7 March 2005
Thirty-Year UN Effort to Promote Gender Equality Celebrated at International Womens Day Headquarters Observance
NEW YORK, 4 March (UN Headquarters) -- Celebrating 30 years of United Nations effort to promote gender equality, the Commission on the Status of Women observed International Womens Day today, with senior United Nations officials, Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, representatives of non-governmental organizations and world-renowned artists participating in the commemorative event.
Marking a milestone in the movement for gender equality, this years celebration of International Womens Day, which is observed annually on 8 March, took place amid the Commissions 10-year review and appraisal of the outcome of the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, and the General Assemblys 2000 special session on gender equality, development and peace for the twenty-first century.
The journey for womens empowerment, gender equality and womens human rights began in Mexico City in 1975, Rachel Mayanja, the Assistant Secretary-General, Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, told the gathering. By the time the world arrived at Beijing 20 years later, the focus was not only on achieving equality and eliminating discrimination, but also on integrating women as full and equal partners in all policies and decision-making processes. In the last 30 years, men had gone to the moon and back, yet women were still at the same place they were, namely, trying to sensitize the world to the unwarranted and unacceptable marginalization of women, which deprived them of their human rights.
The concept of gender equality recognized that ending discrimination against women and girls required the involvement of men and boys, families, communities and nations, she added. That journey had been sustained by a strong global womens movement, of which the presence of the participants today was a powerful testimony. Despite divisions across national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political barriers, women activists had built organizations and strong networks, whose influence in shaping priorities could not be overstated. Those groups had been crucial forces for transforming the way the world thought about women and gender issues.
Bani Dugal, Chair of the non-governmental organization Committee on the Status of Women, agreed that much of the struggle to advance womens status had been waged by visionary and unrelenting non-governmental organizations and womens groups. The growing strength of womens organizations representing the full spectrum of the worlds cultures had become a driving force for change. Beyond raising the level of awareness and discourse, non-governmental organizations had provided much of the research about human rights abuses, boldly pushing governments to honour their commitments to the Beijing agenda. It was inescapable, however, that governments, were the primary bearers of the responsibilities articulated in the global action plans.
The womens fight was not just of one epoch or one moment in time; it was a lifetime endeavour, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate from Guatemala, said. Beijing plus 10 had given rise to enormous expectations in all areas and in all countries, to continue to change existing systems, which were promoting racism, discrimination, exclusion and lack of opportunities for so many women. The task was not yet finished. Women had to go way beyond legal challenges to implement international principles and put forward national norms to make it possible for women to participate in the world with dignity.
Urging women, individually and collectively, to convince governments of the need for equal space and opportunity, Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate from Kenya, said today was a cause for celebration. The success of the Green Belt Movement, which had been created in the process of preparing for Mexico, had been everybodys success. As a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, she symbolized the efforts of all women to promote gender equality.
Also participating in the commemoration, in person and by video, were the Secretaries-General of the past four World Conferences on women, including Helvi Sipila, Secretary-General of the World conference on International Womens Year in 1975; Leticia Shahani, Secretary-General of the World conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women in 1985; and Gertrude Mogella, Secretary-General, United Nations Forth World Conference on Women in 1995. Glenda P. Simms, Executive Director, Bureau of Womens Affairs, Office of the Prime Minster of Jamaica, read excerpts of a statement by Lucille Mair, Secretary-General of the 1980 World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women.
The former Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, Angela E.V. King, also made a statement.
Shashi Tharoor, the Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, moderated the commemoration.
The Commission on the Status of Women will meet again at 3 p.m., to convene a panel discussion and adopt its draft declaration.
SHASHI THAROOR, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, in an opening statement as moderator of todays commemoration, said the Womens Conference had marked a sea change in the struggle for womens empowerment and equality. The cause of gender equality was now at the centre of the global agenda. International thinking about womens rights had gone through a distinct change. Today, the international community spoke in terms of empowerment and the full and equal participation of women. Todays meeting would have the honour of hearing from a galaxy of great women, including the Secretaries-General of all four world conferences.
HELVI SIPILA, Secretary-General, World Conference on the International Womens Year (1975), speaking by video, said it was well known that half of the world - the Western hemisphere - had only been discovered in the fifteenth century. It had taken another 500 years before half of humanity, namely, women, had received official recognition. The Commissions forty-ninth session was a continuation to the series of events that had started with the first United Nations World Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975. It was in Mexico that women from all over the world had engaged, for the first time, in international policy-making on a major scale, as members of their governmental delegations, and as full and equal partners with men. Reaffirming the guiding principles of the International Womens Year 1975 and the United Nations Decade for Women, a decision had been made in Mexico to promote the three goals of gender equality, development and peace.
