Many Women for ‘Cultural’ Reasons Sidelined From Systems Set Up to Help Them, Commission Told

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Commission on the Status of Women
Fifty-eighth Session
15th Meeting* (AM)

Civil Society Representatives Round out Session’s Debate

Too many women and girls were forced to drop out of school, to toil in precarious jobs or to give up control over their own bodies, especially when harmful practices were carried out in unsafe and unhygienic conditions, sometimes in the name of culture, representatives of non-governmental groups told the Commission on the Status of Women today.

Speakers from 24 non-governmental groups rounded out the Commission’s general debate, urging Governments to reform discriminatory laws and policies that excluded women from the very services and systems set up to help them. All areas of public and private life required scrutiny in order to overturn the social and cultural norms that perpetuated gender bias.

Nowhere was that more apparent, said the representative of the International Development Law Organization, than in national justice systems, which were often too expensive and time-consuming for women to access. Many often turned to informal redress, also encountering prejudice. By creating opportunities for women to become litigators, judges and court officers, their access to legal systems and due process would improve.

Many countries also had laws in place that criminalized abortion, said the representative of Ipas, urging that universal access to health services, including safe abortions, be provided, and that punitive abortion laws be reformed. When States failed to recognize sexual and reproductive rights, added the representative of the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights, they endorsed institutional violence against women.

Commercial exploitation was another huge barrier to achieving gender equality, speakers said, including the representative of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, who asserted that young girls entered the sex trade as minors. Nor did her victimization end when she reached age 18; the discrimination she suffered as a girl remained intact. Governments must increase support for victims and initiate public campaigns aimed at eliminating demand.

Others pointed to the brutal treatment endured by people with diverse sexual identities, often in the name of religion. The representative of Federatie van NederlandseVerenigingen tot Integratie van Homoseksualiteit COC Nederland said the persecuted were often forced to recede to society’s margins. He called for new development paradigms to address such realities, as development under those conditions compromised people’s basic human rights.

The same was true for indigenous women, said the representative of the Indian Law Resource Center, stressing that their dual status as women and indigenous made them more vulnerable to multiple forms of abuse, including murder, which was 10 times higher among Native American women in the United States than the national average.

Such discrimination underscored the need for the United Nations to re-evaluate the methods used to achieve gender equality, said the representative of Feminist Majority Foundation — Working Group on Girls. The issues of education, poverty and violence must be a focus of the next development agenda. Being a girl should not be an impediment but an empowerment, the speaker said.

Strongly agreeing, the representative of Equality Now, herself an adolescent, passionately called for listening to the voices of adolescent girls, who were often ignored. All forms of violence were carried out against them and institutions charged with caring for them often failed to do so. “Educate us, so we know how to lead”, she said, adding “we’re falling through the cracks.”

Also today, the Commission agreed that the Chair and Bureau of the fifty-ninth session would take up, intersessionally, two matters left pending in the current session, owing to its workload: the 20 December 2013 letter from the President of the Economic and Social Council to the Chair of the Commission (document E/CN.6/2014/10) and a note by the Secretariat, entitled “Implementation of General Assembly resolution 68/1 on the strengthening of the Economic and Social Council” (document E/CN.6/2014/10).

Also today, four draft resolutions were introduced on: “Release of women and children taken hostage, including those subsequently imprisoned, in armed conflicts”, by the representative of Azerbaijan; “Gender equality and empowerment of women in natural disasters”, by the representative of Japan; “Women, the girl child and HIV and AIDS”, by the representative of Malawi; and “Situation of and assistance to Palestinian women”, by the representative of Bolivia.

Also speaking in today’s general debate was the Chair of the Committee of Women and Family of Tajikistan.

Representatives of the following organizations also spoke: Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development; (Post 2015 Coalition) Center for Women’s Global Leadership; Federation for Women and Family Planning Network; NGO/CSW Africa; HelpAge International; Human Rights Now; International Federation of University Women; PEN International; International Trade Union Confederation; International Women’s Health Coalition; Presbyterian Church; (MenCare+ consortium) Stichting Rutgers WPF, Women for Human Rights, single women group; World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts; International Association of Democratic Lawyers; and Red de Salud de las Mujeres Latinoamericanas y del Caribe.

