1 March 2006
Absence of Women from Leadership Positions Undermines Democracy, Commission on Status of Women Told
Panel Discussions Focus on Ways to Enhance Women's Participation in Development, Decision-Making
NEW YORK, 28 February (UN Headquarters) -- The absence of women from political life and leadership positions undermined democracy and women's empowerment, the Commission on the Status of Women heard today during discussions on the enhanced participation of women in development and on the equal participation of women in decision-making processes -- the two substantive themes of the 45-member body's fiftieth session.
Chaired by Commission Vice-Chairperson Dicky Komar (Indonesia), a morning panel discussion focused on the need to create a more conducive environment that fully enabled women to participate in development. He noted that the 2005 World Summit reaffirmed that gender equality was essential to advancing development and peace. Measures for enhanced education, health and work for women were among the strategic priorities identified.
Stressing that education of women still lagged behind that of men, Bernadette Lahai, Member of Sierra Leone's Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture and Food Security, noted that women were more likely to be illiterate than men, and girls were less likely to access schooling than boys. No country could develop if it failed to tap women's talent for full participation in society. It had been generally found that the returns to educating women were higher than those of men; hence the adage, "If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate the nation."
Evy Messell, Director, Bureau for Gender Equality, International Labour Organization (ILO), noted that combating gender inequalities in the world of work called for equal access to social protection. An enabling environment would be created by extending national social security systems more widely. The ILO firmly believed that action to strengthen the capacities of its tripartite constituents -- Governments and employers' and workers' organizations -- to promote positive change for gender equality hinged on men's and women's equal participation in meaningful social dialogue. Social dialogue also meant creating partnerships and networks with local and national women's associations. Organization was an essential tool for women to gain confidence, increase their representation and acquire a voice in local, national and international employment policymaking.
Opening the afternoon panel on the equal participation of women and men in decision-making, Commission Vice-Chairperson Szilvia Szabo (Hungary) said equal access to decision-making and leadership at all levels was a necessary precondition for the proper functioning of democracy. Equal participation in political affairs made Governments more representative, accountable and transparent. It also ensured that the interests of women were taken into account in policymaking. Women, however, had traditionally been excluded from decision-making processes.
Since the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, women's visibility in public life had grown, she continued. In 1995, women represented 11.3 per cent of all legislators. In 2006, they represented 16.3 per cent -- the highest percentage in history. More women judges had been appointed and more women had reached the highest executive positions in public and private companies. At the same time, persistent barriers to women's entry into positions of decision-making persisted, and equitable participation remained a challenge.
Nesreen Barwari, Minister of Municipalities and Public Works of Iraq, noted that the real reason women should be engaged in politics at all levels was not to emulate men, but to bring a unique feminine perspective to bear on the decision-making process. The human right to full and equal participation in power and decision-making included, among other things, the right to participate on equal terms with men in shaping and implementing decisions and policies affecting them, their families, communities and societies. Also, the presence of women in the halls of power was not sufficient. That was mere tokenism. What mattered was the effect of that presence.
The Secretary-General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), Anders B. Johnsson, said the achievement of democracy required a balanced participation of men and women in politics. One could not talk about democracy when half of a country's population did not participate in its work. The IPU had been tracking the numbers of women in national parliaments since 1970. Ten years ago, Sweden had led the pack, but today, Rwanda, a developing country, had the highest proportion of women in its national assembly, some 48.8 per cent. He added that the critical mass the Beijing Platform had asked for -- 30 per cent -- would not be reached until 2025, and parity would not be reached until 2040.
Among the issues raised during today's discussions were the use of quotas, which some felt could be an important instrument for breaking down barriers and furthering women's political participation and integration; the key role of political parties in enhancing women's participation in decision-making processes; the need to eliminate gender stereotypes; and the untapped potential of the private sector in providing employment for women.
Presentations on the enhanced participation of women in development were also made by Torild Skard, Researcher, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs; Ana Elisa Osorio Granado, Public Health Specialist and former Minister of Environment and Natural Resources and Assistant Minister of Health of Venezuela; Akanksha A. Marphatia, ActionAid International; and Lisa Morrison-Puckett, Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
The panel on equal participation of women in decision-making also heard from Vida Kanopiene, Head of the Department of Social Policy at Mykolas Romeris University in Lithuania; Françoise Gaspard, an expert member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and senior lecturer at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris; and Amy Mazur, Professor in the Department of Political Science at Washington State University.
The Commission will reconvene at 10 a.m. Wednesday, 1 March, to resume its general discussion.
The Commission on the Status of Women met today to hold two panel discussions on its substantive themes: "Enhanced participation of women in development: an enabling environment for achieving gender equality and the advancement of women, taking into account, inter alia, the fields of education, health and work"; and "Equal participation of women and men in decision-making processes at all levels".