Women had travelled a long way over the past 30 years, and the world had changed in many ways, she said. Women had made considerable strides towards gender equality. The world was starting to realize that women were active, important citizens, playing a key role in society. Gender equality was not an end in itself, however, but also included obligations and responsibilities. Every day was an opportunity for action, not just words. In 1995, she had said that not enough had been done to advance peace. Today, the world must ask, with greater determination than ever, what it could do to end violence, enhance national and international understanding and secure world peace.
RIGOBERTA MENCHU TUM, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate from Guatemala, paid tribute to all women who had died in recent decades as a result of torture, forced disappearance and rape. So many women had lost their lives, and she paid tribute to them and to the women fighting in all corners of the planet, each and every day. Despite the challenges and the despair, women had had moved forward in raising their children, in taking initiatives to preserve communities most sacred values. The womens fight was not just of one epoch or one moment in time; it was a lifetime endeavour. Beijing plus 10 had given rise to enormous expectations in all areas and in all countries, to continue to change existing systems, which were promoting racism, discrimination, exclusion and lack of opportunities for so many women. There were such great hopes pinned on every single woman in the room to be a beacon of hope for change, to invent new areas of hope for women.
She said that perhaps, in the future, the millions of young women on the streets of poor countries with children to raise could hope for a better life, a better country and a better humanity. The task was not yet finished; the women here had to go way beyond legal challenges to implement international principles and put forward national norms to make it possible for women to participate in the world with dignity. Progress must be made in the political arena, which required a body of initiatives to make it possible for all women to participate. Culturally, the world had abandoned some of the most sacred rights and values of the ancestral cultures. Those should be recovered, and it must be ensured that the next generation of women were willing fighters, too. Many public policies had still not included womens true participation. Most of all, women had to be the example of fighting exclusion and racism. Children everywhere were dreaming every day about a better world. It was up to women to see to it that dreams came true.
GLENDA SIMMS, Executive Director, Jamaican Bureau of Womens Affairs, and member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, read excerpts of the statement delivered by Lucille Mair, Secretary-General of the 1980 World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women at that conference. The World Plan of Action adopted in Mexico in 1975 had clearly stated that women were a critical component in every aspect of national life and development, including those traditionally considered the domain of men. It was important to review how far the world had come in making the new perspective of women as agents and participants rather than beneficiaries a reality in national and international life. The weight of the evidence suggested that, for the vast majority of women, the targets of the World Plan of Action remained elusive.
In education, despite an increase in female enrolment in many countries, two out of every three people who could not read were women, she said. Concerning health, data underscored the wide discrepancies between the health of women in different countries, and between different groups of women within the same country. Behind disappointing developments lay a failure to tackle one of the conceptual problems identified in the World Plan of Action, namely, the need to re-examine the definition of economic activity used in economic analysis and planning. While important victories had been won in the struggle for national liberation, in too many situations, women were equally involved with men in suffering and struggle. At the national level, womens integration into development must form an integral part of national planning and policy, she continued. At the same time, strategies had to be devised so that women could overcome the obstacles to their advancement.
BANI DUGAL, Chair of the non-governmental organization Committee on the Status of Women, said that today was a time for reflection and for recognizing the hard-won achievements of women, civil society, and progressive governments worldwide. It was also a time to place again before the world the shining standards and world-embracing vision enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - the progenitor of treaties and declarations calling for equality between women and men, and the clearest articulation of the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. It was also a time to reaffirm the commitments to the Beijing Platform for Action and the Beijing+5 outcome document.
She said that much of the struggle to advance womens status had been waged by dedicated, visionary and unrelenting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and womens groups. The growing strength and capacity of womens organizations representing the full spectrum of the worlds cultures and resources had become a driving force for change. They had put before all the unique challenges faced by women and girls, and the egregious violations of their rights in public and private domains. They had catalysed and shaped the international agenda -- putting forward such issues as recognition of the girl child, and the impact of HIV/AIDS, as well as the effect of globalization on women. Beyond raising the level of awareness and discourse, NGOs had provided much of the research about human rights abuses, and had boldly pushed governments to honour their commitments to the Beijing agenda. They had, themselves, shouldered many of the responsibilities of implementation.
