Deputy Secretary-General, in Women’s Commission, Hails Possible New Gender Entity at United Nations as ‘Historic Opportunity’ to Give Women Stronger Voice Globally

9 March 2010
Economic and Social CouncilWOM/1787
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Commission on the Status of Women

Fifty-fourth Session

15th Meeting (PM)

Deputy Secretary-General, in Women’s Commission, Hails Possible New Gender Entity

at United Nations as ‘Historic Opportunity’ to Give Women Stronger Voice Globally

Women and Girls Conspicuously Absent from Peace, Reconstruction Processes,

But They Can Change Face of Conflict, Rebuild Their Communities, Commission Told

Addressing the Commission on the Status of Women’s fifty-fourth session this afternoon, Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said the General Assembly’s proposal to create a United Nations body for gender issues was an historic opportunity to give women a stronger voice in global governance and policymaking.

“This is an end in itself, as well as a means of accelerating growth and development,” Ms. Migiro said during an expert panel discussion on implementing the internationally agreed goals and commitments in regard to gender equality and empowerment of women, intended as a contribution to the Economic and Social Council’s annual ministerial review.

“When women and girls have the same freedoms and rights as men and boys, we will have more stable economies and stronger, more peaceful societies,” she said.

Ms. Migiro said formation of the single composite body would strengthen accountability in the United Nations system for gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment ‑‑ both essential parts of the Organization’s development agenda.

Equal development for all, she stressed, meant more determined efforts to reach long-standing international commitments, including the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome of the Assembly’s twenty-third special session.

Already, progress had been made in areas from women’s and girls’ education to women’s participation in the labour market and in decision-making positions, she said.  But challenges remained.  Women and girls still faced discrimination.  They accounted for two thirds of the world’s illiterate population and were socially, economically and politically disadvantaged.  Sustainable development could not be achieved without significantly eliminating violence against women and realizing women’s rights.

She said that the good practices of many countries should be replicated and scaled up.  She pointed to useful initiatives such as expanding social safety nets to lift women out of poverty and reduce their vulnerability to it, and conditional cash transfer programmes that gave incentives to send girls to school.

“We must use the lessons from these programmes to design and implement the next generation of policies that combine even greater incentives for education with smarter strategies to eliminate gender stereotypes,” she urged.  “We must also address the injustice that women still lack equal access to decision-making in society.”

Women held more than 30 per cent of all seats in national parliaments in just 25 countries, she noted, adding that, while quotas for women had been useful, countries must be innovative in applying strategies and targets for women’s participation in all areas of decision-making in the public and private sectors.  Moreover, women must have a much greater role in resolving armed conflicts, in peacebuilding, and in the post-conflict development of Governments, institutions and civil society.

Economic and Social Council President Hamidon Ali (Malaysia) said the Commission’s work would be essential to the outcomes of the Council’s 2010 ministerial review, including the ministerial declaration it aimed to adopt on the most pressing issues concerning promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment.  “We should be committed to focus on concrete and practical steps that will make a measurable impact on women’s lives,” he said.

The effects of global financial crisis were exacerbated by structural vulnerabilities, like gender inequality, and efforts to eliminate them would lead to robust socio-economic development, he said.  This year’s review topic on implementing the internationally agreed goals on gender equality and women’s empowerment was an opportunity to reinforce the cross-cutting nature of women’s and girl’s issues and the development agenda.  Regional meetings, such as the one in Senegal in January on women and health, was aimed at preparing for the review.  The Economic and Social Council also sought to give other stakeholders a chance to contribute, including through the recent special event on engaging philanthropy to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Speaking next, Gita Sen, professor at the Centre of Public Policy at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, and Adjunct Professor of Global Health and Population at Harvard University, discussed the “leaky glass”, saying that somewhere between intention and action, there was a slippage.  Between 2004 and 2009, Social Watch’s Gender Equity Index ‑‑ a measure of the gaps in education, economic activity and empowerment ‑‑ found that the education gap had significantly worsened in 24 countries from the previous period.  The empowerment gap had significantly narrowed in almost 129 countries, but 70 countries fared significantly worse in economics.