(For background on the current session, see Press Release WOM/1538 issued on 24 February.)
Panel I - Enhanced Participation in Development
DICKY KOMAR (Indonesia), Vice-Chairperson of the Commission, welcomed participants to the morning panel discussion. He recalled that the Beijing Platform for Action, adopted by the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, proposed strategic objectives and specific actions in 12 critical areas of concern, which, taken together, would contribute to building an enabling environment for women's participation in development. The Political Declaration adopted by the General Assembly at its twenty-third special session in 2000 explicitly reaffirmed Member States' commitment to strengthening and safeguarding a national and international enabling environment, and pledged to undertake further action to ensure full and accelerated implementation.
At last year's session of the Commission, it had been noted that there had been significant progress over the past decade in terms of policy reforms, legislative change, and institutional development, and some increased attention to resource allocation. However, sociocultural attitudes towards gender equality had not changed at the same pace, and the actual implementation of policies and strategies was lagging behind. A more conducive environment that fully enabled women to participate in development needed to be created. The 2005 World Summit reaffirmed that gender equality was essential to advancing development and peace. Measures for enhanced education, health and work for women were among the strategic priorities identified.
The Secretary-General's report on the issue, he continued, underlined that the creation of an enabling environment was both a political and a technical process. Critical factors included the development of policies and mechanisms with time-bound and measurable targets for implementation; the establishment of gender-sensitive institutional, legal and regulatory frameworks; sufficient allocation of resources; and the promotion of sociocultural change processes. Enhancing the enabling environment for gender equality and empowerment of women required above all an integrated approach, which focused on both gender mainstreaming and systematic efforts to, among other things, strengthen the capabilities of women and girls as measured by health and education status, and to increase their access to assets and opportunities, for example, through employment.
TORILD SKARD, Researcher, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, highlighted the role of women's groups in achieving gender equality. Those groups must be given a voice at the local, national and international levels. The United Nations also had an important role to play, and must stay in the forefront of efforts to achieve gender equality. Measures must be taken to make the United Nations system more effective.
Turning to women in decision-making, she said that, despite progress, the general picture was not promising. Civil rights and political freedoms must become a reality for all women, and political systems must be made more "women-friendly". In her own country, Norway, the use of quotas had been crucial in that regard, leading to, among other things, a 50/50 ratio of women and men in the Norwegian Cabinet today. To create an enabling environment, it was urgent to improve the management of the global economy and the environment. The United Nations had a key role to play in that regard, particularly to limit the negative repercussions of globalization and trade liberalization on the poor, and ensuring healthy and safe working conditions for all.
Women workers, she said, were concentrated in the informal economy and in more precarious forms of employment. Comprehensive measures were needed to create a more favourable policy environment and social protection, as well as to ensure a more representative voice for the poor. Without good health, women were unable to work and make a decent living. Another basic requirement for women was good, quality education that promoted gender equality and prepared girls and women for a productive life. Regarding funding for gender equality, she said that a recent evaluation of Norway's bilateral development cooperation showed that it was not succeeding in incorporating women and gender concerns in all development projects. That would not happen without continuous political commitments, institutionalized mechanisms, special training, targeted funding and systematic reporting.
ANA ELISA OSORIO GRANADO, Public Health Specialist and former Minister of Environment and Natural Resources and Assistant Minister of Health of Venezuela, said that while there had been much progress in the past decades in the areas of health and education, many countries had not seen improvements. Indeed, some had even regressed. Poverty, economic policies and armed conflict were among the threats to social development. Poor women were more likely to suffer from disease, especially women in rural areas. Health was a social right and, as such, needed to be understood in that context. The legal systems in many developing countries, however, did not consider health a social right. When a State assumed that health was a social right, it put in place a non-discriminatory health system. Unfortunately, many developing countries considered health as the responsibility of the individual. According to a 2005 report of the World Health Organization (WHO), more than half a million women would die in childbirth this year. Some 99 per cent of those women lived in developing countries. Maternal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa was a thousand times greater than in developed countries. That situation was unacceptable.
To end exclusion, it was necessary for countries to guarantee access of care to mothers and children, she said. Access to universal health care required health systems that responded to the needs of the people. Maternal health must constitute the nucleus of the right to health. Abortion was one of the greatest causes of maternal mortality. The number of women with HIV/AIDS had also increased. Some 7 to 36 per cent of girls were victims of sexual abuse, and about 12 to 25 per cent of women were sexually abused or raped by their spouses. Women were also seriously affected by armed conflict, as conflict led to disintegration of the family and seriously affected access to food and health services. The privatization of water, or seeing water as a consumer rather than a social good, was another alarming trend that was seriously affecting women.
