‘Gender Lens’ Sharpens Focus of Economic and Social Council Reforms, Shapes Global Policy, Speakers Say in Women’s Commission

12 March 2014
Fifty-eighth Session, 6th & 7th Meetings (AM & PM)

‘Gender Lens’ Sharpens Focus of Economic and Social Council Reforms, Shapes Global Policy, Speakers Say in Women’s Commission

Council President Briefs Ahead of Two Panel Discussions

The Commission on the Status of Women played a “catalytic” role in shaping global policy on gender equality, as well as in ensuring that the Economic and Social Council incorporated a gender perspective in its work, Council President Martin Sajdik told the women’s body today during day three of its fifty-eighth session.

Discussing the Council’s new role in achieving a balanced integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development, Mr. Sajdik of Austria said he was particularly keen to ensure that the Council’s reform led to greater consideration of gender, both in the United Nations sustainable development machinery and the thematic coherence of the post-2015 agenda.

“I count on our common determination to translate this vision into reality,” he said, noting that the Council’s 2014 main theme — challenges to meeting the Millennium Development Goals — and the Commission’s priority theme — challenges and achievements in the implementation of the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) for women and girls — were almost identical.  He was confident that the agreed conclusions currently being negotiated would offer an important contribution to the Council’s high-level segment in July.

He said the Council’s new integration segment, which would consolidate inputs from subsidiary bodies and others on integrating the sustainable development pillars, would allow the Commission to bring an important cross-cutting gender perspective to the topic being considered.  Further, the review of the Commission’s annual report in June would provide an opportunity for direct engagement with the Council Chair on the outcome of the current session.

The day also featured two panel discussions around the Commission’s priority theme.  In the morning, five panellists focused their presentations on sexual and reproductive health; gender equality and development; policy constraints in achieving the Goals for women and girls; women’s economic, social and cultural rights; and access to decent work and social protection.

During the discussion, delegates from developed and developing countries alike shed light on their respective national programmes and policies to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality.  Many discussed efforts to strengthen health-care systems in order to reduce maternal and infant mortality, and screen for, treat and prevent HIV/AIDS.  Others focused on the adoption of laws to ban underage marriage, as well as on the importance of gender budgeting.

In the afternoon, five panellists looked at the uneven achievement of development targets for women and girls, notably in Africa, along with human rights and accountability in accelerating progress, ending violence against women and girls, and financing for gender equality.  Progress towards achieving the Goals was not a question of financial resources, one panellist said, but rather of policies.  He commended companies such as Microsoft and Nestle for providing more than $1.5 billion to the Global Education First Initiative, as the point was to make good use of finances to ensure qualitative change.

For their part, delegates and civil society representatives outlined their efforts to promote greater political participation, asking for ideas on measures, other than quotas, to foster success.  Some described new financing mechanisms and programmes to improve gender-sensitivity training for law enforcement officials.  Combating violence against women, some speakers said, required a shift in a society’s value system.

The Commission will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 13 March, to continue its work.

Panel I

In the morning, the Commission held a panel discussion on “challenges and achievements in the implementation of the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals] for women and girls”.  Moderated by Christine Löw(Switzerland), Commission Vice Chair, it featured presentations by: Chrispine Gwalawala Sibande (Malawi), Senior Policy Advisor, Ipas Malawi; Ursula Schäfer-Preuss (Germany), Chair, Global Water Partnership; Radhika Balakrishnan (United States), Executive Director, Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Rutgers University; Virginia Gomes (Portugal), member and Rapporteur, United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and Isabel Ortiz, Director, Social Protection Department, International Labour Organization (ILO).

Opening the session, Ms. Löw stressed the need to reflect on lessons learned from the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls and to lay a solid foundation for the post-2015 development agenda in order to speed up progress.  Specifically, the panel would discuss the most notable achievements to date and remaining challenges in implementing the goals for women and girls; effective strategies for the future; global, regional and national efforts to create an environment more conducive to gender equality; and lessons learned to ensure that women’s rights and empowerment were part of the post-2015 agenda.  The panel would advance the Commission’s aim to bridge the gap between global commitments and their national implementation.  She called on participants to highlight key policy initiatives to expedite implementation.

