Amid Slow Progress, Leaders Must Be Held Accountable for Promises to Expedite Equal Rights, Gender Equality Chief Says as Women’s Commission Opens Session

Without timely help from local police officers, Purity Soinato Oiyie, a 22 year-old Maasai woman from Kenya, would have been genitally circumcised as a child then married off to a 70-year-old man, the Commission on the Status of Women heard today at the opening of its sixty-second session.

Instead, she had become the first woman in her community to finish university and now she dreamed of pursuing a graduate degree, Ms. Soinato Oiyie told the Commission, whose session, to be held from 12 to 23 March, would focus on the priority theme of achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls. Wearing a Maasai necklace beaded with the words Stop FGM [female genital mutilation], she delivered a joint statement on behalf of civil society, with Tarcila Rivera Zea, a Quechuan activist in Peru and leader in the indigenous women's movement. Ms. Rivera Zea said that, while previous generations had aimed at female literacy, new dreams, such as those of Ms. Soinato Oiyie, were now building ever brighter futures.

Such dreams must be realized, said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women). It has never been so urgent to hold leaders accountable for their promises for accelerating progress on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development objectives, she said, stressing that progress was slowing and even reversing. Still, around the world, an unprecedented hunger for change in women's lives was growing alongside a recognition that, when women banded together, they can make demands that bite.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said progress for women and girls meant changing the unequal power dynamics that underpinned discrimination and violence. All men should support women's rights, which is why I consider myself a proud feminist, he continued. Since his appointment as Secretary-General, gender parity in the United Nations Senior Management Group had been met for the first time, a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment had been established and an initiative was addressing sexual exploitation and abuse by those serving the United Nations. But, change must go beyond strategies and statistics.

Echoing those words, General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak (Slovakia) said neither peace nor development could take hold without women's leadership and participation. Cornelia Richter, Vice-President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), underscored that all the 2030 Agenda's Sustainable Development Goals hinged on the realization of Goal 5 on gender equality, adding that empowering rural women and girls was both possible and essential.

Elaborating on related objectives, Economic and Social Council President Marie Chatardova (Czech Republic), said gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls spanned all the Sustainable Development Goals. Indeed, the Commission's focus on rural aspects was both timely and well-aligned with the 2030 Agenda and the Council's work. As the Commission had long provided a road map for the United Nations in empowering women and promoting gender equality, its work should continue to guide and inspire Member States and stakeholders across the world.

Newly elected Commission Chair Geraldine Byrne Nason (Ireland) said the current session was a key moment on the path to ending discrimination against women and girls once and for all. Indeed, time is up on women taking second place around the world, she said, challenging the Commission to do more and do better.

Also during the opening segment, Dubravka Simonovic, Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, cited significant recent achievements, including the 2017 adoption by the African Commission on Human and People's Rights of new guidelines combating sexual violence. She also described a major global change of attitudes and a shift from tolerance and normalization to open rejection of perpetrators of violence against women. Dalia Leinart, Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, introduced its report on its sixty-seventh and sixty-eighth sessions (document E/CN.6/2018/12), highlighting a special focus on education, land ownership and access to health and reproductive care.

At the outset of the meeting, the Commission elected Shah Asif Rahman (Bangladesh) and Rena Tasuja (Estonia) as Vice-Chairs and designated Koki Muli Grignon (Kenya) as Rapporteur. The Commission also appointed the representatives of Nigeria, Qatar and the Russian Federation to serve on the Working Group on Communications for the session.

In the afternoon, the Commission held four ministerial round tables, titled good practices in the empowerment of rural women and girls, the first two focusing on education, infrastructure and technology, food security and nutrition, and the second two centred on access to justice, social services and health care, and the prevention of gender-based violence.

The session's priority theme would steer high-level interactive dialogues and guide negotiations on draft proposals expected to be adopted at the closing meeting on Friday, 23 March.

Opening Remarks

GERALDINE BYRNE NASON (Ireland), Chair of the sixty-second session of the Commission on the Status of Women, welcomed all participants, especially those civil society representatives whose engagement would ensure the Commission's work took a tangible form in communities across the globe. Urging all participants to deliver concrete, actionable results, she said the Commission should not be known as a meeting or an acronym, but as an instrument to truly promote the rights of women around the globe. We have a moral obligation as we begin our work, she stressed, calling on the Commission to do more and do better. Participants must be honest in recognizing shortcomings that had long impeded the progress of women and girls, and strive harder to reach the goals enshrined in the of 1995 Beijing Platform for Action.