BERNADETTE LAHAI, Member of the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture and Food Security of Sierra Leone, said that everyone had the right to education. Education and training were an investment in human beings, which showed returns in the earnings of people. Those with more education earned higher lifetime earnings than those with less or no education. Education for women still lagged behind that of men. Women were more likely to be illiterate than men, and girls were less likely to access schooling than boys.
There was a growing awareness of the need to promote actions to prevent gender inequality, she said. No country could develop if it failed to develop and tap women's talent for full participation in society. It had been generally found that the returns to educating women were higher than those of men; hence the adage, "If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate the nation." Studies found that those countries with higher levels of women's education experienced rapid economic growth, long life expectancy, lower population growth and improved quality of life.
Education, she continued, also increased women's participation in paid employment. Education had also been found to positively influence an individual's attitude, which had social benefits in the longer term. More efforts were needed to redress gender imbalance in education. Education should be examined using a gender lens. In that way, disparities between boys and girls in education at the national and regional levels would be identified and addressed. That would also allow decision-makers to clearly see the circumstances, plights, needs and potential of both boys and girls. It would also enable decision-makers to adopt "gender-fair" measures that recognized and responded appropriately to the differences between boys and girls.
EVY MESSELL, Director, Bureau for Gender Equality, International Labour Organization (ILO), noted that in an increasingly global economy, rapid changes in production processes had radically changed the nature of work for women and men all over the world. While it had opened up opportunities for employment, it had also pressured workplaces exposed to increased global competition, leading to job loss, work disruption and labour market adjustment. The imbalances of globalization were both unacceptable and politically unsustainable. Education and decent work were key to meeting the needs of women and men. Creating decent work was not just about creating jobs. It was about adopting policies that made employment central to socio-economic development. It was also about making the global economy more inclusive, extending social protection to all, and calling for a fairer model of global cooperation and governance. An enabling environment for gender equality began with promoting equal access for all girls and boys and extended to free basic education and training, with an emphasis on non-traditional skills for girls.
She added that a rights-based approach was the only way for the poor to break out of poverty and benefit from globalization. The ILO, therefore, combined that approach with promoting the normative fundamental conventions that both protected and promoted workers rights. Four of the more than 180 International Labour Standards had been identified as key aspects for the promotion of gender equality. Those were being used as effective legal mechanisms to help enhance Governments' capacity to support non-discrimination in employment, equal pay for work of equal value, equal sharing of family responsibilities and maternity protection.
Combating gender inequalities in the world of work called for equal access to social protection, she added. An enabling environment would be created by extending national social security systems more widely. The ILO firmly believed that action to strengthen the capacities of its tripartite constituents -- Governments and employers' and workers' organizations -- to promote positive change for gender equality hinged on the equal participation of men and women in meaningful social dialogue. Social dialogue also meant creating partnership and networks with local and national women's associations. Organization was an essential tool for women to gain confidence, increase their representation and acquire a voice in local, national and international employment policymaking.
In its development programme, the ILO used different mechanisms to promote gender equality and women workers' rights, she said. The need for innovation was key to strengthening stakeholders' capacity to mainstream gender equality in their development programmes. However, while promoting gender mainstreaming as a strategy to reach the goal of gender equality, women-specific action was still needed. Given the cross-sectoral nature of employment creation, its effective implementation required integrated policy interventions across different sectors. That was why the ILO had adopted an integrated approach to gender equality. Policies and programmes at all levels needed to be gender-responsive. Adequate financial resources and political support from the highest levels were essential for women's enhanced participation in development.
AKANKSHA A. MARPHATIA, ActionAid International, presented the outcome of the Expert Group Meeting convened by the Division for the Advancement of Women in Bangkok from 8 to 11 November 2005. She said the experts agreed that current policies, strategies and resource allocations had not always achieved the desired gender equality outcomes or enabled women to become agents of change. That was because the root causes that reinforced gender equality had been largely ignored. Those included: sociocultural constraints; the gendered nature of institutions; the dominance of neoliberal macroeconomic policies over human rights; and the absence or slow progress towards participatory democracy.
Turning to the recommendations of the meeting, she said that Governments needed to ensure the right to free and quality education, as education was a fundamental human right. There were still basic challenges in the area of education, such as not enough schools within walking distance, inadequate sanitary facilities for girls, and a lack of trained teachers. It was necessary to consider the current indicators for measuring educational progress and move beyond mere parity in schools. Also needed were joint efforts by girls, women, parents and civil society to partner with States to monitor how schools perpetuated current inequalities. In the area of health, Governments should abide by primary health-care principles of accessibility, affordability and acceptability, rather than cost-sharing, privatization and decentralization.
