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UN Spotlights Discrimination and Violence Against Girls

Women's activists and government delegates from around the world are meeting at the United Nations to develop a strategy for ending discrimination and violence against girls. From U.N. headquarters, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports the opening session heard a plea from children to have their voices heard.

The U.N. Commission on the Status of Women is celebrating women's advancement during a two-week gathering in New York. As if to signify the strides women have made, the opening address was given by Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro.

Migiro attended previous meetings of the commission, in an earlier job as Tanzania's minister for gender and children. She later became the African nation's foreign minister before U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked her to be his deputy. That makes her the highest-ranking African woman ever to serve the world body.

Migiro says she and Secretary-General Ban are backing plans to combine all U.N. programs dealing with gender issues into one agency for greater efficiency.

"The Secretary-General and I agree wholeheartedly with the suggestion to replace several current structures with one dynamic U.N. entity focused on gender equality and women's empowerment," said Asha-Rose Migiro. "Such an entity should mobilize forces of change at the global level, and inspire enhanced results at country level."

Migiro says Secretary-General Ban is also hoping to achieve a 50-50 gender balance within the U.N. bureaucracy.

Among the delegates in the crowded conference hall for the opening session were nearly 200 girls who had come to plead their own cases. Among them was 17-year-old Qulinta Nepaul of South Africa, who urged the conference to listen to the voices of children themselves.

"Give us girls, boys and young people a chance to participate in making decisions on issues that affect us," said Qulinta Nepaul. "And we all strive for change that will improve the lives of all. It is time to listen to us and act upon it."

Nepaul unveiled for the conference the results of a survey and a series of focus groups done by teenagers about teen attitudes, entitled "It's time to listen to us."

"Key finding of the survey is that unwritten laws still hold incredible power," she said. "Many cultural practices are responsible for the violation of girls' rights. Young people identified the victimization of girls and the lack of awareness of their rights as the major cause of discrimination and violence."

Two recent U.N. studies suggest discrimination and violence against girls may be more widespread than previously thought.

The two-week conference in New York will culminate in observances of International Women's Day March 8.