The non-governmental organizations had raised their voice in solidarity from Mexico City to Beijing and, upon returning home, had set about translating vision into reality, often working against the restrictions and impediments put in their path by disinterested and sometimes unsupportive governments, she said. It was inescapable, however, that governments were the primary bearers of the responsibilities articulated in the global action plans. While many had signed and ratified key treaties, many laws on the books and accompanying practices had remained unchanged - paralysed by regressive ideologies of a bygone era. States could no longer be permitted to shirk their responsibilities on the pretext of domestic jurisdiction or cultural relativism.
She said there were no grounds -- moral, practical or biological -- on which denial of womens rights could be justified. Indeed, given the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights, discrimination against women denied her basic rights to freedom, education, health, development, employment, citizenship and security. The consequences of inaction and continuing discrimination against fully half of the worlds population were an affront to human dignity and a disavowal of the very principles of the United Nations, she said.
LETICIA SHAHANI, Secretary-General, World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women in 1985, said the gathering not only represented the political will for the advancement of women on the part of governments and NGOs, but also the sustained support of the United Nations system. During the two years that had gone into the drafting of the Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women, consensus had been elusive until the end. In 1985, apartheid had remained a scourge in Africa, the Palestine-Israel conflict had been unabated, and the structures of the cold war had not yet been dismantled. When a formula for consensus had been found, separate voting on many contentious paragraphs had been demanded. Several factors had contributed to the hard-won consensus, including political will on the part of many governments and the work done by NGOs.
During the debates leading to Nairobi, women from rich and poor countries had been deeply divided, she said. The consensus achieved at Nairobi meant that women worldwide could be united, despite major differences, in a spirit of solidarity and commitment to fundamental freedoms. That solidarity must be strengthened after Beijing+10. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, as well as the outcome document of the special session, should be implemented at the grass roots level. A retreat on that would be a blatant betrayal of the struggle and process initiated by women 30 years ago. The implementation of the Beijing Platform must go hand in hand with the Millennium Development Goals and should not be sacrificed for them. Contemporary history had shown that development plans, technical assistance and a high gross domestic product (GDP) did not automatically bring about dignity and quality of life. The drive for economic success should be balanced with equity, human solidarity and commitment to long-term goals. While a globalized world presented risks and threats, it also presented opportunities and possibilities.
GERTRUDE MONGELLA, Secretary-General, United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women (1995), said she came with a message from Africa -- Africa had never despaired, but had stayed on course for success. In Africa, the Beijing Platform had been implemented in many ways, as African leaders had decided that gender parity was the principle for development in Africa. She came with the voices of the African people to celebrate, but not to make light of the remaining problems to implementation. At the end of the Beijing Conference, she had declared a revolution has begun and theres no going back. That revolution had flowed from 30 years of tireless work to build the blocks for the foundation of the Beijing Conference. She wished to celebrate 10 years later the fact that gender equality had become a working concept worldwide, and to recognize the level of awareness of womens rights.
She also sought an appraisal of achievement of the 12 critical areas of concern identified at Beijing and wanted everyone to recall what those were: women and poverty; education and training of women; women and health; violence against women; women and armed conflict; women and economy; women in power and decision-making; institutional mechanisms for womens advancement; human rights of women; women in the media; women in the environment; and the girl children. She had been inspired by the achievements reached at difference levels. Indeed, the silence on the 12 critical areas had been broken worldwide. Women were visible, and women and men were now mobilized to see womens issues as societal issues, whether they liked it or not.
A new development had occurred in September 2000 when 189 world leaders committed themselves to freeing all men, women and children from abject poverty and the dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty by 2015. For that purpose, eight development goals had been drawn up, and if one read them, they would realize that their title should be changed to the Womens Millennium Goals because they all referred to issues in the Beijing Platform, including in the areas of extreme poverty and hunger, achievement of universal education, reduction of child mortality and improvement in maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, and ensuring a sustainable environment, and so forth. She was here to check the highway since the revolution had begun, to set a new speed limit and to remove the remaining obstacles. She was here to exchange lessons and recharge the energy. She was here to rededicate herself to what had already been agreed. She was not here to reverse anything, but only to speed it up.
ANGELA E.V. KING, former Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, said Beijing+5 had broken new ground. Known as the twenty-third special session of the General Assembly, it had combined the energy, colour and vibrancy of the previous four conferences, while being the first and largest ever special session. Its title had expanded that of Mexico to include gender before equality to underline that men had to join actively with women in the fight for equality. The twenty-third session had been successful in four principal tasks, including refocusing actions to take into account emerging factors, such as globalization, the HIV/AID pandemic, increased violence against women and girls, the revolution in communication technology, and mushrooming conflicts in many parts of the world. It had also reaffirmed Beijings goals and vindicated their continuing relevance as a sound basis for achieving gender equality. While the challenges of five years ago were much the same today, violence against women particularly during armed conflict, trafficking and the incidence of HIV/AIDS had intensified.