Regarding work, she said the experts agreed that gender equality legislation, standards and accountability mechanisms for protection and promotion of women worker's rights should be adopted and enforced, regardless of the sector of employment or place of work. The creation of an enabling environment for enhancing women's participation would more than likely require transforming current institutions and structures, in addition to better policies and programmes that responded to women's rights, needs and concerns.
Before opening the floor for questions, LISA MORRISON-PUCKETT of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, briefly outlined the findings of a recent report entitled, "World Women 2005: Progress and Statistics". Statistics formed an important part of creating an enabling environment for women. Many countries did not collect even basic statistics in the areas of health and education. Others failed to mainstream gender into the collection of statistics. In the area of health, statistics on the total number of deaths by sex and age were essential. The report found, however, that from 1995 to 2003, 83 countries, or almost half of the global population, had not reported death by sex and age. Regarding education, basic statistics on attendance and enrolment were needed. Although the reporting of economic activity had increased in the past 30 years, 81 countries had not reported economic activity by sex and age. The report made several recommendations to improve data collection and dissemination.
In the first round of questions, speakers stressed the need to create a favourable environment for women to respond to such issues as violence against women, discriminatory and harmful practices and the effects of armed conflict and globalization. Several speakers also emphasized the need for greater political will to create a climate that would facilitate women's participation in decision-making. The need for a favourable environment included a stronger legal and institutional framework and greater use of women's networks and organizations, China's representative said.
Addressing the issue of legal systems, Austria's representative, speaking on behalf of the European Union, noted that legislative measures had directly impacted women throughout the Union. Indeed, gender quality before the law had been achieved in most European Union States. Equality between men and women was not yet a reality, however. The Secretary-General's report underlined that the major challenge in creating an enabling environment was the lack of integration of policies and mechanisms for the promotion of gender equality into development policy frameworks and programmes, such as in the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers. Those programmes largely determined what happened on the ground. How could the gap between political intention and implementation be bridged? she asked.
Côte d'Ivoire's representative added that legal status needed to be given to women handicraft workers and farmers, as it would, among other things, enable them to represent their husbands in cases of death or abandonment. It would also encourage greater access to credit and financing. Legislative measures were also needed in the area of sexual and reproductive health, she said.
Several speakers expressed concern about the need to include a gender perspective in international trade agreements and financial structures. In that connection, the representative of Bangladesh highlighted the plight of poor working women in least developed countries, including those who worked in garment manufacturing. How could the views of poor working women be mainstreamed in the international economic arrangements? she asked.
The issue of education was also raised, with Jamaica's representative sharing her countries experience in that regard. While education was a basic human right, education in and of itself did not automatically result in the improved positioning of women in traditional socio-economic structures. Entrenched gender ideologies constrained women's progress. Although education had improved the quality of life of Jamaican women, it had not proven to be the vehicle for their empowerment. In that regard, she called for the transformation of educational systems, rather than the assimilation of women into traditionally male-centred endeavours. In that way, education could become a means of dismantling patriarchal systems.
Responding to comments from the floor, Ms. SKARD said the question of mainstreaming gender into the global economy was an enormous one. The role of the United Nations needed to be strengthened, not only in the area of international trade, but also in terms of international financial structures. Indeed, the United Nations needed a greater role in relation to the global economy. Regarding women in the informal sector, a United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) study on women, work and property contained a range of measures to improve the status of poor women, including the importance of organizing women so that they could better reflect their needs. The question of organization was also fundamental for the creation of enabling legal frameworks.
Ms. OSORIO noted that, while the political will of Governments was important, it was not sufficient. The will of international organizations, particularly international financial institutions, was vital. Greater ethical commitment and greater commitment by rich countries was needed.
Responding to the issue of education, Ms. LAHAI agreed that education alone was not enough. Yet, the importance of education for the empowerment of women could not be underemphasized. Legal frameworks were also important. Some countries had laws that were so outdated that lawyers found them difficult to enforce. While education did not necessarily ensure equal access, it did provide the basic qualifications employers looked for when hiring.
Ms. MESSELL said the ILO worked to broaden the understanding of gender equality in the area of employment and how to translate gender equality into the trade unions. Without an integrated approach, it would not be possible to move ahead in areas of concern to women. Governments would have to tackle the issue of the informal economy, as the vast majority of workers were found in that sector and the mechanisms to support them were lacking. The ILO was working with trade unions on the issue of sexual harassment.
Ms. MARPHATIA said the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers mechanism had been created as a way of ensuring civil society participation in the formulation of national plans. That had not necessarily happened, however. The question was, were those mechanisms sufficient. The poverty reduction growth facility was used to ensure agreement on fiscal and monetary conditions and to determine national budget levels. The growth facility was decided before the strategy papers. In that respect it was necessary to encourage Governments to publicly debate the conditions agreed to with the International Monetary Fund. She also questioned whether the Millennium Development Goals were sufficient. While the education for all agreement addressed early childhood to adult education, the Millennium Development Goals looked only at primary and secondary education. It was a question of going back to original agreements. National programmes were often not given the budget needed to have influence. There was, perhaps, a need to change the whole national machinery framework.
