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Fifty-ninth Session,
15th & 16th Meetings (AM & PM)

Inequalities Remain ‘Achilles’ Heel’ for Driving Forward Current Development Framework, Experts Warn Women’s Commission as General Debate Concludes

All people — no matter who they are — must benefit from development and be given opportunities to contribute to its design, implementation and monitoring, the Commission on the Status of Women heard today, concluding its general debate and addressing the impact of discrimination on marginalized women and girls.

During an interactive discussion, a panel of activists and professionals shared the stories about various disadvantaged groups and discussed ways in which Governments and civil society could remedy the inequalities they faced.  Indeed, inequalities and unequal progress in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals among different populations remained the “Achilles’ heel” of the current development framework, said moderator Alda Facio, a member of the Working Group on Discrimination against Women in Law and in Practice.  The post-2015 sustainable development agenda must be different, she said, and it must consider society’s most marginalized people.

Voicing the concerns of Romani women and girls, Anasztázia Nagy, programme officer of the Roma Education Fund in Hungary, said that while “fair frameworks” in some areas were now in place to help to improve the social inclusion of the Roma, the largest ethnic minority in Europe, Romani girls still faced barriers to education, among them early marriage, the need to care for younger siblings, fear of violence and physical distance from city centres.  Governments and educational institutions must focus on gender, as well as excluded minorities, she said, while social services should help to empower Romani mothers to find ways to educate their girls.

Similarly, women with HIV around the world continued to face persistent challenges in accessing health services and education, as well as serious violations of their sexual, reproductive and human rights, said Teresia Njoki Otieno of the International Community of Women Living with HIV.  They were often victims of systemic and intimate partner violence and of forced or coerced sterilization and abortion.  Noting the “double stigma” faced by some groups, including HIV-affected lesbians and gays, sex workers, drug users and indigenous women, she called on Governments to ensure that those who were living with HIV were consulted in the implementation of programmes at the United Nations and at the country level.

Indigenous women with disabilities was an area where “heels had most been dragged”, said Petrona Laura Reyes Quino, a member of Mayan Organization of Women Living with Disabilities in Guatemala, which had the highest percentage of indigenous peoples in Latin America.  Women with disabilities were often excluded simply because they were not able to be physically present, she said, noting that many public spaces and public transport systems were completely inaccessible to people with disabilities.  “We have to stand up and believe in ourselves, and stop believing that discrimination is simply a normal part of life,” she said.

Offering a story of hope, Kim Eun Mee, adviser to the Korea International Cooperation Agency, recalled the experience of rural women in the Saemaul Undong, a Government-established rural development programme in the early 1970s.  Although the programme’s focus was not women’s empowerment, its top-down and bottom-up components provided significant opportunities for rural women to earn income outside their homes, participate in leadership training and lead their communities in family planning campaigns.  With extra income, they and their children were also able to further their education, proving that changes could come and lives could improve, she said.

In the ensuing discussion, a number of speakers emphasized that the nexus of multiple forms of marginalization was a main concern.  Being poor, female, indigenous, elderly, migrant or living with a disability was a challenge in its own right, but when combined, individuals often suffered from the worst kinds of discrimination, some delegates said.

Deeply troubled by the higher levels of violence suffered by women experiencing intersecting forms of marginalization, the representative of the United States said that in her country, indigenous women continued to experience high levels of violence, while people with disabilities were four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than those without disabilities.  All countries must find ways to help those who had been affected by violence, she stressed.

Describing a major teenage pregnancy crisis in her country, the representative of Mexico said that about 80 per cent of those cases involved a father that was much older than the teenage mother, with sexual violence often at the heart of that dynamic.  In order to protect young, marginalized teenagers, the country had established a comprehensive programme of support for teen mothers, which emphasized full support for their rights, including the right to education and sexual and reproductive health resources.

Many representatives shared other national experiences in recognizing and supporting the rights of marginalized women and girls.  Several speakers also pointed to health care as an important means of support for marginalized women, noting that paid insurance coverage was provided to people living with disabilities or that free direct health care was readily available.

The representative of Niger said her country’s Constitution enshrined the rights of women, girls and persons with disabilities.  Niger had a national committee and a support fund, as well as a 5 per cent quota in national offices for persons with disabilities, she said.

Similarly, the representative of Iran said her country had taken extensive measures for the promotion of women’s and girls’ rights, including those from marginalized groups.  Economic empowerment projects, including technical and vocational training, were critical components of the Government’s initiatives to provide income-generating activities for marginalized women, she said.

