Press Releases

    WOM/1498
    9 March 2005

    As Result of Beijing Conference, World Has Recognized Critical Importance of Gender Equality to Peace, Development, Secretary-General Tells Observance

    International Women’s Day Programme Features Panel Discussion on "Gender Equality Past 2005: Building a More Secure Future"

    NEW YORK, 8 March (UN Headquarters) -- In 1995, women gathered in Beijing had taken a giant step forward on behalf of humankind.  As a result, the world had recognized as never before that gender equality was critical to the development and peace of every nation, the Secretary-General said this morning at the annual Headquarters observance of International Women’s Day.

    Ten years on, women were not only more aware of their rights; they were more able to exercise them, the Secretary-General said in a statement read by the Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, Shashi Tharoor. In the decade since Beijing, tangible progress had been seen on many fronts.  Life expectancy and fertility rates had improved; more girls were enrolled in primary education; and more women are earning an income than ever before. At the same time, however, new challenges have emerged, including the odious practice of trafficking in women, the increasing targeting of women in armed conflict and the terrifying growth of HIV/AIDS among women.

    Looking back on the past decade, the world had learned that the challenges facing women were not problems without solutions, he added. Changing the historical legacy that put women at a disadvantage meant that what had been learnt in most societies would have to be implemented on a larger scale. As the world prepared to gather for the September high-level review of the Millennium Declaration, 2005 would offer a precious opportunity to do that. Promoting gender equality was not only women’s responsibility -- it was the responsibility of all, he said.

    Opening the panel discussion that followed, entitled “Gender equality beyond 2005: Building a more secure future”, panel moderator Shashi Tharoor said it was imperative that women not be treated as an item on the international agenda, but that they become a power in setting that agenda. A more secure world would be one in which women enjoyed their full rights and participated in every arena of life, from macroeconomics to conflict resolution.

    Panellists agreed that while the international community had the tools in the Beijing Platform to make gender equality a reality, the time had come to move beyond rhetoric to concrete action. Noting the convergence of the 10-year review of Beijing and preparations for the upcoming high-level review of the Millennium Declaration, speakers stressed the need to promote gender issues by consolidating institutions and leadership in support of the Millennium Development Goals.

    Noting that three of the Millennium Development Goals referred directly to women, Nafis Sadik, Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General for HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, said that without gender equality, it would be impossible to achieve the first Goal, halving poverty by 2015. There was enough in the way of recommendations, goals and targets. What women needed now -- and what global security demanded -- was action. The Millennium Development Goals were the essential underpinning for global security in the twenty-first century, and women’s equality and empowerment were at the heart of the Goals. The General Assembly’s five-year review of the Goals in September would provide an excellent opportunity for governments and the international community to commit to action.

    Heralding the awakening of a new beginning, Rachel Mayanja, Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, said the commemoration of International Women’s Day was the beginning of a new challenging period, an era committed to the full implementation of the Beijing agenda. Action was needed to make women an integral part of a global vision for economic justice and human rights. That was the task in the months and years ahead. For the billion-plus women and men living in extreme poverty, the Millennium Development Goals represented the only hope to have a productive life.  Gender equality must be embedded as the underlying principle of the Millennium Goals.

    Jessica Neuwirth, President of Equality Now, noted that while there was much talk of United Nations reform, the discussion needed to look at the fact that women were structurally sidelined in the United Nations. Of the 31 Under-Secretaries-General in the United Nations senior management team, only six were women. The time had come to establish a serious mechanism to ensure the nomination of women candidates to serve in the most senior United Nations post. Reaffirmation of the Platform for Action was not progress.

    Presentations were also made by Salvano Briceño, Director, Secretariat of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, and Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT).

    Observance of International Women’s Day

    Opening the panel discussion, SHASHI THAROOR, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information and panel moderator, read out the message by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the observance of the International Day.  [For a full transcript of the statement, see Press Release SG/SM/9746-OBV/465-WOM/1492 of 2 March 2005.]

    Today’s discussion would consider the interdependence of issues on the international agenda, including the forthcoming high-level review, he said.  The year 2005 would be pivotal in United Nations history. One of the priorities of the year would be the high-level review of progress in achieving the commitments made in 2000 at the largest gathering in history of world leaders. The Millennium Project had recently found that much more needed to be done to meet the Millennium Development Goals.  It was imperative that women not be treated as an item on the international agenda, but that they become a power in setting that agenda. A more secure world would be one in which women enjoyed their full rights and participated in every arena of life, from macroeconomics to conflict resolution. Women had assumed new roles in emergency relief and construction, as witnessed by the recent Indian Ocean tsunami.  The international cooperation provided by the United Nations system was urgently needed.