Also participating in the discussion were the representatives of Cuba, Mexico, Senegal, Kenya and Indonesia.
During the second round of questions and answers, the representative of Venezuela noted that health played a critical role in empowering women. As such, she asked what policies and special actions were available to respond to the privatization of health services, which limited access to those services for many women.
Not only were gender equality and women's empowerment Millennium Goals in their own right, noted the representative of New Zealand, but they were also key factors to achieving all the Millennium Goals. Based on her country's experience, the greatest success in effecting real change came when the Government was able to work closely with grass-roots organizations and gain access to the knowledge and experience of their own communities.
Canada's representative added that, where gender equality was concerned, "we are all developing countries". Her country's experience in supporting women through international cooperation showed that a results-based approach made it possible to diminish gaps between policy and practice.
Speakers agreed that education was a basic right and essential tool for advancing the status of women, and offered examples of actions taken in their respective countries, such as the elimination of gender stereotypes in school textbooks, and expanded courses for women in, among other things, entrepreneurship. Emphasis was also placed on the need for increased capacity-building for women.
Female entrepreneurs, said Turkey's representative, could be an important tool for generating income for women. She noted that due to restrictive macroeconomic policies by international financial institutions, the creation of employment had been neglected in many developing countries. Morocco's representative added that, while creating decent employment was important, the Governments of developing countries were not always able to create those jobs, especially in rural areas.
Responding to comments and questions, Ms. MARPHATIA said it was true that there was a lack of data to improve policies, but that should not be an excuse not to change policies. There was still a need to develop measurements that considered the different impacts of policies on women, as well as to undertake gender-responsive budgeting. Political will, she added, depended on policymakers, as well as on the demands of civil society. There was a lot left to do to empower women, so that they knew what their rights were and how to demand them.
With regard to disabled persons in the labour market, Ms. MESELL noted that their right to employment was the same as everyone else's. One way the ILO was trying to promote that was through its international labour standards. It was also important to make the many organizations working for disabled persons active in the creation of policies and employment in individual countries.
Ms. LAHAI pointed out that Governments, especially in developing countries, were a major employer, which placed upon them a great financial burden. Where was the private sector in developing countries, which were a major source of employment? She also noted there was little collaboration between the private sector and higher educational institutions. It was necessary to stimulate the private sector, which was valuable in providing jobs.
On the issue of the privatization of health services, Ms. OSORIO emphasized the need for legal frameworks to ensure protection and to ensure that health remained a social and political right. She stressed the need for measures to prevent a reduction in health services, as well as for the necessary investments in that field. As for the effect of globalization on health, she mentioned that globalization had a tendency to disregard traditional medicine and underestimate that knowledge.
Regarding the issue of evidence, Ms. SKARD stressed the need to focus on knowledge production and knowledge transmission. Noting that much of today's knowledge production took place in the North and by men, she said it was an important challenge to bring forth knowledge from women and from the South. She agreed with Botswana that political commitment was important, but that did not come by itself. If women did not make politicians accountable, they would not be committed in the right way.
Panel II - Equal Participation in Decision-making
Opening the discussion, Commission Vice-Chairperson SZILVIA SZABO (Hungary) said equal access to decision-making and leadership at all levels was a necessary precondition for the proper functioning of democracy. Equal participation in political affairs made Governments more representative, accountable and transparent. It also ensured that the interests of women were taken into account in policymaking. Women, however, had traditionally been excluded from decision-making processes.
She noted that the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action recognized women's unequal share of power and decision-making as one of the 12 critical areas of concern, outlining concrete actions to ensure women's equal access to, and full participation in, power structures. Since 1995, women's visibility in public life had grown. In 1995, women represented 11.3 per cent of all legislators. In 2006, they represented 16.3 per cent -- the highest percentage in history. More women judges had been appointed and more women had reached the highest executive positions in public and private companies. This year, Norway had passed a ground-breaking law requiring that women hold 40 per cent of seats on boards of companies, including private businesses.
The 10-year review and appraisal of the Beijing Platform, however, had revealed persistent barriers to women's entry into positions of decision-making, she said. Despite measures to increase women's participation in various levels of decision-making processes, equitable participation remained a challenge. A wide range of stereotypical attitudes and practices impeded women's participation in decision-making processes. The lack of an enabling environment for women's career advancement and empowerment resulted in their underrepresentation in top executive jobs, especially in the spheres of business, science and politics.