The Commission will reconvene on Friday, 21 March at 10 a.m. to take action on draft resolutions.


The Commission on the Status of Women met today to continue its fifty-eighth session.


Ms. KADIROVA ( Tajikistan), Chair, Committee of Women and Family, said social reforms in her country were aimed at strengthening equality in national legislation. To suppress violence against women, the Government had adopted a law to prevent it, and in 2010, introduced a course on that topic.

Building on positive momentum in advancing gender-equality legislation, Tajikistan was taking steps towards implementation, and the Committee was working with local civil society in that regard. Enhancing women’s economic potential and competitiveness in the labour market would promote genuine equality. To stimulate women’s employment, the Government was promoting entrepreneurship. In 2012, changes to the Family Code had raised the minimum marriage age from 17 years to 18 years old. Also, legislation had been adopted to protect women’s reproductive health.

IRENE KHAN, International Development Law Organization, said too many girls dropped out of school, too many women toiled in precarious jobs, and violence against them persisted as a scar on the face of humanity. The rule of law offered substantive justice and due process, including respect for human rights. Yet, in many countries, women did not benefit from rule of law, but rather, lived under the rule by law in ways that limited whom they could marry, compromised the control they had over their own bodies and even what they could wear. Where the law provided a remedy, it was difficult for women to seek justice, as the system was too expensive and time consuming. Many turned to informal justice systems, where there too, they encountered prejudice. “We must prioritize women’s access to justice and the rule of law,” she said, stressing that women’s greater participation in the justice sector would significantly improve their access to justice and the quality they received from its pursuit.

VIRISILA BUADROMO, Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development, said that in the last two decades, the world had experienced a number of interrelated crises, although today, the international community had the opportunity to envision a better world for all. Meanwhile, the Millennium Development Goals had failed to fulfil their mission and did not address the structural barriers for women and girls. Women needed economic empowerment measures and real transformation, as well as a redistribution of power, wealth and justice. There should also be a stand-alone goal on gender that addressed the root causes of women’s rights violations. She called for an ambitious, inclusive new road map that addressed their concerns and demanded justice.

NEBILA ABDULMELIK, (Post 2015 Coalition) Center for Women’s Global Leadership, said that the future development agenda must be grounded in human rights and environmental sustainability. She supported the call for a stand-alone goal on gender equality in the coming development agenda and called for a transformative process that would lead to peaceful societies. The post-2015 road map must focus on the enabling environment and structures that limited women’s realization of their rights. Militarization and small arms spending should also be addressed, as full economic development could not be achieved without disarmament. A new global partnership should be developed, which addressed the marginalization of women and established links with human rights mechanisms on the national and international levels. That human rights approach required greater understanding of States’ responsibility with regard to women’s empowerment.

EKATERINA GREBENSHCHIKOVA, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, urged changes in laws and policies that addressed trafficking of women and girls, including prostitution. Commercial exploitation was a significant barrier to achieving gender equality. Entry into the commercial sex trade occurred when a girl was a minor. Her victimization did not end when she reached age 18; she did not miraculously become a voluntary worker in the sex trade. The discrimination she suffered as a girl remained intact. To tackle the problem, Governments must increase their support for victims and initiate public campaigns aimed at preventing victimization and eliminating demand.

SHELBY QUAST, Equality Now, said “I am an adolescent girl. My needs are unique”. Adolescent girls lived in every region of the world. They might be in school, married or living in a refugee camp. Too often, they were not heard. All forms of violence were carried out against them, especially under the guise of culture, which undermined their human rights. Institutions charged with caring for them often failed to do so. They were treated as pieces of property. “Soon, we will be leaders,” she said, appealing for education “so we know how to lead”. She appealed for help in making informed choices, urging Governments to also involve families, religious leaders and teachers in order to shift social values. Adolescent girls must not be invisible. “Collect and share data that reflect our stories”, she urged, adding: “Ask us if your programmes are effective”. Adolescent girls were their own category, uniquely capable to end the cycles of inequality and poverty, yet, she said, “We’re falling through the cracks.”