For those who believed that men had borne the main impacts of the financial crisis, “that doesn’t really seem to be holding out” in terms of aggregate indicators, she said.  Gains in education and empowerment were not enough to close the economic gap.  Women were stuck in positions that made them more vulnerable in a weak economy.  She pointed to the four “traps” introduced by economist Paul Collier, saying that globalization might be hurting some countries.  For example, barriers in trade negatively impacted women.  Revenue booms from oil and minerals did not help ‑‑ they created volatility of staple commodities like food.  Women ate last, and they ate the least.  Post-conflict countries often reverted to war.  Moreover, it was important to determine whether aid was being used effectively.

She said conditional cash transfers were becoming the intervention of choice in removing “gender poverty”.  The most positive experiences in changing household incentives to address gender were in countries like Brazil, where transfers were part of larger efforts to tackle poverty.  In nations seen as “standard bearers” ‑‑ like Nordic countries ‑‑ efforts were imbedded in larger market regulation and social policies that promoted gender equality.  To make progress in the next five years, four areas needed attention.  Without money, “we will go nowhere”.  Good wishes did not fill empty stomachs.  There was also a need for competent leadership, particularly on gender equality, and internal incentives to move the agenda forward, thus creating greater accountability.

Leymah Roberta Gbowee, Executive Director of the Women, Peace and Security Network in Africa, said women and girls made up the majority of victims in the civil conflicts that emerged in the post-cold-war era.  Women were the biggest actors for peace; the humiliation and pain experienced during conflict had not deterred women’s peacebuilding initiatives and efforts.  While they remained conspicuously absent from formal peace and reconstruction processes, they continued to prove that, given the chance, they could change the face of conflict and rebuild their communities.  Their perspectives and experiences were critical to stability, the strengthening of judicial systems and national recovery.

Women were active in all three stages of peacebuilding, she said.  In the pre-conflict stage, they were the first to know that a conflict was eminent; during the conflict period, they were the ones who kept communities together through efforts aimed at rebuilding; and their role in peacebuilding processes stood out as vital to the recovery of their communities.

Women’s peace initiatives could be supported and strengthened by empowering local women and women’s groups through training and information dissemination in areas where conflicts were brewing, she said.  Their initiatives could also be strengthened through increased funding and by increasing women’s representation in local, national and international conflict-resolution bodies, and in national, regional and international meetings on peace and security.  Such strategies were necessary to achieve the gender equality agenda and structures within post-conflict society.

Agnes Quisumbing, Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, said given the links between gender issues and the Millennium Development Goals, it was difficult to see how it would be possible to meet the Goals without reducing gender inequalities in health and development.  For that reason, the poverty reduction agenda would benefit greatly from paying attention to gender issues.  One study estimated that by 2005, countries that were off track to meet the gender equality target in primary and secondary education were likely to suffer 0.1 to 0.3 percentage points lower per capita growth rates as a result.

Patterns of gender inequality would vary across and within regions and countries, she continued, because gender relations and constraints to achieving gender equality were specific to culture and context.  Priority areas for targeted policy intervention to reduce gender inequality would vary across countries, depending on legal and institutional mechanisms, such as whether women and men were equally entitled to hold property in their own name, whether the country was predominantly rural or agricultural and whether men or women were more heavily involved in agriculture, or whether the non-agricultural and urban sectors were growing.  It would also depend on existing gender differences in human and physical capital, and differences in women’s status.

A recent review of interventions that addressed women’s specific needs as farmers and workers had identified several promising approaches that could be adapted more generally to poverty-reduction programmes, she said.  Those approaches included strengthening women’s property rights and investing in schooling; adapting programme design or service delivery to client needs; taking gender roles into account when designing and implementing interventions; evaluating anti-poverty programmes to increase effectiveness and paying attention to gender-differentiated impacts; taking account of women’s diverse needs; and remaining sensitive to culture and context.