    Opening Statements

    RACHEL MAYANJA, Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, said that today was a special day for women, and it heralded the start of a new awakening for all. The commemoration of International Women’s Day was the beginning of a new challenging period -- an era committed to the full implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome of the twenty-third special session of the General Assembly, or “Beijing+5”. The Declaration adopted by the Commission on the Status of Women testified to that renewed determination.  Last week, many distinguished women who had been successful in achieving important goals -- not least the placing of women at the head of the development agenda and at the heart of the commitment to achieve gender equality and a more secure future for all the peoples of the world, but also to propose practical solutions and strategies for achieving those lofty goals.

    She said that today’s development agenda essentially focused on the Millennium Declaration and Goals, and was a major step towards a secure world. For the billion-plus women and men living in extreme poverty, the Goals represented the only hope to have a productive life. For the entire world, they were a linchpin to the quest for a more secure and peaceful world. As the process of taking stock got under way, it became clear that there was a “serious disconnect” between commitments made at the international level and translation of commitment into policies and programmes at the national level that inevitably delayed progress. Implementation processes should be examined, and the necessary changes should be made in order to ensure a more systematic integration of women’s perspectives and gender issues in the national planning and reporting mechanisms on the Millennium Development Goals.

    Action was needed to make women an integral part of a global vision for economic justice and human rights, she continued.  Women must be included in decisions regarding economic policies, good governance and effective spending and, of course, they must have more opportunities to participate on an equal basis in the economies and decision-making of their countries.  That was the task in the months and years ahead.  Women worldwide must engage strenuously now in the security debate, which must be linked to respect for the rule of law and human rights, gender equality, dialogue and transparency.  Unequal access to resources, authoritarian political systems and corruption increased instability and led to conflict.  Conflicts led to wars and, as everyone knew, the most devastating and deadly effects of war impinged most heavily on women and children.

    Turning to natural disasters, she said there was agreement that gender was an important factor in environmental issues, and the warning system from the Indian Ocean tsunami had to be that women must now begin to take an informed and serious interest in those issues. Global warming, desertification, sea-level rise, pollution and other grave environmental problems now confronted the world. Women were actors and should ensure that their voices were heard in all of the debates on the environment. The tsunami also powerfully demonstrated that there was an “incredible ability” to mobilize across all boundaries in defence of others. It also demonstrated that there was a gender component in the impact of environmental disaster; there was evidence to suggest that the tsunami’s effect had been heavier on women than on men.  Social and cultural norms that limited women’s mobility and made them focus on the well-being of their families at the expense of their own safety. Reports of sexual assaults in refugee camps had mirrored the treatment of women and girls in the aftermath of conflict.

    Regarding the way forward, she said the first task was to ensure that the review of the Millennium Declaration was based on the commitments to the Beijing Platform. Gender equality must be embedded as the underlying principle of the Millennium Goals. Women had to be alert, so that when issues of development and security were on the General Assembly’s agenda, the outcome of those discussions must be a reaffirmation that gender equality was an undeniable prerequisite for making the world a better and more secure place for all. Resources, both human and financial, were needed to carry out the tasks to promote gender mainstreaming policies throughout all government departments and in business communities in all countries. She encouraged participants to celebrate the achievements and to remember those who had gone before, working so hard to bring the situation to where it was today. As the saying goes, “women’s work is never done; our work in some ways is just beginning”, she said.

    NAFIS SADIK, Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General for HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, said members of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change had no doubts about the importance of gender equality for global security.  The great majority of current conflicts were internal, rather than international. There was now an additional threat, from groups of criminals, who could operate within and across national borders. Some might be ideologically motivated. They thrived in conditions of political chaos, economic deprivation and human insecurity.  In all those cases, the human rights of women and girls were disproportionately at risk. Women had special needs in conflict and post-conflict situations; they had a stake and contribution to make in peacemaking and peace-building; and they were essential agents in longer-term development.