KENITA PLACIDE, Federatie van NederlandseVerenigingen tot Integratie van Homoseksualiteit COC Nederland, said those with diverse sexual identities faced brutal treatment in the developed and developing worlds, and offences were often perpetuated in the name of religion. Development under such conditions compromised people’s basic rights, and those who were persecuted were often forced to recede into the margins. Whether at the national or international level, decision makers must stop acting only for their geopolitical gain. Globally, gender and sexual nonconformists faced abuses, particularly young people. What did sustainable development and universal human rights mean under such circumstances? New development paradigms must address the experiences and realities of all people, and States must demonstrate real political will.

ANNA NIKOGHOSYAN, Federation for Women and Family Planning Network, said the Millennium Development Goals were an important contribution to women’s human rights. However, the framework left behind many unfinished tasks in Central and Eastern Europe. Some Governments still opposed legal and safe abortions or access to contraceptives, which set severe limitations for girls and women. Survivors of violence lacked access to critical services, and women and girls were dying because of inaction to curb violence against them. The Governments of Central and Eastern Europe must ensure sexual and reproductive rights, and access to education. Appropriate steps must be taken to eradicate gender-based violence and protect the right to “ender expression”.

CHRISTINA SELBY, Feminist Majority Foundation — Working Group on Girls, said the United Nations must re-evaluate methods for achieving gender equality, by incorporating women and girls in the post-2015 development agenda. A stand-alone goal on gender equality required consideration. Education, poverty and violence must be a focus, as must the consistent inclusion of girls. On the education front, she urged a focus on secondary and tertiary education, as learning gaps persisted for girls. Schools should teach real-life issues, including respect, tolerance and health. Girls should be encouraged to pursue any subject, in order to eliminate stereotypes. Yet, education was only half of the equation. Females must have the same opportunities as their male counterparts to enter the workplace. Awareness must be raised, especially among boys and men, on the effects of violence. Being a girl should not be an impediment in the next development agenda, but an empowerment.

LEAH CHATTA-CHIPEPA, NGO/CSW Africa, expressed deep concern that gender inequality continued to pose risks to attaining the Millennium Development Goals. With that, she called for accelerated efforts to achieve the Goals, while urging the creation of a transformative post-2015 agenda and a stand-alone goal on gender equality. Women’s rights, she stressed, must be integrated across the entire framework with adequate resources. She called for women’s access, control and ownership of resources, including to land, water and agricultural inputs; zero tolerance for violence against women and girls, including female genital mutilation; sexual and reproductive health rights, including universal access to integrated services; gender parity at all decision-making levels in the public and private spheres; decent work and universal social protections; and a bold vision for addressing the HIV epidemic, with a focus on women and girls.

PATRICIA BROWNELL, HelpAge International, said gender equality lasted a lifetime, yet the challenges facing women in old age were almost entirely absent from discussions on a post-2015 agenda. The development goals failed to address gender equality for women of all ages. Rather, they compartmentalized it and addressed only certain aspects of women’s lives. The Goals also failed to recognize that gender inequality took place at different stages of women’s lives, including in old age. There was growing consensus that gender equality was essential for sustainable development and poverty eradication. However, the debate failed to take into account that the world’s population was growing at an unprecedented rate and that people were living longer. Women remained subjected to violence and abuse in old age, and also faced discrimination in accessing paid employment and financial services. Any future gender equality goal, therefore, must target women of all ages.