Mr. SIBANDE focused his remarks on sexual and reproductive health rights, asserting that human rights were women’s rights.  The concept was universal.  The Millennium targets on health compelled States to address family planning, sexually transmitted diseases, the right to choose whether to have a child, and access to safe abortion.  Achieving the rest of the goals from a human rights perspective required a local human rights culture.  That meant respecting autonomy for women and girls over their own bodies, empowering women to become decision makers and eradicating gender-based violence.  “In the context of HIV and AIDS, we have to stop the issue of mandatory testing of women and girls on the basis that they are women and girls,” he said, calling for an approach that promoted the right to privacy, choice, health, non-discrimination and freedom from inhumane treatment.

“It is time to use human rights as a litmus test in achieving the MDGs,” he said, stressing that it was imperative to “entrench human rights at all levels”.  By example, in the Maputo Plan of Action, States had agreed to promote family planning, support the sexual and reproductive health needs of young women, and address unsafe abortion, among other things.  But the action plan had not been followed to the letter.  He shed light on various steps in Malawi to ensure such rights, including reviews of its laws on abortion, child marriage and human trafficking.  Political will, budgetary support, a free press, progressive laws on gender equality, safe abortions, marriage age, elections and child protection were vital to address gaps in human rights and the Millennium targets.

Ms. SCHÄFER-PREUSS focused on gender equality and development in the context of implementing the Goals for women and girls.  Despite remarkable success in eradicating extreme poverty, the Goals did not focus enough on reaching the poorest, most excluded people.  At present, women and girls accounted for 70 per cent of the poor worldwide.  The fifth Millennium target on improving maternal health provided a long-term road map for improving the living conditions of women and girls.  A stand-alone goal on gender equality must be a decisive stimulus for action.  Despite global progress in increasing girls’ school enrolment and women’s representation in parliament, as well as in reducing maternal mortality, maternal health remained a major concern, and the number of women living with HIV had increased globally since 2000 despite the decline in the rate of new infections.  Women still earned less than men for the same work, which was far from acceptable.

Implementation of the Goals had furthered the global discussion on aid effectiveness, she said.  The 2011 Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation was linked to efforts to achieve the Millennium targets.  There was a considerable “underinvestment” in gender equality, she said, noting that official development assistance (ODA) had fallen to $126 billion in 2012, after having been relatively stable in the last decade.  Appropriate levels of investment in gender statistics, sex‑disaggregated data, monitoring and accountability systems, as well as reliable benchmark funding were needed, as was gender-specific development cooperation.  She pointed to the German Government’s programmes and legislation to protect and empower women.  Germany was a long-time supporter of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and UN-Women, promoting women’s leadership and economic empowerment.

Ms. BALAKRISHNAN discussed the January 2014 report of the expert group meeting on structural and policy constraints in achieving the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls.  In creating those targets, the international community had affirmed the fundamental values of freedom, equality, tolerance, and a collective responsibility to uphold the principles of human dignity and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  But the Goals were not embedded in a human rights framework.  The report pointed to the need to ensure that the post-2015 development agenda led to a reduction of gender disparities and global structural inequalities.  The global macroeconomic and financial environment must enable the Goals’ achievement, and donors must be held to account to human rights standards. 

To achieve that, international financial and trade institutions and markets must be effectively regulated and fiscal policy should foster the best possible use of available resources, she said.  Protection measures must be available for everyone and they must be adequately funded; fiscal austerity was not an excuse to ignore human rights principles.  Sustainable development policies must be non-discriminatory.  Fiscal policy must employ gender-responsive budgeting, which must become the norm.  Moreover, there must be a real focus in the post-2015 agenda on women’s paid employment and decent work as well as recognition of women’s unpaid care work, she said, stressing that when fiscal austerity programmes decreased health-care coverage, women’s unpaid work increased.

Ms. GOMES discussed realization of women’s economic, social and cultural rights, noting several gaps in the Millennium Development Goal framework in reflecting gender equality and women’s rights, including the fact that the development goals were not “engendered”.  Doing so would help to mainstream the gender dimension, and that, in turn, would lead to equal rights and opportunities for women.  The Millennium Development Goal framework also did not recognize the role of discrimination and inequality in constraining adequate living standards.  That, in turn, had undermined equitable progress towards meeting the Goals and resulted in leaving behind groups such as rural communities, the poorest households and ethnic minorities.  In addition, there was no consistent approach to equal participation, including the right to information and freedom of expression, assembly and association.