    Three of the Millennium Development Goals referred directly to women, she continued.  The first Goal, halving poverty by 2015, could not be achieved without gender equality. There was enough in the way of recommendations, goals and targets. What women needed now -- and what global security demanded -- was action. It was necessary for governments and the international community as a whole to reconsider their priorities. Global military expenditures were over  $900 billion. Expenditure by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries on development assistance was less than $70 billion.  About $3 billion of that went towards gender equality. The Millennium Development Goals were the essential underpinning for global security in the twenty-first century, and women’s equality and empowerment were at the heart of the Goals.  The five-year review of the Goals in September would provide an excellent opportunity for governments and the international community to commit to action.

    The High-level Panel had considered what institutional mechanisms the United Nations needed to promote security and development she said. She urged stronger and more explicit reference to gender issues.  Outlining some of the Panel’s suggestions, she said while there was considerable professional experience on gender-related policy-making and execution in the United Nations system, that body of knowledge was not reflected in policy-making. At Headquarters level, four different parts of the system, namely, the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues, the Division for the Advancement of Women, the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW), and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), had primary responsibility. Only two units at United Nations Headquarters, the Office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women and the Division for the Advancement of Women, were funded from the regular budget, with a total of 42 staff. The UNIFEM and INSTRAW relied entirely on voluntary funding, which was always inadequate.

    She said there was a strong case for the United Nations to consolidate institutions and leadership to promote gender issues in support of the Millennium Development Goals. There was an even stronger case for Member States to support such a move. Political will must be mobilized to make it happen. The lack of overall policy direction had an impact at the national level. For example, most instances of trafficking went unreported because women had little awareness of their rights. The United Nations system should be more aggressive at all levels in encouraging Member States to promote and protect the human rights of women and girls.

    Outlining several recommendations, she said her first recommendation, in the context of United Nations reform, would be to rationalize the various United Nations bodies. They needed secure funding, a proper staff, and access to high-level policy-making. Her second recommendation was that while gender mainstreaming was the ultimate goal, targeted programmes were still needed for many particular needs of women like maternal mortality reduction, violence against girls and women, and trafficking of girls and women. Many of the High-level Panel’s recommendations related to agreements already reached or actions decided on by the international community. The third recommendation, therefore, would be for governments, the international community, civil society and international organizations to do what they had already agreed to do, according to agreed timetables and with the agreed levels of resources. Member States did not need to adopt new resolutions, reopen discussions or rewrite consensus documents. The dangers of inaction far outweighed the risks of acting along imperfect lines.

    Despite tragedy and hardship, conflict, exclusion, economic exploitation, violence and the ravages of HIV/AIDS, women’s issues had made progress over the past decade.  Women in many settings were showing a new confidence and sense of entitlement. The question was, would the international community make it easy for women, or more difficult, and would governments recognize that they had a stake in women’s empowerment and equality?  In that area, global interests, national interests, individual interests and human rights coincided. It was time for serious action.

    SALVANO BRICEÑO, Director, Secretariat of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, said gender equality was not a separate topic, but a cross-cutting element that needed to be considered in all activities in order to achieve sustainable development in societies. Natural disasters continued to claim thousands of lives each year around the world, and economic losses exceeded development contributions in many countries. The Beijing Platform had provided valuable guidance to many international processes, and the recent second world conference on disaster reduction had also benefited from the Beijing agenda. The major outcome of the conference, the Kyoto Framework for Action, outlined different priority areas of action for the next 10 years. Women and men were affected by disaster differently.  Women played a primary role in caring for families, and were disproportionately affected by disasters.  Women were often left out of planning for response.  Much more could be done to understand the gender dimension of disasters.  The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, for example, issued a gender policy and action plan providing a firm foundation for gender mainstreaming in disasters.  Gender advisers had been sent to the field in the first wave of teams following the recent tsunami.

    Gender equality was the single most important goal in the disaster reduction field, he said.  It was a sine qua non for the achievement of disaster reduction efforts.  While there were good examples of best practices, the needs remained much greater.  Much greater priority continued to be given to conflicts, despite the fact that disasters triggered by natural hazards provoked much greater danger for women.  Another obstacle was the prevailing fragmented approach to programming in the United Nations.  The importance of leadership in that regard required greater attention.  The gaps remained huge, and could only be filled in with concerted action by governments, civil society and the private sector.

    ANNA KAJUMULO TIBAIJUKA, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), said that women today constituted 70 per cent of the poorest of the poor in the world, despite actions by governments, non-governmental organizations, community-based groups and the international community since the first Women’s World Conference, held in Mexico in 1975.  Although progress had been recorded in several areas, the struggle for gender equality and women’s empowerment continued.  t had long been established that a girl child’s education was exchanged for collection of water and support in other household chores. Sanitation was an issue that intimately touched upon women’s lives. It was about their dignity and privacy, yet sanitation received very little attention in development terms. Similarly, sustainable human settlements development had not received adequate attention in the last decade. The battle for achieving the strategic objectives of the Beijing Platform, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation and the Millennium Development Goals should be fought in human settlements where people lived -- in the cities, towns and villages.