MARI INOUE, Human Rights Now, said that three years since the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, which had resulted in massive environmental damage, there was still no clear plan for addressing the disaster and the Government’s response remained inadequate. Affected people were entitled to live in a healthy and safe environment, but adequate resources were not being diverted to the affected areas. The disaster had a disproportionate impact on women and girls due to their inherent vulnerabilities. Moreover, there was no effective mechanism for their participation in the development of post-disaster decision-making policies. The international community must protect women against immediate and long-term health effects related to the disaster, she said, urging the international community to initiate a dialogue for that purpose.

CHRIS FOLEY, Indian Law Resource Center, said the Millennium Development Goals had omitted a goal or indicator on violence against women and girls. The human rights framework sought in 2000 could best measure achievement in that regard. Gender-based abuse was a human rights violation. Indigenous women in particular suffered multiple forms of discrimination and violence — because they were women and they were indigenous. Race-based discriminatory laws in the United States afforded Native American women fewer protections, in part because they were assaulted on their lands. One in three would be raped in her life, and their murder rate was 10 times the national average. He supported integration of women’s rights into all United Nations goals, urging the Organization to convene a high-level conference on securing women’s well-being. He called for the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous women and children.

POLLY WOODARD, International Federation of University Women, said barriers to learning included cultural and traditional biases, unsafe schools and a lack of educational resources, such as textbooks and qualified female teachers. Migrant and refugee children were at special risk. In many developing countries, many girls could not access post-primary education. It was essential to keep women and girls in school and facilitate their access to tertiary education, which made them less vulnerable to poverty, abuse and maternal mortality. A gender imbalance in the basic sciences was attributed, in part, to the decrease in the number of women allowed to progress from secondary to tertiary school and onwards. Governments should honour international treaty obligations on the education of women and girls, as well as devise policies that encouraged their enrolment in the sciences. Women should also become involved in politics and their access to economic and technical resources should be ensured.

SARAH CLARKE, PEN International, said that by all accounts, the education targets within the Millennium Development Goals would not be reached. Gender-based violence in schools was a major contributor to the lack of equality education. The current framework was focused specifically on access to education but failed to address its quality, including the importance of freedom of expression and access to literature. Linguistic diversity must be protected; however, many minority communities lacked access to printed materials in their mother tongues. International PEN believed the post-2015 agenda should focus on the national context where there was a better chance for civil society involvement and where a lifelong learning framework could be created and promoted.

VICKY SMALLMAN, International Trade Union Confederation, said decent work, access to public education and quality public services should be at the core of the post-2015 agenda. To address income inequality, the new development framework must focus on employment and address the large number of women who were in informal sectors. Gender-sensitive policies must be designed and implemented, particularly with regard to women’s important caregiver roles. Trade unions could pay a key role in the fair distribution of income and power and must be at the centre of future policy debates. Inequality could not be addressed through economic and labour policies alone; social protection floors must also be established and applied at national levels, while targets must be set for basic social security guarantees.

CLARA FOK, International Women’s Health Coalition, expressed deep concern at the lack of political will to champion women’s health rights and urged States to recommit to advancing them. In that context, she called for respect for and fulfilment of the sexual rights of women and girls. Governments must commit to comprehensive sex education; provide access to integrated sexual and reproductive health services, including safe abortions and emergency contraception; address the root causes of gender inequalities; take immediate action to end violence against women and girls, including female genital mutilation; and ensure all women had equal access to resources for decision-making at all levels. She supported a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment in the post-2015 agenda.

CECILIA ESPINOZA, Ipas, said access to safe and legal abortion was a matter of public health and human rights, making progress vital on the Millennium Development Goals. Yet, abortion was often criminalized, which violated women’s rights to dignity and equality. While many countries had taken measures to protect women’s right to safe and legal abortions, others still had restrictive abortion laws. Criminalizing it and curtailing access disproportionately affected poor and rural women. As such, she urged support for women to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights and to make decisions over their bodies, with universal access to services. She also urged reform of punitive abortion laws.

