A rights-based approach to 
women's empowerment and advancement
and gender equality


United Nations Inter-agency Committee on Women and Gender Equality
OECD DAC Working Party on Gender Equality

FAO Headquarters, Rome
Via delle Terme di Caracalla
5 - 7 October 1998

Introductory statement by
Angela E.V. King
UN Inter-agency Committee on Women and Gender Equality
Special Adviser on Gender Issues and
Advancement of Women


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I take great pleasure in welcoming you to the workshop on the rights-based approach to women's empowerment, advancement and gender equality. After last year's very successful workshop on gender mainstreaming, I am particularly pleased that the gender experts and focal points from the United Nations Inter-agency Committee on Women and Gender Equality and from the OECD/DAC Working Party on Gender Equality are again meeting. This time we consider a topic as challenging and as timely as the rights-based approach. I acknowledge with appreciation the participation of several human rights experts from our organizations. Their contribution will greatly assist us in grasping a concept that has clear potential but whose practical implications remain somewhat elusive for our work.

The excellent turnout for this workshop leads me to two conclusions. It indicates that participants found our meeting last year on gender mainstreaming stimulating and that we can expect an equally satisfactory exchange this time. It also means that the topic of this year's workshop is perhaps even more intellectually challenging. It is definitely worth three days of what I anticipate to be hard work.

I would like to express my deep appreciation to all those who have actively contributed to the development and realization of this workshop. My thanks go, in particular, to Ms. Sree Gururaja of UNICEF, who proposed the topic at the last session of the Inter-agency Committee on Women and Gender Equality, and to my colleagues in the DAW who have worked to implement the Committee's decision with great enthusiasm and commitment. I also thank Ms. Merete Wilhelmsen, Chairperson of the OECD DAC Working Party on Gender Equality, who welcomed the idea of a second meeting among our two groups from the very outset, and who strongly supported the choice of topic we proposed. It has been a pleasure to work closely with her at every step of the preparatory process. She and her colleagues in the OECD/DAC Secretariat ensured that members of the Working Party have turned out in force. I also gratefully acknowledge Norway's financial support to the DAW for assisting us to organize the workshop.

All of us of course wish to acknowledge our appreciation to Ms. Sissel Ekaas, the Director of FAO's Women and Population Division. Her willingness to host this workshop, and to provide FAO's facilities and staff support were critical in ensuring that this event took place. Thank you, Sissel, and through you Mr. Diouf and the staff of FAO, for the warm welcome given to us.

Before turning to the business of this workshop, may I briefly introduce the Inter-agency Committee on Women and Gender Equality. The Committee was formally established in 1996 by the Administrative Committee on Coordination, which is the highest administrative body in the United Nations system chaired by the Secretary-General. Before then, it had a twenty-year history of ad hoc meetings that started in conjunction with the first Women's Conference in Mexico City in 1975. The Committee brings together the gender focal points from some 50 offices and entities of the United Nations system, ranging from various Departments in the UN Secretariat to the funds, programmes and specialized agencies, as well as the Bretton Woods institutions. While the terms of reference, mandates and programme responsibilities of gender focal points vary greatly, they all ensure that their respective entities actively work on follow-up to Beijing and gender mainstreaming. I have the honour to chair the Committee in my capacity as Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women. The Division for the Advancement of Women is the Secretariat of the Committee.

The Committee has a two-fold mandate. It is responsible for supporting the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and of gender-related recommendations of other recent UN conferences and summits. It is also responsible for ensuring that a gender perspective is integrated into the work of the United Nations system as a whole.

Based on its two-fold mandate, the Committee promotes UN system-wide action and monitors progress in achieving the women- and gender-related goals of UN conferences in the areas of policy, operational activities, coordination, research, training, and public information. It identifies emerging issues that require the attention of the system, and prepares practical tools, such as guidelines, background notes, or checklists, to strengthen women-specific activities and increase gender mainstreaming. It compiles good practices and performance indicators to ensure accountability for progress. Through joint workshops, collaboration in the preparation of reports, and in electronic information dissemination, the Committee ensures the implementation of a cohesive system-wide approach to its mandate.


The topic we are about to examine in its conceptual and legal dimensions, but in particular in its practical implications for our work at the bilateral and multilateral level - a rights-based approach to policy-making and programming - has quickly gained currency in the aftermath of the World Conference on Human Rights, and the Fourth World Conference on Women. In his reform proposals, the Secretary-General of the United Nations has made clear that human  rights are a cross-cutting element that should be reflected in all United Nations policies and programmes. The High Commissioner for Human Rights also stresses that human rights are integral to all activities, including peace-making, peace-keeping, peace-building, humanitarian assistance and development.

Women's enjoyment of their human rights, and the achievement of gender equality are also goals that have asserted themselves as priorities in recent years. The denial of rights to women is clear from their overall unequal political, economic and social situation. Their unequal access to economic resources and opportunities, to participation in decision-making, their greater representation amongst those living in poverty, their unequal situation in the formal and informal labour market and their unequal access to land, property and credit, are all indicative of the continuing lack of rights of women. Women's treatment under social welfare systems, and their status and power in the family continue to be fraught with inequalities. Women's and girls' levels of illiteracy and nutrition, HIV/AIDS infection and maternal mortality rates are similarly indicative of the persistence of discrimination on the basis of sex which predicates unequal outcomes for them.

