Sunday, July 4, 2010

Gender Meet Ends on High Note with New "U.N. Women"

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 2, 2010 (IPS) - Nearly 50 government delegations spent the past week at U.N. headquarters in New York hashing over the progress that has been made and challenges that remain in pursuing gender parity worldwide, one of the crucial elements of the Millennium Development Goals.

Officially called the 'High-Level Segment of the Economic and Social Council's (ECOSOC) 2010 Annual Ministerial Review', the meet ended Friday with the adoption of a declaration re-asserting ECOSOC's commitment to achieving gender equality around the globe.

Each year, the Review focuses on one topic, assessing the progress made towards achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, as well as other goals and targets agreed upon at major U.N. conferences and summits. This year's theme was "implementing the internationally agreed goals and commitments in regard to gender quality and empowerment of women."

A record number of voluntary presentations were made at this year's review - 13 - with a near-even split between developing and developed nations.

Sha Zukang, under-secretary-general of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, told meeting attendees that the record participation "demonstrates a high level of international commitment to achieving gender equality".

The ministerial declaration adopts a variety of measures aimed at promoting gender equality worldwide. The most heralded element of the declaration is the establishment of an official United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, or U.N. Women, which was approved by the U.N. General Assembly this afternoon.

In a statement praising the creation of the entity, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said, "I am grateful to member states for having taken this major step forward for the world's women and girls. U.N. Women will significantly boost U.N. efforts to promote gender equality, expand opportunity, and tackle discrimination around the globe."

Some women's groups, such as AIDS-Free World - which championed the creation of the new entity - have complained that the appointment process for the top staff has not been fair or transparent, and that member states have been vague on the critical issue of funding.

Still, the mood Friday at U.N. headquarters was upbeat.

"I am very happy that one of the most important such efforts, the setting up of an entity to provide leadership and to mainstream women's issues in a coherent and focused manner at the UN, has finally borne fruit," said Preneet Kaur, minister of state for external affairs of India.

In addition to establishing U.N. Women, the ministerial declaration stresses the importance of employing a number of strategies to combat gender inequality. The seven-page document emphasizes the necessity of mainstreaming a gender perspective in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of programmes and policies in all political, economic, and social spheres.

Hamidon Ali, president of ECOSOC, explained simply, "Gender equality is crucial to all aspects of economic growth."

Key highlights of the declaration include integration of women into the formal economy, elimination of violence against women and girls, increased education and the eradication of illiteracy, improved access to public health systems, comprehensive legal frameworks that prohibit gender discrimination, increased access to microfinance and microcredit, and promotion of universal access to reproductive health.

"The declaration was adopted today in a spirit of collaboration and cooperation among all delegations," said Ali. "This year ECOSOC has sent a clear message that gender equality and empowerment are at the core of development."

A recurring theme throughout the week was the extent to which women have been negatively affected by the ongoing global food, climate, and finance crises. The ministerial declaration reads, "We recognize that women are disproportionately affected by many of these crises and challenges, but we also recognize that women have a key leadership role to play, including in decision-making, when responding to them."

With September's sixty-fifth General Assembly meeting on evaluating progress towards the Millennium Development Goals looming on the horizon, much discussion alluded to the connection between empowerment of women and successfully reaching the goals in five years' time. The declaration drew attention to the "unevenness" of progress, particularly in regard to Goal 3 of promoting gender equality, Goal 5 of improving maternal health, and Goal 6 of combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.

"Achieving Goal 3 is essential to the achievement of all the Millennium Development Goals," the document states. Ali echoed this in his assertion that "Gender equality lies at the very heart of the Millennium Development Goals."
The adoption of the ministerial declaration was seen as a laudable event by many, foreshadowing success for September's meeting.
"Investment in women and girls should be at the centre of the national agenda coming out of the 2010 summit in order to meet the goals of 2015," said Ali. "I take this positive outcome as a good omen for the Millennium Development Goal summit."

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Violence against women is a worldwide yet still hidden problem. Freedom from the threat of harassment, battering, and sexual assault is a concept that most of us have a hard time imagining because violence is such a deep part of our cultures and lives.