“All women have equal human rights,” said Finland’s representative, adding that human rights belonged just as much to marginalized women as to others.  In her country, actions had been taken to support Sami and Romani women, including by providing them with the right to make choices regarding their sexual and reproductive health.

Responding to those and other remarks, Ms. Kim underscored the broad diversity of the issues faced by minorities and marginalized women, while Ms. Nagy called for the implementation of cross-cutting policies to address those concerns simultaneously.  Ms. Otieno said she was pleased to hear that many African countries had policies in place to support marginalized women, especially those living with HIV/AIDS.  Now it was important to scale up such efforts, she said.

In closing, Ms. Quino said it was clear that women had made progress, but that “we need to keep forging forward”.  The Commission had heard about many laws, policies and programmes; however, across the world, women continued to be invisible.  Education, she said, was the only weapon that could change lifestyles and increase opportunities.

Also taking part in the interactive dialogue were representatives of Uganda, Guyana, Italy, Indonesia, Gabon, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Mauritius, Paraguay, Morocco, Mauritania, Philippines, Burkina Faso, Japan, Solomon Islands, China, Sudan and Mali, as well as the Delegation of the European Union.  Representatives of non-governmental organizations the Australian Lesbian Medical Association, International Presentation Association, and the Association Internationale des Droits de l’Homme also participated.

Speaking during the conclusion of the Commission’s general debate were representatives of non-governmental organizations National Alliance of Women’s Organisations (NAWO), Soroptimist International, Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD), Women’s Missionary Society of African Methodist Episcopal Church Ecumenical Women, Working Group on Girls, Chirapaq Centro de Culturas Indigenas del Peru, International Association of Democratic Lawyers and the Member Organizations of the Vienna NGO Committee on the Status of Women, Presbyterian Church (USA), Rutgers Foundation, YWCY/World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts and the Coalition against Trafficking in Women.

The Commission will reconvene at 10 a.m. Thursday, 19 March.


The representative of the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations (NAWO) said it was important to focus on mechanisms that would realize and implement the new development agenda.  For its part, NAWO had brought together women across the United Kingdom to discuss pertinent issues.  However, the women’s sector had become fragmented when budgets were cut, she said.  Despite that, women had been creative, building the UK NGO CSW Alliance, a new mechanism that produced policy papers, met with Governments and influenced negotiations at the Commission on the Status of Women.  More broadly, she said there was a lack of understanding of gender mainstreaming, which was not a “tick box” issue.  Instead, a “twin track” approach was required so that specialized services and temporary special measures were resourced with legal force.  The authors of the Beijing Declaration knew, as did feminists, that the process mattered.  Disabled individuals used the slogan “nothing for us without us”, which worked for women as well.  Women had another saying, that was “never, never, ever give up”, she said, adding that “we will not give up now”.

The representative of Soroptimist International called for ending violence against women and girls.  Male ambassadors against gender violence could play an important role in combating the unequal power structures between men and women.  The top-down approach to the issue, through enacting and implementing policies, was not enough, she said.  Simply making violence against women and girls a crime did not tackle the deep structural causes and societal attitudes that excused, propagated and contributed to gender violence in communities.  That could only be done by listening to women and girls who had been victims of violence, valuing them and integrating them into future policies and strategies.  They could help to identify the gaps between theory and practice and produce better informed decision-making.  In closing, she called on Governments and organizations to take all steps towards making that change.

The representative of Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD) drew attention to the dire situation of uncounted millions of widows.  Also uncounted were increasing numbers of “half-widows” — the wives of the missing — due to conflicts, ethnic cleansing and lawlessness, and to the prevalence of harmful practices, such as forced remarriage and child marriages, which led to child widowhood.  Customs were depriving widows of their inheritance, land and property ownership rights, leading to poverty, vulnerability, violence and isolation.  As such, she urged that the status of widows should be addressed in the Beijing Platform for Action, which it was not, and included in targets for gender equality and women’s empowerment in the post-2015 development agenda.  She also called for statistics to include marital status, for the Commission to consider widowhood as an emerging issue; and for the United Nations to appoint a special representative to address widowhood in conflict situations.