She said that the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had great potential to help craft goals and targets that reflected gender equality and women’s rights in the post-2015 framework.  Among the core obligations for implementation was the adoption of a national strategy or plan of action and monitoring through the use of human rights indicators.  The allocation of maximum available resources for international cooperation and assistance, as outlined in the Covenant, was also critical.  Looking ahead, she said that the formulation of the new development goals provided a window of opportunity to ensure the post-2015 framework was in compliance with human rights standards and principles of non-discrimination and equality. 

Ms. ORTIZ discussed women’s access to decent work and social protection over the life cycle.  She said that women had been highly impacted by the global financial crisis due to high unemployment rates, wage cuts, decreased demand for migrant workers and lower remittances.  The lack of access to credit, home foreclosures and loss of savings due to bank failures were other negative impacts that had hit women disproportionately hard during the crisis.  Many countries had also contracted their public expenditures in 2014 in areas that were critical to women, including removing subsidies for food and fuel and reducing the salaries of public sector workers, such as teachers and health-sector workers.

Women were also overrepresented in informal and vulnerable employment areas, with limited or no access to formal social security arrangements, she went on to say, noting that they performed the bulk of unpaid care work, which also prevented them from joining the labour force.  On average, women lived longer and therefore spent more time in old age than men.  There were some positive indicators, however, including the fact that in recent years the gender pay gap had shrunk in at least 50 countries.  Overall, the financial crisis presented an opportunity to rethink socioeconomic policies for women.

During the ensuing question-and-answer period, delegates from developed and developing countries alike shed light on their respective national programmes and policies to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality.  Speakers pointed to, among other efforts, health-care enhancements to reduce maternal and infant mortality; HIV/AIDS screening, treatment and prevention campaigns; creation of social protection floors and safety nets; enactment of laws to ban and criminalize underage marriage; introduction of gender budgeting; and increased school enrolment of girls.

The representative of Canada asked the panellists to point out the best mainstreaming practices to address inequality faced by marginalized groups of women, particularly, indigenous women, given the current financial constraints of many Governments.  Similarly, the representative of South Africa asked how to ensure support for the poorest of poor women.

In response, Mr. SIBANDE said it was important to focus budget support and tracking on gender concerns.  The problem, he said, was that no one looked at how much money Governments spent on specific areas, particularly health.  Also, it was essential to pass progressive laws to address abortion, he said, supporting South Africa’s move to enact a termination of pregnancy bill.  Ms. SCHÄFER-PREUSS echoed the sentiment about funding, and added that ILO conventions must be translated into policies and programmes at the domestic level to ensure protection and rights for poor, indigenous people.  The lack of sex-disaggregated data was another problem.

To the representative of Finland’s query about whether gender budgeting could become a real standard and how it could be implemented and monitored, Ms. BALAKRISHNAN said it was important to look at how budgets were created, as well as at taxation and fiscal policies.  Gender budgeting would address some issues, she said, noting that it already existed in Bangladesh, India and Rwanda.  Economic policy was in itself a political act, which must ensure inclusion of the poor.

To the Nigerian representative’s question on how human rights and the Millennium targets for women and girls could be implemented in crisis situations and how social protection could be used to advocate for them in such situations, Ms. GOMES said chronic poverty was not just about money, but it was also about entrenched discrimination.  Social protection had not been put to full use in crisis situations.  Creation of social protection floors was important and must be strengthened.  The poor were most often the victims of fiscal austerity programmes.  Ms. ORTIZ pointed to significant growth in social protection in recent years, hailing the efforts of such countries as Ecuador and China.

She went on to say that the Millennium Development Goals had been positive in focusing attention on social development.  Also vital was a different set of macroeconomic policies that linked employment and social protection. 

To the Swiss representative’s request for concrete examples of the benefits of a systematic approach to the Goals as they related to women, Ms. SCHÄFER-PREUSS said specific points of intervention and how to better support women and girls should be identified.  There was no one-size-fits-all approach.

To a request from the Czech Republic representative for examples of effective implementation of gender mainstreaming, Ms. SCHÄFER-PREUSS pointed to the European Union’s plan of action on gender equality and development as essential in strengthening the third and fifth Millennium target.    

Also participating in the discussion were representatives of China, Philippines, Indonesia, Iran, Panama, Maldives, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Jamaica, Gambia, Egypt and Ecuador.  A representative of the European Union Delegation also spoke.

Representatives of the International Rescue Committee and the International Trade Union Confederation also weighed in.

