheres.
In the Question Period that followed, UNFPA's Ms. Talat Jafri commented that over the past 20 years, the gender issue had become fully accepted in the international agenda; however, she lamented the fact that implementation of international agreements had not been sufficiently advanced. She attributed this to lack of resources needed for effective promotion, globally, of gender issues and women's development and related population issues (such as improving reproductive health services). The UN Population Fund, she said, was being proactive in relation to gender issues, with efforts to advance respect for human rights as well as culturally sensitive approaches.
An audience member questioned panellists about problems faced by women in the aftermath of wars. The reference was to the current situation in Iraq, where educational opportunities for women had declined and where female students were facing danger of rape. Another question from the floor concerned ways of overcoming inequality-seen as a source of poverty and isolation-of women in traditional society.
Responding to the question about young women in Iraq, Ms. Clarke said that if the NGOs in the country could be mobilized, they might help to focus on ways of overcoming the dangers. Failing this, the women would have no choice but to mobilize themselves. Ms. Galdos also intervened to suggest that the women, if consulted, would likely have their own solution and responses, while Mr. Alkala affirmed that in any conflict or post-conflict situation, the peace could not be built without the involvement of both men and women.
Mr. Mahiga also replied to the question, basing his response on experience gained from working with the UNHCR, during which time he had discovered the enormous potential of women in helping to deal with conflict and post-conflict situations. "They have proven themselves to be very resourceful in organizing camps and reconstruction. In Rwanda today, after five years from the time of genocidal war, women now constitute half of the current government and its institutions. They have gained their rightful role in the legislature and institution-building." Regarding the second question about poverty of women in traditional societies, Mr. Mahiga proposed the use of "chipping" mechanisms-employment of the mass media, for example-that would slowly cut away at the edges of the old attitudes.
Under-Secretary-General Mr.Chowdhury thanked panellists for their presentation and the audience for their interest and participation.
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