Also welcoming this session's focus on the rights and empowerment of rural women and girls, she recalled that women in her native Ireland � one of the most rural of all the countries in Europe � knew what it meant to struggle against such challenges as food shortages, poverty and migration. However, Irish women had become unrivalled agents of change, helping their country develop rapidly. While data today revealed that women and girls still suffered disproportionately from global challenges, they also led the fight to end hunger and poverty, shine light on injustice and build peace in local communities around the world. Rural women and girls must be at the heart of the United Nations sustainable development efforts, she stressed, urging the Organization to redouble efforts to bring them to the decision-making table. Calling, in particular, for normative guidance, action-oriented commitments and tangible results on the part of policy makers, she described the current session as a key moment on the path to ending discrimination against women and girls once and for all. Indeed, she concluded, time is up on women taking second place around the world.

ANTA�NIO GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said that women around the world were telling their stories, from #MeToo to #TimesUp, calling out abusive behaviour and discrimination. Centuries of patriarchy had left a damaging legacy, with women underrepresented in science, art and at the United Nations, where female ambassadors hovered around 20 per cent. It is only when we have changed statistics like these that we can truly say we are in a new era for women and girls, he said. By building equality, we give women a chance to fulfil their potential. We also build more stable societies.

The Commission's theme focusing on rural women addressed a marginalized group, he said. They were often the backbone of their families and communities, managing land and resources. The Commission was leading the way to listen to and support them. Doing so was essential to fulfilling the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Highlighting some of the steps the United Nations had taken since he became Secretary-General, he said gender parity in the Senior Management Group had been met for the first time. A zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment had been established and an initiative was addressing sexual exploitation and abuse by those serving the United Nations.

But, change must go beyond strategies and statistics, he said. Progress for women and girls meant changing the unequal power dynamics that underpinned discrimination and violence, he said, adding that all men should support women's rights. That is why I consider myself a proud feminist, he continued. The work of the Commission was vital. Women's abilities were limitless and their ambitions infinite. I urge you to continue to raise your voices for women's equality, dignity and human rights. Your work is essential to a more just and decent world for all. I am committed to doing my part, he said.

MARIE CHATARDOVA (Czech Republic), President of the Economic and Social Council, said the Commission was a critical instrument in the United Nations efforts to strengthen the global normative framework for the empowerment of women and the promotion of gender equality. Noting that it was also a key driver of the Economic and Social Council's work, she said the Commission's outcomes would help support the 2030 Agenda's implementation, as well as that of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. During its forthcoming session, the High-Level Political Forum under the Council's auspices would consider the theme, Transformation towards Sustainable and Resilient Societies, focusing on Goal 6 on water and sanitation, Goal 7 on energy for all, Goal 11 on cities and human settlements, Goal 12 on sustainable consumption and production, Goal 15 on life on earth and Goal 17 on partnerships.

Noting that gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls was a cross-cutting issue across all those goals, she said the Commission's focus on rural women and girls was both timely and well-aligned with the 2030 Agenda and the Council's work. Inclusion was a key element of all those efforts, she said, announcing her intention to convene a special Council session in May aimed at building sustainable, inclusive and resilient societies. Noting that the Commission had long provided a road map for the United Nations work in women's empowerment and promoting gender equality, she said it would also play a critical role in that special session, and should continue to guide and inspire Member States and stakeholders across the world.

MIROSLAV LAJCA�K (Slovakia), President of the General Assembly, said mistakes had been made in the past in approaching challenges without considering a gender perspective. Women must be taken into account in all actions, from access to water to closing pay gaps. Empowering rural women would benefit all. Highlighting the work of farmers in bettering their communities, he said they needed the international community's support to realize all their goals. Neither peace nor development could take hold with women's leadership and participation, he said, encouraging the Commission to carry on with its important work until there was equality for all women and girls. Thank you for continuing your calls, he said. Let's make them stronger than ever.

PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA, Under-Secretary-General for Gender Equality and Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) said women in rural areas were lagging in every gender and development indicator. Moreover, progress was slowing and even reversing. It has never been so urgent to hold leaders accountable for their promises for accelerating progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, she said. An unprecedented hunger for change in women's lives was being seen around the world, as well as a growing recognition that when women banded together, they can make demands that bite.

She urged the Commission to find answers, pull together diverse views and agree on conclusions that demonstrated that it was there for the 1 billion people living in extreme poverty. The Spotlight Initiative, recently launched by the European Union and United Nations, would provide significant investment to fight violence against women and girls in Asia, Africa and Latin American and the Caribbean. Gender parity in the senior management team of the United Nations demonstrated that change was possible, and how important it was for men and boys to be part of that journey of change.

