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The United Nations Focuses on Challenges Facing Women

The United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women is marking the International Women's Day (March 8) with a close look on the financing of programs aimed at improving the lives of women, especially in the developing world. From Washington, VOA reporter William Eagle has the story.

The slogan for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Investing in Women.” Women and girls make up much of the agricultural labor force in Africa and elsewhere. U.N. officials say investing in them can help reduce poverty and promote economic growth.

In fact, the U.N. Special Advisor on Gender Issues, Rachel Mayanja, has said that improving the conditions of women could lead to a 20 percent improvement in agricultural yields.

But the United Nations has also encountered a number of obstacles to its efforts. One is inadequate financing for women’s programs.

For that reason, one important topic of debate at the 52nd Summit of the Commission on Women has been “gender budgeting.” Finance ministers, NGOs and U.N. officials are discussing ways to ensure that national budgets reflect the needs of women.


Aminata Toure is the chief of the Gender, Culture and Human Rights branch of the U.N. Population Fund. She says it costs money to provide programs that help women - including shelters and training for authorities on how to handle complaints.

"The problem in developing countries," she says, "is that there are many competing needs…from rural populations, women, etc., and women’s needs tend to be at the bottom of the priorities. In many countries, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is not very strong; they might be even the weakest in terms of resources received. That’s what we would like to improve and also support governments and parliaments to make sure that women are receiving a fair share of national resources. "


U.N. officials say another problem facing women is violence, not only at home, but also at school. U.N. statistics show that one of six African women are victims of gender violence. This month, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for a commitment to end the problem.

The U.N. Development Fund for Women is also helping conduct a study in Morocco, Uganda and Bangladesh to determine how violence against women affects economic growth and national budgets, including health costs.

Among the acts considered to be part of gender violence is a tradition common in parts of West and Northeastern Africa, female circumcision, or female genital mutilation (FGM).

Micheline Ravololonarisoa, the chief of the Africa Section of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, says the international campaign against FGM is leading to a decrease in the practice. She says its success can be attributed in part to the involvement of religious leaders who deny that female circumcision is part of Christian or Islamic tradition.

"Those who want to manipulate religion and so-called cultural beliefs for their own advantage and purposes," she says, "have been defeated because religious leaders themselves who are the guardians of the religious texts are saying there is no such edict in the Bible or Koran texts that say girls should be subject to this. "

Ravololonarisoa says the campaign against FGM is also focusing on what she calls the “medicalization” of the issue – whereby hospitals and clinics, especially in the West, agree to perform the procedure in a safe environment. She says the procedure, no matter how it is done, damages the mother’s reproductive system and makes childbirth dangerous.


Another challenge being discussed by women’s rights advocates at the U.N. is the implementation of laws guaranteeing equal rights for women.

One such law is the CEDAW, the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Among its guarantees are fair pay and access to family planning and reproductive health services. (U.N. officials say African women work longer hours than men but earn about 60 percent of the pay of men in similar jobs.) It and other international protocols encourage women’s participation in the formulation and implementation of government policy.

Ravololonarisoa says most African countries (except Sudan, Niger and Mauritania) have signed the convention, which is send as a bill of rights for women. But the legislatures of some countries have not yet incorporated CEDAW and other such protocols into domestic law.

Ravololonarisoa says the United Nations will conduct a study to examine to what extent the increased number of women in government is affecting the lives of average women. She says there’s concern that in some cases, women in government are representing their parties, but not their gender. But she says that may be different in Kenya.

"[In] Kenya, ... in the last elections the women constituted themselves into an independent women’s group to bring women candidates into parliament. That’s important and the idea is to have the women influence all of the policy-making processes from a gender perspective for the benefit of women…. What is clear is the presence of women in [government bodies] has made a difference in way power is being exercised."

Ravololonarisoa says the legal push for equality in Africa and the developing world depends on whether states can build what she calls “modern citizenship” – and make the promise of legal reforms felt among those who need it most.