VIDA KANOPIENE, Head of the Department of Social Policy at Mykolas Romeris University in Lithuania, said that the gender employment gap was very low in her country. However, the high participation of women in the labour market was paralleled by occupational segregation and low wage levels for women. Although little data existed on the representation of women in the private sector, figures showed that men occupied the principal positions in economic decision-making. Women were not represented among the heads of the top 50 companies in Lithuania, or among the heads of the national central banks.
She noted that quantitative gender balance in employment did not lead to equal positions in the labour market. Also, legislative provisions did not guarantee equal positions for women in the labour market if they were not reinforced by the continuous integration of gender concerns into national policies. The position of women in the economy was addressed in the National Programme of Equal Opportunities for Women and Men 2005-2009. That Programme included measures which could be touted as good practices, including measures aimed to ensure equal pay for equal work.
Issues such as cultural factors, traditions and stereotypes were crucial and led to hidden gender discrimination in the labour market and to unequal division of roles within the family, she added. National statistics showed continued segregation of women in education. It was important to continue efforts to raise public awareness on gender equality and to increase women's participation in decision-making.
NESREEN BARWARI, Minister of Municipalities and Public Works of Iraq, noted that the real reason women should be engaged in politics at all levels was not to emulate men, but to bring a unique feminine perspective to bear on the decision-making process. The human right to full and equal participation in power and decision-making included, among other things, the right to participate on equal terms with men in shaping and implementing decisions and policies affecting them, their families, communities and societies.
There were many women in politics today. In addition, there were a fair number of women in Arab parliaments. The Iraqi Assembly was a notable example with 25 per cent of the 275-member body being women. But the presence of women in the halls of power was not sufficient. That was mere tokenism. What mattered was the effect of that presence. The last few decades had witnessed a palpable transformation in the role of women in Middle Eastern societies. Today, women had the right to vote and be elected to parliament or to local councils in all the countries of the region, except in Saudi Arabia. Governments in the region were increasingly ready to open educational opportunities to women at all levels and to allow women to work. The quota system was not perfect, but women activists felt it could be an important instrument for breaking down barriers and furthering women's political participation and integration.
Turning to her own country, she said it was important that the international community use every opportunity to empower women in Iraq by channelling economic opportunities to them. Laws restricting women's employment should be abolished. Women should be well represented in all economic planning and decision-making processes. And small business loans and business training resources should be targeted towards women.
ANDERS B. JOHNSSON, Secretary-General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), said the achievement of democracy required a balanced participation of men and women in politics. One could not talk about democracy when half of a country's population did not participate in its work. The IPU had been tracking the numbers of women in national parliaments since 1970. The situation today was a positive one. Ten years ago, women accounted for 11.3 per cent of legislators. Today, they represented 16.3 per cent, representing a 50 per cent increase over 10 years. Ten years ago, Sweden had led the pack, but, today Rwanda, a developing country, had the highest proportion of women in its national assembly, some 48.8 per cent. Throughout last year, one in five parliamentarians was a woman. That was an encouraging trend. However, projecting that over the years, the critical mass the Beijing Platform had asked for -- 30 per cent -- would not be reached until 2025. Parity would not be reached until 2040.
Looking at the different regional trends, he said the Nordic countries continued to do well, with an average of 40 per cent women's participation. No other subregion came close. The Arab region was at the bottom of the list. Public debate and political will had lead to a significant increase in the region, however. The average in Latin America stood at 20 per cent, as the countries in the southern cone had embraced affirmative action. The situation was also good in many parts of Africa. The situation in Asia was more uneven. When Bangladesh had retrieved its quota system in 2001, women's representation had fallen from 9 to 2 per cent.
Regarding the critical mass of 30 per cent representation, he noted that 20 countries had reached that target. Five were Nordic, four were European and another five were African countries coming out of conflict. In Kuwait, parliament had voted on a bill giving women the right to vote and stand for election. The trend concerning women ministers was down, however, and women continued to face serious problems. The slow pace had prompted many parliaments to implement candidate quotas to ensure women's representation. The theory was that the increasing visibility of women in positions of power would bring about a change in the social perception of women. In practice, that theory had turned out somewhat problematic. One particular bottleneck was political parties. In the end, equal participation was not only a question of rights, but also of getting it right.
FRANÇOISE GASPARD, an expert member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and senior lecturer at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, said the presence of women in decision-making was a recent issue. For a long time, the lack of women in decision-making was regarded as normal. More than a third of the countries present in San Francisco at the formation of the United Nations did not have universal suffrage. One of the first tasks of the Commission on the Status of Women had been to draft a convention on the political rights of women, which was adopted in 1952.
