Speakers Call for ‘Crystal Clear’ Priorities in Efforts to Improve Health, Protect Rights of Rural Women, as Commission Continues General Discussion

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Commission on the Status of Women
Fifty-sixth Session
6th & 7th Meetings (AM & PM)

Speakers Call for ‘Crystal Clear’ Priorities in Efforts to Improve Health, Protect Rights of Rural Women, as Commission Continues General Discussion

“Crystal clear” priorities – many of which would require major shifts in the attitudes of world leaders - began to take shape in the Commission on the Status of Women today, with senior-level Government officials calling for innovative strategies to improve the health of rural women, protect their rights and facilitate their engagement in economic and public life.

“We know very well what needs to be done,” said Norway’s State Secretary for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, as the Commission continued its fifty-sixth session. One message was crystal clear: gender equality and the empowerment of women were preconditions for sustainable development. To that end, delegations were calling for more action in three priority areas: the protection and promotion of rural women’s human rights; their full participation in economic life; and their engagement in political and public life.

However, there were barriers to action on those fronts at the highest levels of government, she cautioned. “Doing the right thing for women and for the planet would require a change of mindset […] among the rich and powerful elites around the world,” she said, noting in that respect that the majority of such leaders were men. For that reason, it was crucial to mobilize men and boys in favour of women’ empowerment, she emphasized. “Stop promoting the short-term self-interest,” she said, addressing male leaders directly and asking them to consider the long-term collective good. “Your first test will be [at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development] in Rio in four months,” she added.

As the Commission continued its general discussion throughout the morning, State ministers and other high-ranking Government officials said that some innovative actions towards improving the situation of rural women on a grand scale were making progress. Many delegates described national initiatives and policies in the areas of skills-training, education and raising awareness of women’s rights and support for female entrepreneurship, among others. For example, Turkey’s Deputy Minister for Family and Social Policy described his country’s national rural development strategy, which sought to create formal employment opportunities for women currently working in the informal economy. A programme establishing community centres aimed at promoting women’s participation in public life had been very successful, he said, adding that the model had even been exported to several other countries.

Pakistan’s Goodwill Ambassador on Women’s Empowerment spotlighted her country’s Benazir Income Support Programme, the largest-ever social-protection programme, saying that it provided direct financial support to women in poor households as well as skills-training, access to health-care insurance, education and loans for female entrepreneurship. Seven million poor families nationwide would benefit from the programme, she said, noting that in the last three years, more than 12 million women, 70 per cent of whom were from rural areas, had been given computerized national identification cards to gain access to multiple services.

Other delegates described their Governments’ efforts in the context of international development, with the representative of the United States emphasizing that investing in women was not only the right thing to do, it was the smart thing to do. In Uganda, for example, the United States was working with partners to implement women-led community-protection programmes in agriculture and sanitation, she said, adding that her country had also been involved in creating the innovative Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, launched in the Commission on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, other delegations illustrated their respective national experiences with several key issues that resounded throughout the morning’s discussion — women’s land rights and the complete elimination of female genital mutilation, a common practice in some rural parts of the world. Kenya’s Minister for Gender, Children and Social Development said her country was formulating new laws that would significantly transform women’s access to and control over land. In addition, Kenya had passed the 2011 Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act with a view to ending one of the most insidious practices affecting rural women’s health.

Uganda’s Minister of State for Gender and Culture said her country’s Government remained committed to translating policies in support of gender equality into action. It had adopted several important laws in that respect, including the Land Act, which guaranteed the right to occupancy where spousal consent was a requirement prior to any transaction on matrimonial land. Uganda had also intensified action to address gender-based violence, including female genital mutilation.

Several speakers referred to a draft resolution by which the General Assembly would call for the global eradication of female genital mutilation and called for action to adopt such a text at the earliest possible date. Burkina Faso’s Minister for the Promotion of Women expressed hope that the Commission would ask the General Assembly to adopt the text, thereby following the lead of the African Union’s Heads of State and Government Summit.

Still other delegations pointed to recent world events — the Arab Spring uprisings in particular — as evidence that the situation of women around the world was changing. The President of Egypt’s National Council for Women, speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, said her countrywomen had played a key role in the fight for freedom, dignity and social justice. Finland’s State Secretary for Education and Culture noted that, during the Arab Spring, women from different social backgrounds had joined together to demand empowerment. “A women or a girl can only be an active participant in society if she has the rights and knowledge needed to make decisions concerning her own body, sexuality and reproductive health,” he said, adding that empowerment increased the possibilities for women and girls to acquire a good education and find decent work outside their homes.

Also speaking during the morning’s general discussion were ministers, senior Government officials and other high-level representatives from Canada, Congo, Togo, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Panama, Tuvalu, Mozambique, Cameroon, Bangladesh, Peru, Nicaragua, Ireland, Argentina, Australia, Georgia, Germany, Sweden, India and Senegal.

An observer for Palestine also participated, as did a representative of the non-governmental organization International Alliance of Women.

In the afternoon, the Commission held a panel discussion on the role of gender-responsive governance and institutions in the empowerment of rural women.

The Commission will reconvene at 10 a.m., 1 March, to hold a panel discussion on “Financing for gender equality and the empowerment of women”.