The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements had demonstrated that change could happen fast and that women must be believed, she said. While due process was important, only a handful of men had so far experienced the consequences of their actions, while 1 billion women were living with the long-lasting after-effects of violence. Their story has to be told, she said. With the most grass-roots participation ever, the Commission this year provided an historic platform for a new dynamic of change. Rural women needed the Commission to unite around a common cause, she added, urging it to make its session a moment of real acceleration, change and accountability.

CORNELIA RICHTER, Vice-President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), also speaking on behalf of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Food Programme (WFP), said that women were standing up around the world to make their voices heard on injustice, gender inequality and sexual coercion. But, while women in cities could march together to gain strength through solidarity, those who lived in remote communities risked being left behind. Rural women and girls often faced inequalities and lacked authority in their homes. Globally, there had been progress, including gains in food security and nutrition and maternal mortality. But, evidence showed that women were more likely than men to be food insecure and poor. Also, rural women spent more time than men doing unpaid care and domestic work. Discrimination in access to and ownership of land was of particular concern, because land tenure was associated with higher agricultural production and more sustainable livelihoods.

The empowerment of rural women and girls was both possible and essential, she said, underscoring that all the Sustainable Development Goals hinged on the realization of Goal 5 on gender equality. Legal barriers to rural women's empowerment must be eliminated. Governments, development agencies and other actors needed to work together to guarantee equal rights for men and women without distinction. Agricultural policy decisions should be based on a sound understanding of gender dimensions. In addition, quality education and the ongoing transfer of information and practical skills would broaden the range of choices for women. With increased capacities, confidence and bargaining power, rural women could fully contribute to the development of their communities.

TARCILA RIVERA ZEA and PURITY SOINATO OIYIE, civil society representatives, delivered a joint statement on behalf of rural women and girls. Recalling some of their experiences, Ms. SOINATO OIYIE expressed pride in being a voice for young women, adding that it was her first time outside Kenya and taking an airplane. Ms. RIVERA ZEA said her mother made sure she learned how to read and dream, emphasizing that with literacy, a woman developed a sense of her rights. That challenge for past generations had given way to a new future with new dreams. Sharing some of her dreams for continuing higher education studies, Ms. SOINATO OIYIE said the police had rescued her when her father had organized a female circumcision ceremony and arranged marriage to a 70-year-old man. Having lived in a rescue centre for eight years, she had now finished an undergraduate degree, becoming the first woman in her Maasai community to do so, and was free to choose to marry and to pursue her dreams.

DALIA LEINART, Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, introduced its report on its sixty-seventh and sixty-eighth sessions (document E/CN.6/2018/12), noting that the sessions had focused, among other things, on women's education, their right to land ownership and their access to health and reproductive care. Noting that the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was the only international convention that specifically protected the rights of rural women, she recalled that, last week, it had adopted general recommendation on the gender-related dimensions of disaster risk reduction in the context of climate change. It had also explored the importance of education in the promotion and protection of women's empowerment and gender equality and focused on a number of particular situations around the world. In that regard, she said the Committee had requested the Government of Myanmar to submit an exceptional report by May on allegations of rape committed against Rohingya women in that country's Rakhine Xtate, and found that restrictions imposed on women's reproductive rights in northern Ireland constituted a violation of several articles of the Convention. In addition, she expressed concern over the impact of the United Nations shrinking resources on its treaty body system, and requested Member States to contribute funds to allow the Committee to fulfil its mandate.

DUBRAVKA SIMONOVIC, Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, described a major global change of attitudes and a shift from tolerance and normalization to open rejection of perpetrators of violence against women. It all started with the transformative #MeToo movement originating in Hollywood that spread to other parts of the world, she said. Also drawing attention to the No One More movement against femicide and gender-relating killings, she voiced concern over the emergence of some pushback movements such as one condemning the spread of so called gender ideology. Calling on all people to come together to promote a constructive, positive and truthful interpretation of the term gender, she said other significant recent achievements had included the May 2017 adoption by the African Commission on Human and People's Rights of a new set of Guidelines Combating Sexual Violence and its Consequences and the United Nations establishment of a new Victims' Rights Advocate role. In 2017, she had presented to the Human Rights Council a report on human rights-based approaches to shelter and protection orders, highlighting that many States tended to perceive the establishment of such shelters as voluntary commitments and not part of their human rights obligations. In that regard, she called for the creation of a United Nations database on that issue, and hoped it would be included in the Agreed Conclusions of the Commission's present session.