Today, 16.1 per cent of national parliamentarians were women, she noted. Rwanda led the way with 49 per cent of its elected officials in Parliament being women, followed by Sweden. At the same time, in most countries, women were in the minority among Government ministers. It was only recently that women had access to ministerial functions in the fields of diplomacy and defence. She emphasized the need for women to also be represented in local bodies.
Article 7 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women stated the need to eliminate discrimination between men and women in political and public life. Democracy without women, or with a few women, was not democracy, as highlighted in Beijing. The anti-discrimination Committee was aware of the status of women in decision-making. It had made general recommendations based on the reports submitted by its States parties. Due to the existing gaps within countries, the Committee had adopted four general recommendation regarding women in decision-making. General Recommendation 23 focused on the position of women in public and private life, while General Recommendation 25 dealt with special temporary measures, which was useful for progressing towards gender balance in decision-making bodies.
Many countries had committed themselves to quotas, she added. In the private sector, women were faced with a "glass ceiling", due to working conditions and persistent stereotypes. Sometimes women themselves hesitated to enter fields of employment generally viewed as belonging to men. Gender balance in decision-making bodies was a criterion for equality and a key to development. The Women's Convention must be used to achieve that equality.
AMY MAZUR, professor in the Department of Political Science at Washington State University, United States, summarized the main points of the report from the Expert Group Meeting on the Equal Participation of Women and Men in Decision-Making Processes, held in Addis Ababa in October 2005. While the number of women in decision-making positions was increasing slowly, there had also been important reversals in recent years. Political parties were incredibly important in the process. They had to be major targets and collaborators. Effective and authoritative quotas were also important. It was also necessary to address women's family obligations, as they constituted a major stumbling block to increasing women's representation. Training for women and gender sensitization for men were also important.
It was important to go beyond the numbers, which meant assessing to what degree and under what conditions elected women actually represented women, she continued. The issues women brought to the discussion cut across race and religion. It was not just a question of elected office. Accountability was a major issue. It was also important to look at both descriptive and substantive representation. The critical mass of 30 per cent was not the end all, be all, and was not necessary for making a difference. As individuals, critically positioned women in positions of power could make a difference. Structures were also important. Women could make an incredible difference in constitution-building, the transition to democracy and peace processes.
As the discussion began, several delegates, including those from Botswana and Indonesia, emphasized the role of political parties in enhancing the participation of women in decision-making bodies. It was important, they said, for Governments to establish legislation to enable women to be included in political parties and in elections. Also, non-governmental organizations could maintain pressure on political parties to include women.
Gender stereotypes were another issue addressed by a number of speakers. China's representative noted that gender stereotypes had made it difficult for women to participate on an equal footing with men. It was necessary to intensify education to promote women's participation in decision-making and change the attitudes of both women and men, thereby leading to the creation of a favourable environment for women's equal participation. While it was important to ensure the quantitative level of women's participation, emphasis should also be placed on the quality of their participation, she added.
Agreeing that gender-based stereotypes were a major barrier to women's participation in decision-making, Austria's representative asked the panel about the best practices in combating them.
Saying that the participation of women in decision-making processes was a human right, whose roots lay in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Côte d'Ivoire's representative felt the lack of progress was due to, among other things, a lack of resources and the existence of a glass ceiling. She also recalled the adoption of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace and security, which sought to ensure that women were represented at all levels of decision-making, including in the conflict resolution process. She felt there was a need for a common programme of work between the Commission on the Status of Women, the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council in order to implement that resolution.
The economic empowerment of women in Bangladesh was characterized by the World Bank as a silent revolution, that country's representative told the Commission. Bangladesh had a female Prime Minister for the last 15 years; had reserved 45 seats for women in the national parliament; and had achieved progress in women's empowerment through the use of microcredit and education. Women should be empowered from the grass-roots level to the highest levels of decision-making. Despite various efforts, women were not well represented at decision-making levels. In that regard, it was necessary to change the attitudes of both women and men, and take practical measures to build the confidence of women and girls. She asked about how to bring more women into decision-making at both the national and international levels.
Diverging views emerged on the issue of quotas. Some speakers, such as South Africa, stated that it was difficult to make headway without the use of such measures, while others noted the large representation of women in positions of power achieved without quotas in such countries as Barbados and the Netherlands.
Responding to the comments and questions, Ms. BARWARI emphasized the importance of political will, as well as the promotion of democracy as a way to ensure the equal participation of men and women, and to ensure that the necessary legislation could be adopted. Noting that there was a lot of competition, she said that women would not be handed equal participation; they must work for it.
It was her view that quotas were a successful tool and had worked very well in Iraq. After the liberation of Iraq, she had been the only woman in the Cabinet. A strong network of women non-governmental organizations had put pressure on the political parties and the Governing Council to introduce a quota system for women's participation. She added that women had an important responsibility as role models when they were in positions of power.