Responding to questions, Ms. SEN focused first on how to bring the Millennium Development Goals in line with the Goal for gender equality.  She said that belt-tightening had been the dominant approach to dealing with the financial crisis.  Moral hazard had returned and it was the classic worst way of dealing with the situation.  Fiscal belt-tightening was having devastating impacts on women in poverty.  Financial bodies had to understand that they could not return to the harsh structural adjustment policies of the 1960s.  There were plenty of economists calling for other ways of advancing economic policies.  Support for commodity market regulation ‑‑ especially for food and energy ‑‑ was crucial.  Finally, she suggested conducting a gender audit of all the Goals, in the context of the 10-year review.  International agreements should be made “justiceable”, as that would help them hold in a national context.

Ms. QUISUMBING said efforts had not focused on closing the gender asset gap.  She supported gender-responsive budgeting and continued legislative reform to give women equal property rights.

Ms. GBOWEE, on peacebuilding and women, said the first step was to engage women as mediators, noting that various conferences had been held with only male mediators.  It was also important to increase training and cross-cultural learning experiences.  Special incentives for troop-contributing countries should help increase the number of women in their contingents.  Moreover, many countries had rushed to ratify international instruments with “no real heart” to implement them.  On other matters, she said decentralization was key, especially in post-conflict situations, as it promoted accountability.  Donors should push countries emerging from conflict to move power from the capital to other local areas, with a view to increasing capacity in those areas.

Responding, Ms. GBOWEE said it was becoming more challenging to address issues like female genital mutilation that were used as political tools.  To a question about Security Council resolution 1325 (2000), she said that text could be used to challenge entrenched political structures.  However, there was no way the resolution could be effective without partnership between Government and civil society.  Resolution 1325 was like a “toothless dog” and civil society outreach to the United Nations was needed.

As for affirmative action in conflict resolution, she said she had seen serious resistance to women sitting at the table ‑‑ in Liberia and Sierra Leone, for example.  Rather than using quotas, she suggested making the case that women were strong stakeholders.  Peacebuilding began at the table and women must be brought into the process from the start.

Ms. QUISUMBING said passing laws was not enough ‑‑ they had to be implemented, which required community support.  Interventions to reduce domestic violence, for example, were not working because there was no community support for abused women.  Legal knowledge was also important.  “Little by little, the egg will walk,” she said.  She urged patience.

Ms. SEN, on the question of quotas, said that without them, it was often difficult to have any representation or create any space for women to enter processes.  In India, the difficulty lay in getting the quota.  The one-third quota in local village councils had been extremely important in changing the nature of participation.  The irony was that those passing the quotas were men and, while they were happy to pass them for village councils, it had been difficult to get them in Parliament.  For the first time, the upper house of Parliament had passed the bill; the lower house was more powerful and what happened there remained to be seen.

On cash transfers versus microfinance, she said it was not surprising that transfers were more popular in middle-income countries, because they were more expensive.  The self-help approach tended to be less expensive and depended more on women’s mobilization.  It was also not surprising to see that approach used most in low-income and least developed countries.

On the issue of accountability, she focused first on moving from laws, to policies, to programmes.  Accountability at that level was missing ‑‑ parliaments often passed laws without regard for how they would be implemented.  Second, it was important to make policies themselves accountable, for which a focus on outcomes was crucial.  It was important also to have third-party evaluations for policies and programmes ‑‑ evaluators could not evaluate themselves.  Governments were still too weak in the way they created and appointed women’s machineries.

Speaking in the interactive discussion were representatives of Pakistan, Spain (on behalf of the European Union), Niger, Jordan, Thailand, Mali, Switzerland, Nepal, Israel, Brazil, Eritrea, Gabon, Italy, Rwanda, Senegal, Congo and Malaysia.

A representative of United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) also spoke, as did a representative of Ecumenical Women.

The Commission will meet again at 3 p.m. Wednesday, 10 March, to conclude its high-level debate.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.