    She said it was at that level that pro-poor policies and global commitments were translated into reality.  It was there that local actions must and could deliver global goals. It was at that level that the benefits of all actions to reduce poverty would become visible.  Fifty years ago, two thirds of all people on earth lived in the rural countryside. Fifty years from now, two thirds of all people -- 6 billion people -- would be living in the city. Women, like many other poor people, were on the move in search of a better life. Yet, under a “business as usual” scenario, the majority of people would be in slums, condemned to the most inhuman living conditions without access to safe drinking water, sanitation, decent shelter and social services.  For women, life in the slums was not only a danger to health, but also to privacy and dignity. Poverty and hardships in rural areas tended to accelerate rural-to-urban migration, which, in turn, intensified slum formation as the current city planning and management systems were unable to adequately cope with the massive urban population growth. That aggravated the urban slum-housing crisis experienced today.

    A sizeable portion of the new urban population, especially women, for lack of alternatives, engaged in urban and peri-urban food production, for subsistence, making irrelevant the assumed disconnection between economic activity in rural and urban areas, as well as the division of labour between them, she said.  For that reason, rural and urban development should no longer be considered as separate, but rather as intricately linked and mutually reinforcing. Given the challenges of urbanization and the high densities of people in peri-urban areas, it would be helpful to critically analyse housing policies and laws, urban planning and land use policies and programmes and advocate for change. Women should demand effective urban planning, pro-poor and gender-responsive housing policies and legislation, including regulations for landlord and tenant relationships, and the provision of basic services like water, sanitation, health, and education and child-care facilities. That could not happen unless women were part and parcel of democratic participatory governance systems at the local and national levels.

    She said that women’s economic empowerment strategies should also counter the growing urban poverty. She, therefore, urged the women’s affairs ministries, women’s organizations, community-based groups and the international community to support a three-part integrated strategy that was both corrective and pre-emptive to address the rapid formation of slums, and which was likely to bring real benefits to women. Those three parts were:  1) slum upgrading, which involved, among other things, physical upgrading of houses, infrastructure and the environment, and social upgrading through improved education, health and secure tenure; 2) urban development, involving stimulation of job creation through citywide advanced use of land planning, development and management of the revenue base, infrastructural improvement, provision of amenities, city management and urban governance, community empowerment, vulnerability reduction and better security; and 3) regional development, which entailed reduction and diffusion of urbanization impacts through national urban policies and enabling laws that supported secondary and tertiary cities, metropolitan governance and planning, management of integrated urban-rural economic and lifeline systems, and stemming the tide of growth of mega-cities with their huge populations and problems.

    JESSICA NEUWIRTH, President of Equality Now, said that from her non-governmental perspective of United Nations conferences, there was always much rhetorical agreement on the critical importance of implementation. Conferences were often hijacked, however, by negotiations over a text.  Reaffirmation of the Platform for Action was not progress. Not moving backward was not the same as moving forward. Among the many commitments made in Beijing was one to revoke any remaining laws that discriminated on the basis of sex. In 2005, noting the persistence of discriminatory legislation, the Outcome Document adopted at Beijing+5 had established a target date for revocation of those laws as soon as possible, preferably by 2005.  In 2005, the discriminatory laws remained in force around the world. There were still countries where women, under the law, could not drive, vote, work at night, inherit property or transmit citizenship to their spouse or children. In some countries, wife obedience was mandated by law and polygamy was allowed.

    Discriminatory legislation was just one of many areas in which there had been a failure to honour the commitments made to women, she said. The goal of 50/50 gender balance was long overdue. As of 31 December 2004, women’s representation in the professional and higher categories at the United Nations was 37.1 per cent. Of the 31 Under-Secretaries-General in the senior management team, only six were women. Ten years later, it was time to establish a serious mechanism to ensure the nomination of women candidates to serve in the most senior United Nations post. There was much talk of United Nations reform, and the discussion had to look more seriously at the fact that women were structurally sidelined in the United Nations in numerous ways.

