Report on the Commission on the Status of Women
The priority theme of this year’s commission was access and participation of women and girls in education, training, science and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work.
The annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women took place here in New York from Feb. 21–March 4. Each year, the commission reviews an element of the Beijing Platform for Action (September 1995). This Platform highlights education as a human right and an essential tool for achieving the goals of equality, development and peace, and urges Governments to eliminate disparities between women and men in access to education at all levels. It also emphasizes the need to develop policies and programs to enhance the employability of women and their access to quality jobs. The importance of addressing gender stereotyping as one of the root causes of occupational segregation is also emphasized. In this spirit, the priority theme of this year’s commission was access and participation of women and girls in education, training, science and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work.
It is a widespread belief that education, gender equality and the empowerment of women are indispensable elements for holistic social development and positive social change. They are at the heart of the Millennium Development Goals, and are preconditions for overcoming poverty, hunger and disease. Goal 2 and 3 of the MDGs are, respectively, to achieve universal primary education; and, to promote gender equality and empower women. But while substantial progress has been made, gaps remain in women’s and girls’ access to both education and decent employment. Women comprise nearly two-thirds of the world’s 759 illiterate adults, and poverty remains a key obstacle to both women’s and girls’ prospects for education and vocational training. For primary education, the steepest challenges are found in Oceania, sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia, while in secondary education, the gender gap is most evident in regions where enrolment is lowest—sub-Saharan Africa, Western Asia and Southern Asia.
Lack of access to education and adequate health care, sexual abuse, early marriage and child-bearing… deprive millions of girls of the opportunity to play a productive role in their societies.
Poverty puts girls at a distinct disadvantage. In many parts of the world, girls are forced to spend hours fetching water and firewood, and often do not attend school because of the lack of decent sanitation facilities, as well as the cost of transportation and books. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS in parts of the developing world has all-too-often thrust girls into the role of primary care-giver, making the prospects for an education, no less decent employment, next to impossible. Girls are also the victims of exclusion, exploitation and violence, and are frequent and deliberate targets of rape and abduction. Lack of access to education and adequate health care, sexual abuse, early marriage and child-bearing impede their full development and deprive millions of girls of the opportunity to play a productive role in their societies.
In their marvelous book, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” authors Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn contend that “…in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.” Clearly, investment in the education of girls may well be the highest return investment available in the developing world. At the Conference on Gender Parity in Education, held in Washington, D.C. in March 2005, then Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Anan said, “If we are to succeed in our efforts to build a healthier, more peaceful and equitable world, classrooms must be full of girls… By educating girls, we will trigger a transformation of society as a whole…” The nations of the “developed” world would make a significant contribution toward this more peaceful and equitable world by following through on their commitments to the internationally agreed upon development goals, including the MDGs, which place the education and empowerment of women and girls at its very core.
During the commission, there were a number of side-events sponsored by various NGOs. Jacqui Ryan, our Dominican Sister from New Zealand, attended several, and will share a bit with you, in her own words:
Once again, the variety of side-events was staggering in breadth of scope, quantity, and quality of input. I will touch on two.
“Claiming Space for Pacific Women in the International Arena” (Pacific Women’s Watch NZ)
The Chief Human Rights Commissioner for New Zealand Roslyn Noonan spoke of the case for human rights institutions across the Pacific. She noted that Pacific women’s voices are often ignored by the rest of the world, yet they have very relevant comments to contribute on most of the issues affecting the world.
Claiming space at international levels is fraught for Pacific Island women due to the geographical isolation of many small island nations, cultural/religious systems that oppress women, and funding. Examples were provided of strategies being implemented throughout Pacific countries which should ensure that women’s voices will be heard at all levels.
A Fijian student studying in the United States, spoke of the situation in her own country where virtually women alone have stood up to the intimidation of the military regime, despite persecution of family members and blatant human rights abuses. She commented that North-Eastern Americans perception of the Pacific was typically limited to the Philippines or Japan and that the South Pacific “didn’t exist in the minds of many.” When Asia and Pacific regions are lumped together, it is the (south) Pacific voices that are omitted. Many of the forums that Pacific women can and should be contributing to at international levels are often held in the Northern hemisphere and typically represented by the larger, more dominant Asian nations (China, Japan, Philippines).
“Are Women Human?” (Mercy International Association)
This excellent presentation focused on the way in which women are often abused, particularly through the use of rape as a weapon of war and genocide. Ninety percent of all war casualties are civilians, most being women and children. Globally, violence against women during conflict has reached epidemic proportions, including the sexual abuse of women in conflict which has morphed into deliberate military strategies.
One speaker commented that peace needs to be a VERB: it needs to be active; and that women in the military need to speak up when sexually motivated and sanctioned abuses occur. Another issue raised was the narrative of Femicide: the deliberate killing of women because they are women, locating the basis for this in the complex configurations of power and greed, patriarchy, colonization and, at times, religious beliefs.
Often the rhetoric for change is untied to reality. The final quote came from a speech by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan: “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict.” At the session conclusion, the booklet “Are Women Human? Violence Against Women and Girls” was launched. Copies are available from Mercy Global Concern: www.mercyworld.org.
While these examples may seem distant from the first part of this briefing, one needs to consider that if women and girls continue to be violated through sexual exploitation and oppression—both in peace and armed conflict, and unable to have their voices heard at national and international level, there is little chance of achieving gender equality. Access to health and education, technology and training can only occur if women and girls are given the opportunity of life, in the first instance, and then equitable access to those resources in their families, communities and nations which will allow them to live as whole human beings, “free and equal in dignity and rights” (UDHR/UN).
Margaret Mayce, OP (DLC/Amityville)
NGO in Special Consultative Status at the United Nations
Dominican Leadership Conference
211 East 43 St. Rm 704
New York, NY 10017