CHRISTINE MANGALE, Presbyterian Church, asked Governments to enact polices to address widespread poverty and access issues facing women, who were often not given equal opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. Women and girls’ access to health services was crucial, yet women’s human rights, including access to sexual reproductive health and services, were often violated. The faith community had worked hard for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and supported UN-Women’s call for a stand-alone gender equality goal in the future agenda.

JANI VAN DER SAND, (MenCare+ consortium) Stichting Rutgers WPF, said that engaging boys and men to identify solutions for gender quality had proven effective. In many cases, men were already doing their share of caregiving and speaking out against gender-based violence. To break through and change perceptions as to what it meant to be a man, men and women needed to come together to redefine traditional gender stereotypes. Men should be identified as supportive partners and engaged as allies to address the pervasive threat of violence against women. They must also be encouraged to participate as caring fathers, for which a legal framework for parental leave should be put in place.

ANNETTE LAWSON, Women for Human Rights, single women group, drew attention to harmful traditional practices, such as child marriage. An estimated 60 per cent of all women in conflict-affected countries were widows, and stigma against them harmed girls. Impoverished widows often withdrew their daughters from school, making them vulnerable to trafficking and other abuses. Women were denied inheritance rights, leading them to beg and forcing them into sex industry work. She welcomed a reference to such issues in the draft agreed conclusions and supported a stand-alone goal on gender equality in the post-2015 agenda. She asked that the “blanket of invisibility” be lifted on widowhood with data collected on women’s marital status. Women must be recognized as agents of change in peacebuilding and represented at the negotiation tables. A “widowhood desk” at UN-Women should be supported, and a Special Representative on Widowhood should be appointed. Widowhood also should be a focus of the Commission in 2016.

MAREVIC PARCON, Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights, said women and girls worldwide faced discriminatory treatment, forced or coerced abortions and sterilizations, and the denial of health services, including to safe abortions. When States failed to recognize sexual and reproductive rights, they endorsed institutional violence against women. That must cease, especially for women and girls living with HIV, who must be able to decide about their sexual and reproductive health, free from coercion. Amid the feminization of HIV, development strategies focused on prevention, which did not account for HIV-positive women and encouraged discrimination. Issues of sexual and reproductive health should be included in a future agenda. It was a joint responsibility to position a gender-based response to HIV within the human rights framework.

ERIN WICKING, World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, said that while the Millennium Development Goals had achieved some success, a disproportionate number of women and girls had been left behind. Adolescent girls were the world’s most economically vulnerable group. Even in the twenty-first century, women and girls still faced significant gender-based violence. Girls faced the double discrimination of their gender and age. The world must eliminate that gender-based violence and all other discriminatory traditional practices, and women must have a role in decision-making. Access to health services should be universal, and sexual and reproductive rights must be protected. Girls and women were more than statistics, and their voices must count in shaping humanity.

GLORIA BLETTER, International Association of Democratic Lawyers, drew attention to energy resources and related issues, such as distribution networks, access and costs. States should help women feel safer in a well-lit environment, and use appliances that made housework more efficient and allowed them to start income-generating activities in their homes. It was paramount for sustainable development to include women and girls in a participatory process on the planning, construction and monitoring of energy plants, electricity grids and pipelines. Also, use of renewable energy should not lead to the loss of energy resources for women. Land for energy generation, for example, must never be acquired illegally by private resource extractors. Gender equality and women’s increased participation was an opportunity to underpin the development of sustainable forms of energy, as well as their generation and distribution at fair prices.

SERGIA GALVÁN ORTEGA, Red de Salud de las Mujeres Latinoamericanas y del Caribe, welcomed the United Nations commitment to sexual and reproductive rights. There was a new paradigm in the market economy, requiring a “stepped up” State presence to tackle social injustices against women. Women must be able to access their social and economic rights, yet they still died from unsafe abortions and a lack of access to efficient health services. States had obligations in the Beijing and Cairo Platforms for Action, she said, expressing hope that the Montevideo Consensus for Development would lead to a paradigm change. The Women’s Commission, for its part, must rise to the expectations for its work.

  • The 14th Meeting was closed.

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