Women of the World United for Change

By Talia Whyte
Special to Global Wire

Hundreds of passionate, dynamic women-and a few men-from around the world gathered at UN headquarters on February 27 for the start of the 50th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. The event marks 60 years of working for gender equality, peace and development.

There are two themes to this year's two-week conference, which runs through March 10: women in development and women in the decision-making process. While some countries have adopted policy reforms and achieved legislative gender equality in many ways, the Secretary-General's recent report, "Enhanced Participation of Women in Development," shows a large gap between practice and policy. In a panel discussion on the subject, it was concluded that women's full enjoyment of the right to education, as well as good health and work outside of the home, are necessary for their full participation in development.

"Education is also found to positively influence an individual's attitude, which has social benefits in the longer term," said Dr. Bernadette Lahai, chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture and Food Security in Sierra Leone. "For women, particularly, it widens their social networks, creates new reference groups and more role models, and fosters innovation, all of which improves on women's well being and those of their families." She went on to say that "education improves on women's self-perception, increases their confidence level, as well as independence of thought and judgment, social mobility and a broader outlook on life."

The Jamaica delegation dissented, stating that education alone will not improve women's lives, especially those women who live in patriarchal societies. Lahai and other panelists responded by saying that education is only a stepping stone.

"We need to move beyond being involved in development," said Akanksha Marphatia of Action/AID International. "But we also need to be involved in empowerment."

The second panel discussion on the commission's opening day, which was on women in the decision-making process, focused on progress made over the last several years. Today, there are 11 women heads of state or government in countries on every continent, including Liberia's new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf-the first female to be elected head of state in all of Africa. In addition, Chile, Sweden and Spain have now achieved gender parity in their respective governments. Despite this, another report from the Secretary-General, "Equal Participation of Women and Men in Decision-Making Processes at All Levels," shows that women are still lagging behind. The reasons given: women's continued exclusion from male-dominated policy domains; the absence of enabling environments in political institutions; persisting stereotypical attitudes; and the unequal distribution of family responsibilities between men and women. While the issue of quotas as a means of women's empowerment was debated during the conferences, it was generally agreed that women bring a certain understanding of policy to the table, especially on social issues.

"No government can be democratic without the participation of both men and women," said Nesreen Barwari, minister of municipalities and public works in Iraq. "The reason women should be in government is not to be on the same level as men, but to bring in a different perspective. If women are to be fully integrated into society, more work needs to be done. Women are excluded in most countries, but it's time to readdress this."

For the duration of the session's first week, delegates from nongovernmental organizations attended dozens of panel discussions, workshops and film viewings and held open discussions on topics relating to the conference's two themes. From media images of South African women to foreign brides in Taiwan to lesbian rights in the Muslim world, the state of women in the world in 2006 is diverse and dynamic.

One of the biggest topics among delegates was the critical issue of human trafficking. With the end of the Cold War and the advent of globalization and the Internet, trafficking affects every aspect of the global economy today, even women in the United States.

"There is a perception in the US that trafficking only happens over there in Thailand, Cambodia and other underdeveloped countries," said CNN investigative reporter Christine Dolan during a panel discussion on the topic. "But that is not true. It is really underrepresented in our media. There is a level of education that is needed in the US. The US is not above trafficking."

Another topic of interest was the plight of indigenous women. "[They] face the worst of discrimination for both their gender and ethnic background," said Mirian Masaquiza, social affairs associate for indigenous affairs in Ecuador. "It is important to adopt multicultural services to overcome this."

Discrimination is even more common place when violence is involved. For indigenous women, violence occurs in a context of ongoing rights violations against communities as a whole.

"Violence against indigenous women continues to be higher than violence against other groups of women," explained Christine Brautigam of the Division for the Advancement of Women, part of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. "We want to identify ways states can prevent violence against women."

As the conference continues through March 10, delegates also will be reviewing the situation of Afghan and Palestinian girls and women, women in the labor market, women and children taken hostage, and the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on laws that discriminate against women. There is a satisfaction by attendees that it is bringing women and their issues to the table. For many of them, this is a sign of good things to come.

"An active women's movement should be recognized," said Toral Begim, an NGO representative from Lebanon. "The UN must stay in the forefront to make progress happen. Women make a difference."


Post a Comment

<< Home