Ms. GASPARD said that the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women had noticed that quotas very often worked like ceilings. Care must be taken when discussing the use of quotas to achieve parity.
Mr. JOHNSSON also emphasized the need to work on political parties, which, when they worked in a centralized manner and mobilized women, were more likely to elect more women. Equally important was the training of women candidates and providing them with funding. In addition, it was important to make sure that political parties were not used as a scapegoat for the non-compliance of Governments with their obligations.
Quotas, said Ms. MAZUR, were not a magic bullet for solving anything. She emphasized the need to bring back the emphasis on funding research, collecting best practices and understanding the complexities of the issue at all levels. Governments should be funding that research.
Ms. KANOPIENE provided an example of the campaigns used in her country to change gender stereotypes, focusing on the role of fathers in child-rearing.
In the second round of questions and comments, many speakers focused on the use of quotas as a way of ensuring women's representation, not only in national and local governmental bodies, but also in private and State-owned business. Several speakers questioned whether quotas should be used as a transitional or permanent measure to encourage women's participation. Other speakers asked the panel to address political parties as the "bottleneck" to women's representation in decision-making.
Zambia's representative said political parties were key to ensuring that women were in positions of decision-making. She wondered, however, if the political parties saw women as risky candidates, as they usually did not have the same funding as their male counterparts. The number of women in Zambia's parliament had increased from 12 to 13 per cent. Continuity was also important. It was often difficult to retain women parliamentarians. An aggressive education campaign for girls was essential. Families must know the advantage of educating the girl child. Another issue was the need for women role models.
Rwanda's representative noted that, due to the chaos following the 1994 genocide, women had decided to fight alongside their brothers for their country. They had shown great endurance and had contributed greatly to the country's reconstruction. Rwanda had also passed new laws, including new marriage and land laws and laws against violence.
While many young democracies had parental leave regulations, legal parity remained a dream for many young democracies, Slovenia's representative said. She did not understand that, as legal parity was free, while parental leave was quite expensive. What could be done to ensure a change in political parties? she asked.
Japan noted that her country had the lowest ranking in women's representation among the economically developed countries. Women's participation was a matter of democracy. While Japan had a democratic system, gender culture and practices overrode the law. In the last general election, an unprecedented number of women had won seats in the house of representatives, as more women had been on the list of the ruling party, which had won by a landslide.
Norway's representative said women were needed both in politics and boardrooms. In that regard, Norway had introduced a law calling for 40 per cent women's representation in private companies. It had introduced the new rule as voluntary agreements had not proven sufficient. Some 43 per cent of the board members of State-owned companies were women. In public companies, only 18 per cent were women. Companies had a two-year deadline to fulfil the 40 per cent target or face sanctions. Having women on the boards of private sector companies was an important step towards achieving gender equality.
Sierra Leone said it was not only a matter of funding training programmes and improving skills. At election time, male candidates threw parties and gave away money. Less financed women found it difficult to compete with such financial favours. In that regard, she called for a trust fund for women seeking election. Once in elected position, the trust fund should be used to build their capacities.
Ghana's representative asked if women parliamentarians faced greater expectations than their male counterparts. West Africa was very proud that a woman had been elected as President of Liberia. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had opened up the flood gates, and she was sure there would soon be more African women in leadership positions.
A representative of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) called for the adoption of a balanced approach to promoting women in decision-making positions.
Responding to the questions, Ms. KANOPIENE emphasized the importance of gender stereotypes. At one point, Lithuania had had a women's political party. The party had not succeeded, however, largely because women believed that men were better in decision-making positions.
Mr. JOHNSSON said women candidates were more generally in need of financial support. Non-governmental organization and grass-roots organizations could provide that kind of support. The IPU provided training. On the usefulness of quotas, that was a matter of patience. Quotas were a must if a country wanted to see change in a shorter amount of time. On the issue of role models, he noted that women speakers were excellent role models.
Ms. GASPARD noted that, looking at the situation in Chile and Liberia, women had voted for women. It was necessary to stop thinking that women did not vote for women. One day, maybe men would be asking for parity, but that would take some time.
Ms. MAZUR said it was interesting that regional role models were shifting from Scandinavia to southern Africa. Quota laws were necessary, as was change in gender stereotypes. Training was one thing, money was another. A full frontal attack was needed to bring about change.
Ms. BARWARI said quotas had been necessary in Iraq. With greater Islamic influence and ideology, the danger was that the achievements of women in the last election could be lost. She strongly believed in the need for quotas. Women also needed to adopt a larger agenda when they campaigned, so as to attract a larger voter pool. Women needed to be encouraged to vote. Some 65 per cent of the voters in the last election had been women. Considering the security situation, that was an accomplishment. She was also optimistic that women were moving in the right direction. Sustained international pressure was needed.
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