Panel II

In the afternoon, the Commission held a panel discussion on “Accountability and participation of women and girls in the implementation of the MDGs”.  Moderated by Neli Shiolashvili (Georgia), Commission Vice-Chair, it featured presentations by: Lourdes Bandeira (Brazil), Vice-Minister of the Secretariat of Women Policies; Urmas Paet  (Estonia), Minister of Foreign Affairs; Carolyn Sobritchea (Philippines), Lecturer, University of the Philippines; Salina Sanou (Kenya), Head of Policy and Advocacy, Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development; and Maarit Kohonen Sheriff, Deputy Director of the New York Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Ms. BANDEIRA shed light on Brazil’s policies to end the scourge of violence against women.  Those included, in 1985, the creation of precincts for victims.  By 2012, the country had almost 1,000 units of specialized care.  In 2006, it passed the Maria da Penha Law, which criminalized all forms of violence, and set up the round-the-clock “Call 180” national hotline to field complaints and allegations, as well as to assist the victims.  Women in Portugal, Spain and Italy could also call in, and this year, coverage would be extended to 10 more countries.  Mindful of the magnitude of the problem in Brazil, the Government, in 2007, had launched a national pact to end violence against women.  Last year, then President Dilma Rousseff had set up the “Women Living without Violence” programme aimed at expanding the network of specialized services for female victims. 

She explained that the programme would involve the creation of 26 shelters; seven specialized care centres in border areas, with access for migrant women; 54 groups to pay visits to and counsel women living in remote areas; networks in public hospitals to offer services to victims; violence prevention campaigns; and expansion of the “Call 180” hotline.  Additionally, buses and small ships and boats would be used to reach women in the Amazon River area and eastern part of the country to ensure effective enforcement of the Maria da Pena Law.  In the next two years, Brazil would invest about $127 million to implement the programme.  The legal penal definition of femicide was under discussion, and the issue had gained momentum following the publication last year of the report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Violence Research, which highlighted the gravity of the number of female deaths due to sexism. 

Turning to financing for gender equality, Mr. PAET said progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals often was not a question of financial resources, but of policies.  The effectiveness of the international community’s support and of ODA, half of which was supplied by the European Union, was much greater in countries where public institutions were capable, transparent and accountable.  Gender equality markers should be used in policymaking, project proposals and their financing processes.  Additionally, the gender perspective should be mainstreamed into every policymaking and funding decision to enable society to view all fields through a “gender lens”.  In addition to Government expenditures, private sector spending was vital, and he hailed the more than $1.5 billion in contributions from Microsoft, Nestle, MasterCard and other firms to the Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative.  The point was to make good use of finances to ensure qualitative change, he added.

Regardless of the amount of money invested in societies, development could only take place if it was supported by education, he said.  That, along with professional training, helped to end forced child marriages and cheap child labour, and was crucial for ending poverty.  Studies showed that for every year of primary education, a girl’s earnings increased by 5 to 15 per cent; one year of secondary schooling boost future earning potential by 15 to 25 per cent.  In 2012, the World Bank had found that eliminating discrimination against women in the workplace could increase productivity by up to 40 per cent.  Microsoft rightly had pointed out last year that while everyone was watching the economic potential of the so-called “BRIC” (Brazil, Russian Federation, India, China) economies, the most emerging market could be women and their capacity to generate economic value and social growth.  Supporting education, particularly for girls and women, was an important part of Estonia’s bilateral development aid, he said, pointing to Estonian-funded general education and vocational training projects in Georgia, Republic of Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Yemen and Afghanistan.  

Ms. SOBRITCHEA focused her presentation on the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals and the participation of women and girls.  She said that the achievement of development targets for women and girls had been slow and uneven, with relatively good progress in some areas, such as primary education, but stark gaps in many others.  A key aspect of achieving the Goals by 2015 and beyond was the application of human rights-based principles and approaches.  Actions to clearly delineate the responsibilities and accountability of various stakeholders would facilitate progress in achieving substantive equality between men and women.  Taking a human rights-based approach allowed targets and outcomes to be framed in accordance with international laws and defined obligations for States and other stakeholders. 

Assessing the success of the Goals required an evaluation of the prevalence of female representation in decision-making bodies across different branches of government, as well as from the global, regional, national and village levels.  Global data showed that the number of women in leadership positions worldwide fell far short of the desired targets.  Further, funding for women’s organizations had declined in recent years, threatening their sustainability and capacity to fulfil their mandates and commitments.  Achieving the Goals for women and girls greatly depended on the extent to which discriminatory practices were eliminated through legal reforms and the promotion of “gender justice”.  Many more States needed to undertake a thorough review and amendment of their discriminatory laws in line with internationally agreed human rights principles and norms. 