Ministerial Round Tables 1 and 2

In the afternoon, the Commission held two ministerial-level round table discussions on the theme good practices in the empowerment of rural women and girls, including access to education, infrastructure, technology and nutrition, chaired respectively by Indrk Saar, Minister for Culture of Estonia and Margaret Kobla, Cabinet Secretary for Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs of Kenya.

Mr. SAAR, delivering opening remarks, said that realizing the right of rural women and girls to quality, affordable and accessible education was not only at the core of Goal 4, but also a stepping stone for economic empowerment, political participation and the exercise of many other rights. However, data indicated that girls and women were lagging behind their urban counterparts, he said, noting that information and communication technologies tended to reach rural areas last. Moreover, rural women and girls were still suffering from food insecurity and malnutrition.

He asked Ministers participating in the discussion to highlight steps being taken by their Governments to ensure affordable quality education for rural women and girls; what investments they were making to ensure that sustainable energy, transport, water and sanitation improved the lives of rural women and girls; initiatives undertaken by Member States to ensure that information and communications technologies benefited rural women and girls; and national policies that helped rural women and girls gain access to quality food and nutrition.

The Minister for Women of Australia, who also held the portfolio of Minister for Revenue and Financial Service, said national broadband and mobile black spot networks were being rolled out in her country with the aim of closing the digital gap in rural areas. Meanwhile, a national plan to combat violence against women and girls would ensure that those in rural areas would have access to the same level of support as their urban counterparts.

The Minister for Women, Children Protection and Solidarity of CAte d'Ivoire, said digital inclusion was a priority in her country. In that regard, training in the use of digital tablets was available to Ivorian women. Several special funds had meanwhile been created to encourage women's economic empowerment, especially in rural areas, while funding for health care was increasing.

The Minister for Women of Paraguay said that legislation aimed at empowering women in the economic, social, political and cultural areas had been in place in her country since 2015. It was essential to move towards real equality between men and women, ensuring that women were not excluded because of their sex or civil status. The next step would be the adoption of public policies that covered, among other things, access to land.

A senior official from Switzerland asked participants to suggest ways to better engage men and boys in promoting rural gender equality. Responding, his counterpart from Norway said mixed-gender teams in his country's armed forces were found to have out-performed their all-male rivals. Perhaps it would be best to expose men and boys to female power and see what they could do, he added.

The Minister for Labour and Social Development of Saudi Arabia said her country had undertaken measures to encourage girls, especially those in rural areas, not to drop out of school. Financial and other incentives were, meanwhile, in place to encourage more teachers to work in remote areas, she said, adding that increasing women's participation was a goal of the national development plan.

While other African countries reported progress, the Minister for Advancement of Women, Children and Family of Mali said her country was living through a very violent form of terrorism. Child mortality was on the rise, terrorists forced girls into marriage and rape was being committed with impunity. The situation was precarious and the rural economy paralyzed, yet the population was resisting, she said. We can listen to the achievements of others, but the situation in Mali remains one of insecurity, she added.

The representative of China said the status of rural women in her country was inseparable from agricultural development, which the Communist Party had designated a priority at its nineteenth National Congress in 2017. Some 99.9 per cent of rural girls were enrolled in schools and various levels of women's federation had provided training to a total of 3 million women. Health care included free breast cancer screenings. Training in e-commerce encouraged rural women to participate in the digital economy, while microcredits provided financing to female rural entrepreneurs.

Also participating were Ministers and other high-level officials of Costa Rica, Guinea, Egypt, Dominican Republic, Kenya, Angola, Italy, Liberia, Niger, Cameroon, Iran, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Hungary, Afghanistan, Morocco, Ecuador, Venezuela, Ghana, Luxembourg, Rwanda, Colombia, New Zealand, Guatemala, Azerbaijan, Uruguay, Chad, South African, Zimbabwe, Indonesia and Romania.

Ministerial Round Tables 3 and 4

Also this afternoon, the Commission held two ministerial-level round table discussions on the theme, good practices in the empowerment of rural women and girls, including through prevention of gender-based violence and through access to justice, social services and health care, chaired by Martha OrdoAez, Presidential Councillor for Gender Equality of Colombia, and subsequently by Issa bin Saad Jafali al Nuaimi, Minister for Administrative Justice, Labour and Social Affairs of Qatar.