The representative of the Women’s Missionary Society of African Methodist Episcopal Church Ecumenical Women condemned oppression, violence and women’s exclusion from political and social processes that used religious beliefs and political interests to legitimize such practices.  The endemic culture of legal impunity for crimes was a barrier to addressing violence against women and girls, she said, adding that local authorities and justice systems often failed to prosecute offenders.  Maintaining a system of male domination was linked to racism and class inequality and perpetuated discrimination and violence against women.  Turning to health, she said women needed to have full access to reproductive health to make informed decisions.  Marginalized groups, including those with HIV and disabilities, as well as racially oppressed women and those in situations of military occupation, often faced a greater degree of discrimination when trying to access health services, she said, emphasizing that a gender-sensitive response to health care was needed.

The representative of the Working Group on Girls demanded accurate and comprehensive sexual education in all learning environments to ensure that girls’ sexual health was not put at risk.  She demanded an education that would prepare girls for life after their school career, in areas such as science, technology, engineering, mathematics, economics and politics.  When girls were educated, they had power to share their knowledge and make a qualitative difference in communities around the world.  Gender-based violence was still widely practised under the guise of degrading cultural traditions, she said, citing examples such as honour killings, female genital mutilation, breast ironing and female infanticide.  It was imperative that girls were fully aware of their rights, she said, calling on men and boys to be partners in those efforts.

A representative of the Chirapaq Centro de Culturas Indigenas del Peru said indigenous women had seen progress in ensuring their individual and collective rights over the past 20 years.  Through actions, they had participated in local, national and international forums and had strengthened partnerships.  In addition to a gender perspective and human rights-based approach, the international community should also include indigenous identity as a cross-cutting element in the post-2015 agenda.  She encouraged the United Nations system to make greater efforts to establish specific bodies, policies and programmes for indigenous women, young people and girls of the seven duly recognized geo-cultural regions of the world.  Continuing, she said indigenous women should speak for themselves to avoid being objects of mockery and ridicule in the media.  Their rights to land and territories should be respected.

The representative of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and the Member Organizations of the Vienna NGO Committee on the Status of Women expressed support for the Secretary-General’s report and the sustainable development goals aimed at achieving a world of equality and respect for human rights.  Giving particular emphasis to Goal 5 on gender equality and empowering women and girls, she said its achievement would demand a holistic approach, including the realization of the goals on ending poverty, ensuring equitable quality education and on the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.  She further expected all Member States to fully implement the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and to provide adequate funding and resources to achieve all the sustainable development goals.

A representative of the Presbyterian Church (USA) said gender discrimination, lack of equality in education and of access to services, unequal pay for equal work, sexual harassment, human trafficking, higher health-care costs and discriminatory inheritance laws were the root causes of the cultural, social, and economic violence that demeaned the dignity of women and girls.  Noting the Church’s long history of advocating for and working towards gender justice, the Presbyterian Church (USA) joined ecumenical partners in asking Member States and civil society to, among other things:  ensure perpetrators of violence against women faced justice; set up mechanisms to ensure the participation of women and civil society organizations in the planning processes of national development plans and budgeting; remove economic and other barriers to educational success; and provide full access to health care for all women and girls.

The representative of the Rutgers Foundation (Stichting Rutgerswpf) said that patriarchal relations affected everyone, but in different ways.  Men and boys were both privileged and damaged by patriarchy, but were unaware of that effect.  Her organization was working with boys and men to change their behaviour from “power over” to “power with”.  While welcoming the inclusion of men and boys in gender equality efforts, investments in them should not take away from resources for women and their organizations, she said, calling for sufficient support for all gender equality work.  Norms and dominant masculinities impacted all aspects of society, she continued, saying that links between patriarchal power and the challenges facing the global community must be exposed.  Further, the new development agenda must include full respect for everyone’s human rights.  “Men should not occupy feminist spaces,” she said, “They should make the spaces they occupy feminist.”

The representative of YWCY/World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts called on Member States to turn rhetorical commitment from Beijing into genuine action around the world.  Resources were needed to see goals attained.  She urged States to report in their national reviews the double discrimination experienced by girls and young women due to sex and age.  Girls would be central to the development, delivery, monitoring and potential of the new agenda, which must acknowledge and invest in girls’ leadership opportunities.  Quality education and the role of non-formal and lifelong learning were critical to empowering girls, she said, calling for a stand-alone goal on gender with strong targets addressing all dimensions and underlying causes of gender inequality.  She also called for gender mainstreaming across all goals, and targets ensuring that indicators were disaggregated according to sex, gender and age.

For information media. Not an official record.