    She said the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change had recommended upgrading the Commission on Human Rights to a human rights council independent of the Economic and Social Council. Meanwhile, the Commission on the Status of Women, a parallel body, had not been mentioned. Gender equality was mentioned once in the High-Level Panel report, in a passing reference to the Millennium Development Goals, although Security Council resolution 1325 recognized the central role of women in the conflict prevention.  While noting the failure to implement that resolution, the Panel did not really address women’s empowerment.

    There was much talk of gender mainstreaming in the United Nations, she said. While gender mainstreaming was a laudable goal, it could only be seen as a complement to, not a substitute for, the gender specific focus of UNIFEM and the Division for the Advancement of Women, which needed to be structured.  It should be understood that the rape and sexual exploitation of women and girls in the Congo by United Nations peacekeepers and the sexual harassment of women in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was not unrelated to the gender hierarchy of the United Nations.

    She outlined several concrete steps to implement the Platform, including the creation of a formal mechanism to ensure that women were considered in the process of appointing the next Secretary-General, providing the Division for the Advancement of Women, UNIFEM and the Commission the resources they needed to work for gender equality and the establishment of a Special Rapporteur on laws that discriminated against women. There was often the sense that gender equality was a long-term aspiration, rather than an immediately attainable goal. That was not the case. The African Union had shown what political will and leadership could do by achieving 50/50 gender balance at the highest level of decision-making virtually overnight.

    Panel Discussion

    Several delegations and representatives of civil society groups and non-governmental organizations from all corners of the globe spoke from the floor in a wide-ranging discussion touching on such issues as trafficking, the cultural dimension of gender inequality, poverty and hunger, and governmental corruption.

    One speaker said the speeches had been beautiful, but those must be followed up. The mechanisms were in place, as well as the human financial resources, however, meagre, with which to implement the Beijing agenda. The investment now must be in women for the sake of future generations, she said.

    As the continent most affected by poverty, hunger, malaria, AIDS, gender inequality and conflicts, Africa also suffered from governments that were “laissez-faire”, another speaker asserted. The problems of Africa were exacerbated by neo-liberal macroeconomic policies and privatization, which were threatening to women.  If those policies were maintained, implementation of the Beijing Platform would be impossible. Economic policies should take into consideration the gender perspective. She called for international solidarity in that respect.

    Another speaker highlighted an unacceptable level of corruption among governments, which was not being adequately addressed.  She said that non-governmental organizations across the board were working on anti-poverty and gender-equality issues, but they confronted corruption -- money was not being used the way it should be, and governments were not spending the way they should be.

    “Greetings from India on Women’s Day”, another speaker cried. Women worldwide might not have gold or silver, but they had the power and would conquer the obstacles and make the world wonderful. She thanked the panellists for bringing home the critical points of the Beijing process.

    Another speaker warned that lack of shelters was forcing women to remain in abusive marriages.

    Response of Panellists

    Concerning Security Council resolution 1325, Ms. NEUWIRTH said that, in addition to national action plans, an international action plan was needed from the Security Council; it was their resolution, and they should be held accountable for its implementation. That had not happened.

    Dr. SADIK said it was true that words came easier, and a way must be found to energize action. That was a bit more elusive -- getting action in key places. Everyone agreed with the points made in the rhetoric, and it was also correct that governments had not been that interested in gender issues.  It seemed that every United Nations international conference had been held hostage to issues relating to women’s rights, especially in the reproductive health area.

    Also important, she said, was to look at how global economic policies and financial discussions reflected how women’s needs would be met. Perhaps one way to start was to lobby for a woman to replace the outgoing World Bank President.

    Ms. MAYANJA agreed that governments’ commitment was still lacking.  While she had also agreed that multiple problems faced Africa, she said, however, that credit should be given where progress had been made, including in the political arena, in legislative reform, and in attempts to empower women.

    Ms. TABAIJUKA said that women were still a marginalized group, which still had to prove itself. On the question of culture, she said that without a culture of peace, not much progress would be made in the area of women’s advancement. The  struggle should be for “a culture of emancipation”. She also agreed that structural adjustment programmes had unleashed mayhem in Africa.

    At the same time, she hoped that participants were not disillusioned by the problems because, without hope, there was no vision.

    Mr. BRICEÑO said that women’s capacities would be enhanced by working in concert with men.  Only by working hand in hand would it be possible to address the issues that affected everyone, equally. The gender issues needed to be integrated into other sectors, as gender equality was not just a goal in itself. Also, while it was correct for women to aspire to positions of leadership, they should also be provided with leadership and management training.

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