Ms. ORDOA�EZ, delivering opening remarks, said violence against women and girls was a significant human rights violation in all countries. While Sustainable Development Goal 5 spotlighted the need to eliminate it, the phenomenon remained widespread and evidence revealed a rural prevalence of such harmful practices as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Those conditions were exacerbated by the lack of effective legal, juridical and institutional remedies enjoyed by rural women and girls. Achieving universal health coverage, as called for in Sustainable Development Goal 3, was necessary to realize the right of rural women and girls to the highest attainable standard of health, including sexual and reproductive health and rights. In that context, she asked speakers to consider what measures had achieved proven results in the provision of affordable and accessible health care for rural women and girls and how Governments had ensured that social protection and gender-responsive social services reached all rural women and girls. In addition, she asked them to provide examples of effective national laws, policies and services to prevent gender-based violence and related harmful practices.

Ministers, State Secretaries, Members of Parliament and other high-level Government officials from around the world took the floor to respond to those questions, with many sharing their countries' experiences in combating gender-based violence and delivering social services to women in rural areas. The Minister of Health and Social Protection of Albania, for one, pointed out that 42 per cent of her country's population resided in rural areas. Traditional gender roles continued to prevail in those communities, making the implementation of Albania's gender-related laws and policies a major challenge. In response, the Government had launched campaigns to raise legal awareness among rural women and girls and help them feel more confident coming forward to report cases of abuse. Those had been a success, she said, reporting that, in 2017, 10 per cent more cases of gender-related abuse had been reported than in 2016.

The Minister for Women, National Solidarity and Family of Burkina Faso, echoing the importance of awareness raising, added that information about laws and available social services must be widely translated into local languages. Women's organizations should also be trained in those areas, she stressed, and Governments must establish centres to provide direct, integrated services � including legal resources � for victims of violence and abuse.

The Minister for Family Affairs and Social Services of Finland noted that women from indigenous and minority communities, as well as migrants and those with disabilities, often faced multiple and intersecting forms of violence and discrimination. One in five Finnish women experienced abuse in intimate relationships, she said, stressing that was absolutely too much. In response, the Government collaborated in providing legal assistance, shelter and substance abuse support to the victims of gender-based violence. It was also testing a new behaviour-change programme that targeted male perpetrators.

The Minister for Women and Child Affairs of Sri Lanka noted that her country's national action plan on human rights contained a chapter on the protection of women against gender-based violence and discrimination. Many of Sri Lanka's gender-related policies and programmes viewed the issue through the lens of economic empowerment, she said, describing several Government collaborations with the private sector. Meanwhile, national programmes were in place to combat the trafficking of persons, and women and children bureaus had been established at police stations around the country.

The Minister for Women's Affairs of the State of Palestine described challenges faced by women and girls living in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, in particular its rural areas. Noting that women's engagement in the workforce �especially the agricultural sector � was an important indicator of the strength of a country's economy, she said that, despite her Ministry's limited resources, it was engaged in numerous efforts to bolster women's participation in the Palestinian economy.

The Executive Director of the National Institute of Women of Argentina said the structure of that body complied with recommendations made by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. It had drawn up intervention strategies to tackle the challenges faced by rural women, helping to ensure their full access to justice, social services and health care. The Government had also concluded agreements with Argentina's union for rural workers, resulting in broad awareness-raising campaigns to prevent violence against women in rural areas. In addition, she said, Argentina supported the Southern Common Market's (MERCOSUR) recommendations relating to national and regional violence prevention strategies and its call for concrete responses to violence perpetrated against women in rural areas.

Many speakers also underscored the need to couple women's personal empowerment with efforts to bolster their political participation, especially at the highest levels of decision-making. In that regard, the Magistrate of Mexico's Electoral Tribunal said her country was committed to ensuring women's full engagement in its upcoming elections and preventing all violence against voters and candidates. Recalling that Mexico had instituted gender parity and gender quotas for many Government positions, she said the country had adopted an official definition of the phenomenon known as gender-based political violence, and was close to adopting a specialized law against it.

Aisa Kirabo Kacyira, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN�Habitat), and Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), also delivered remarks.

Also participating were Ministers and other high-level officials of Turkey, Denmark, Morocco, Liechtenstein, Ireland, Brazil, Germany, Uganda, Zambia, Slovenia, Spain, Jordan, Malta, Peru, Canada, France, Zimbabwe, Honduras, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Algeria, Japan, Czech Republic, Yemen, Sweden, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Kazakhstan and Malaysia.

Source: United Nations

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