These and many other issues affecting women's situation remain priority targets for bilateral and multilateral cooperation. Yet in many instances, our focus is on ensuring that women have access to basic services, that programmes and projects are in place to overcome the effects of past discrimination, and to ensure that new and future policies are sensitive to gender implications.

In fact, we have made great progress in dealing with one of the overall challenges of the Beijing Platform for Action, namely to mainstream a gender perspective visibly into all our policies and programmes. Our workshop last September was critical in carrying forward, and illustrating further, the practical implications of the gender mainstreaming strategy reflected in ECOSOC agreed conclusions 1997/2. Since then, the need to mainstream a gender perspective has been emphasized in a number of intergovernmental fora, most recently in the ECOSOC session of last July. I was extremely satisfied with the prominence given to this strategy in areas such as humanitarian assistance, operational activities, and integrated and coordinated follow-up to UN conferences. These results confirm that the gender approach is not only gaining ground in the mainstream. They also confirm that its relevance for better outcomes in our policies and programmes has gained greater recognition.

When the rights-based approach was suggested as the topic for this year's workshop of our two groups, some of us felt uneasy. There was a sense that we should, perhaps, first consolidate our gains in gender mainstreaming, before embarking on yet another strategy for achieving the goal of gender equality. While we need to take such concerns seriously, I firmly believe, and I hope this workshop will prove me true, that there is no question, and never has been, of abandoning the mainstreaming strategy. To the contrary, I believe both approaches are not only compatible, but reinforce each other. Let me illustrate:

In November of last year, I led an Inter-agency Gender Mission to Afghanistan of six UN agencies and one Government/NGO. International pressure, both from Governments and non-governmental organizations, forced the UN agencies on the ground to face head-on the treatment of women by the Taliban. The Gender Mission resulted in the development of a coherent set of guidelines for field staff in Afghanistan for implementing a principle-centred approach, with indicators for measuring progress on gender issues. This in turn has led to the adoption of a gender sensitive Strategic Framework for the country. ACC is now in the process of developing generic guidelines for the UN system to serve as a strategic framework for response to, and recovery from, crisis situations. Based on the Afghanistan experience, it has been accepted that any such framework must be developed in a way that clearly incorporates gender considerations. Moreover, a Gender Adviser and a Human Rights expert are shortly to be put on the ground working closely together directly under the Resident Coordinator.

I used the Afghanistan example because I believe that it embodies the strength of a rights-based approach, that also incorporates a gender perspective. Activities to address humanitarian needs will ultimately fail if we do not also address why rights are denied and violated. Equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex are at the core of human rights. Thus, attention to human rights without a focus on non-discrimination and equality will remain incomplete.

While the situation of women in Afghanistan may represent an extreme, denial of rights to women is common in developed and developing countries alike. In some instances such denial may be subtle, in others open and blunt. The rights question is not limited to humanitarian emergencies, it is just as relevant in routine development cooperation or in refugee situations.

A rights-based approach requires the conceptualization and implementation of policies and programmes in the context of an overarching question: how do they support the realization of human rights? As ends in themselves, human rights are not subsidiary to any other goal we might pursue. To repeat, the right to non-discrimination and gender equality is critical to the rights-based approach. In fact, non-discrimination is perhaps the most fundamental principle in the realization of human rights. Thus, without full attention to gender equality in our efforts to realize human rights, we will fail in a most fundamental aspect of our common responsibility. As such, the rights-based approach does not replace the gender mainstreaming strategy. Instead, both approaches reinforce each other, and should be applied simultaneously.

We are making good progress in ensuring that human rights and its fundamental component equality are the basis and framework within which all other goals - be they poverty eradication, sustainable human development, humanitarian assistance, or environmental protection - have to find their place. We continue, however, to struggle with the operationalization of the rights-based approach in terms of its implications for our own activities in bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

Traditionally, the State was seen as the only actor responsible for enjoyment of human rights of its citizens. While there is no doubt that the State continues to have primary responsibility for implementation of human rights, there is a growing consensus that other actors are also responsible. We must recognize that all our activities have an impact on the implementation of human rights at the national level, either by positively supporting their realization, or by perpetuating their violation.

At this workshop, our focus will not be on the responsibilities of our partners in development: recipient countries. Rather, we will focus on clarifying what our responsibilities, as bi- and multilateral entities are, in ensuring the achievement of gender equality as a human right. We will tackle a series of questions so that we can put forward a common framework concerning the practical implications and benefits of a rights-based approach, from a gender perspective, to policy development and programming. I would be more than satisfied if we leave this workshop taking with us a set of elements that can be applied across the board in our own organizations - a set of elements to ensure that our work is focussed on the achievement of gender equality as an end in itself.

We have a challenging, but very rewarding task ahead of us. Henry Shue, a noted academic, once said: "A right provides the rational basis for a justified demand". Let us, in these three days, identify what we can, and must, do in our own work so that the justified demand for gender equality is translated into practice.

Thank you.