Ms. SANOU focused her remarks on achieving the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls in Africa.  She noted that the Goals did not address crucial issues related to gender equality, including the fact that a disproportionate share of unpaid care work was carried out by women and girls, the lack of women’s participation in decision-making and the need for sexual and reproductive health and rights.  The Goals also omitted several crucial dimensions of development, such as climate change and economic growth.  To accelerate their achievement, African women’s groups needed to push Member States to provide access to free quality primary education, accelerate implementation of commitments to women’s reproductive health, strengthen and consolidate women’s participation in the media and redress employment gaps to ensure equitable income distribution. 

The post-2015 framework, she went on, should reflect a shift beyond the focus on women’s vulnerability to building on their contributions to African economic and social transformation.  There was a risk that the new development framework would remain in high-level “political spaces”, thereby sidelining the interests of those most at-risk.  That prospect emphasized the importance of awareness-raising at the grassroots level.  Accountability was also a crucial element of efforts to promote gender equality.  Attention to direct participation, transparency and the development of complaint and response mechanisms would foster greater accountability on women’s issues across the full spectrum of decision-making. 

Central to Ms. SHERIFF’s presentation was human rights and accountability in accelerating progress towards achieving the Goals for women and girls.  For them, the Goals had been a “mixed blessing”.  A dedicated goal on gender equality had been important for focusing attention on continued discrimination against women and girls, but the narrowly defined targets had undermined a more holistic understanding of gender inequality and sexism.  The post-2015 framework must address deficiencies and reflect strong commitments to women’s right to health, education, housing, property, food, water, sanitation and employment. 

The new blueprint, she continued, should also include goals related to personal security, access to justice and public participation and be underpinned by the human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination.  Additionally, efforts to promote sustainable development and environmental protection must place special emphasis on gender dimensions.  The maximum available resources should be dedicated to the realization of human rights, while national and international policies should be aligned with human rights norms.  A strong accountability mechanism focused on Governments should also take a leading role. 

Central to the question-and-answer period that followed was a review of national programmes and policies to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality.  In particular, speakers focused on their country’s efforts to increase political participation and accountability, new financing mechanisms, decreased maternal mortality rates, gender-sensitive training for law enforcement and literacy programmes.

South Africa’s representative asked the panellists to elaborate on how States had successfully enacted legislation that promoted women’s political participation.  Ms. BANDEIRA said that her country’s first female President had made it a priority to ensure that women were included in her government.  Ms. SOBRITCHEA said that in the Philippines, grassroots efforts had lobbied successfully to bring more women to political leadership positions.  However, some of the more recent legislative efforts to promote women’s equality had taken 15 to 20 years to be passed.

Responding to the Swiss representative’s question on innovative practices for increasing participation beyond quotas, Ms. SOBRITCHEA said there were mixed findings about the success of quotas, but in the absence of other mechanisms, they were better than the status quo.  Awareness raising, capacity-building and training for political leaders could also be effective in some cases, she added.

The representative of Angola asked for best practices on how States had successfully tackled the issue of violence against women.  In response, Mr. PAET said that the problem of family violence knew no borders, yet people were generally hesitant to speak openly about it.  Advancing efforts to combat violence against women required a more open dialogue and shift in society’s value system.  Ms. BANDEIRA added that stronger and more streamlined anti-violence networks needed to be established.

In response to a query from the Czech Republic’s speaker on how to integrate the issue of violence against women into the post-2015 agenda, Ms. SHERIFF said that a transformative goal on women’s empowerment should be included in the new framework, with consideration given to indicators that captured issues specific to women and girls, such as sexual violence, reproductive health and forced marriages.  Ms. BANDEIRA noted that her country had a national plan that incorporated gender-specific measures, within which, anti-violence activities were allocated the greatest resources.  Also as a part of that initiative, specialized centres had been established to directly support women victims of violence.

Additional participants in the discussion were representatives of China, Germany, Tunisia, Samoa, Niger, Uganda, Cuba, Turkey, El Salvador, Iran, Timor‑Leste, Burkina Faso, Dominican Republic, Finland, Nigeria and Somalia.  A representative of the European Union delegation also spoke.

From civil society, remarks were made by representatives of the National Alliance of Women’s Organizations, Alliance for Arab Women, United Cities and Local Governments and Human Rights Advocates.

For information media. Not an official record.