Many statements had been made this week indicating that the 1995 blueprint was solid and that much progress had been made, she said. She had heard little, however, of remaining challenges and gaps. While lack of implementation was obvious, had the tools to accelerate it been provided? In seeking to find gaps and challenges, several question had to be asked, including why stereotypes of womens limited roles were still so hard to change even among women. Also, why was it so difficult to have gender perspectives included in conference outcomes and action programmes? At the end of the twenty-first century, the world could ill afford to indulge in gender equality fatigue or complacency. Decisions made during the session were critical to the quality of life of the young women and men of tomorrow.
Having had the privilege of attending three of the four conferences, she said working with and for womens equality with men had been a road of enlightenment, always challenging, sometimes tense, but never mundane. The estimated attendance of over 6,000 with 80 government ministers and even higher officials showed that the Platform for Action was a living document and that the outcome of Beijing and its mid-term review mattered deeply to all Member States. In 1975, the Mexico Conference had ignited a spark of awareness among women of their shared hopes and common problems. With each successive conference, the spark had grown until it had become a living flame in Beijing.
RACHEL MAYANJA, Assistant Secretary-General, Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, said that the journey for womens empowerment, gender equality and womens human rights began in Mexico City in 1975. By the time the world arrived at Beijing 20 years later, the focus was not only on achieving equality and eliminating discrimination, but also on integrating women as full and equal partners in all policies and decision-making processes. The critical areas of concern were not identified through diplomatic negotiation alone, but had been shaped by the strong and organized power of the womens movement. That had also been the first time that governments had committed themselves to effective mainstreaming of gender dimensions into all policies, planning and programming.
She said that the process had started out with a development focus on womens needs and on womens advancement as an incremental move towards equality, but it became clear that adding women to a programme did not necessarily change womens living conditions, let alone the systems, structures and institutions based on injustice and oppression. So, women called for empowerment and a rights-based approach, which meant that they were no longer recipients of handouts or passive beneficiaries of development, but were full agents of change who questioned and transformed existing power structures and shaped development at all levels. As time went by, a new understanding evolved of gender as a core concept and a lens through which to view the world.
The concept of gender equality recognized that ending discrimination against women and girls required the involvement of men and boys, families, communities and nations, she said. That journey had been sustained by a strong global womens movement, of which the presence of the participants today was a powerful testimony. Despite divisions across national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political barriers, women activists built organizations and strong networks, whose influence in shaping priorities and agendas could not be overstated. Those groups had been crucial forces for transforming the way the world thought about women and gender issues. Women from the South and the North had mobilized governments, non-governmental organizations, the United Nations, the media, academia and their faith communities, and had built a vast body of knowledge and expertise.
What was needed now was strong leadership, enhanced political will and commitment of resources, she stressed. The world must be wary of a perception of gender as being a new word for women and of the continuing marginalization of gender issues. Male-gender specialists and more strategic alliances with young women and men were also needed. The world must also be aware of the danger of holding on too tight to the achievements made so far, rather than expanding the visions of the transformative nature of gender equality. In the last 30 years, men had gone to the moon and back, yet women were still at the same place they were, namely, trying to sensitize the world to the unwarranted and unacceptable marginalization of women, which deprived them of their human rights.
WANGARI MAATHAI, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate form Kenya, said that in 1975 the women of Kenya, like women around the world, had been preparing to go to Mexico. Women, particularly those from the rural areas, had emphasized the need for clean drinking water, energy, food and income. Those had been the main priority issues born in Kenyas National Council of Women and nurtured by many other African women. Women had been punished and harassed, but they should use the commemoration as an opportunity to celebrate their achievements. Without sharing the worlds resources equitably, conflict and war would not be avoided.
The success of the Green Belt Movement, which had been created in the process of preparing for Mexico, had been everybodys success, she said. As a Nobel Laureate, she symbolized all women. The Prize had been given in recognition of womens efforts throughout the years. Mexico had been a culmination of years of efforts. While there were still challenges, there were also many causes for celebration. Women, individually and collectively, would have to convince governments of the need to give them equal space and opportunity to exploit their potential. Participating in decision-making was not a gift to women, but a right. The remaining challenges included climate change, deforestation and poverty. Poor people should not be punished because of debt. Concluding, she called on women to embrace the slogan, reduce, reuse, recycle and repair, as they continued in their efforts for gender equality.
* *** *