Economic and social issues affecting women are under discussion at the 53rd Session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. It promotes and monitors progress in advancing the social, political and economic rights of women worldwide. Among those attending the meeting in New York are government officials, U.N. agencies, and non-government organizations. Much of the debate this year centers on the global economic slowdown.
Development activists say among the likely impacts of the crisis is increasing violence against women. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the forum it is shocking that one in five women worldwide will experience sexual attacks, and in some countries one in three will experience other forms of physical violence. Some at the meeting expressed concern that less than half of all U.N. members states have laws targeting violence against women.
But there is progress. The Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, said almost every country has adopted legislation or created plans of action to empower women. She said the challenge is to carry out the plans.
The United Nations has also introduced successful programs for improving the safety for women in many of the world's cities. And the U.N. Trust Fund to End Violence Against women, administered by UNIFEM, is providing grants to local NGOs working to support women in developing countries.
This year, the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women has a new focus: the global economic downturn, which participants say could undo ten years of progress in a single year. Economists say that in financial crises women are of the first to be fired, including for example, workers in garments and textile factories in Southeast Asia or those in Africa engaged in non-traditional exports like cut flowers to Europe.
Development economists say the crisis could encourage donors and private banks to withdraw support for microcredits that finance many small businesses run by women. Activists say cutbacks in both domestic and foreign spending for health care and education projects would also set back progress made in recent years by girls and women.
Economist Marina Durano is with the group Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era.
"There is a lot of talk about fiscal stimulus packages, but if they focus on road construction [for example], that will mean men will be employed mostly. While women are losing jobs, we have not figured out how to rehire them in the short term, especially as part of the fiscal stimulus packages around," she said.
Joining Durano in her concern is the U.N. Development Fund for Women Africa section chief, Micheline Ravololonarisoa.
"The tendency is that in times of crisis, [among] the first decisions to be made by government is to cut off resources for women. There should not be a decision to cut women's programs over infrastructure," she said.
For many at the U.N. meeting, that concern extends to programs by governments, NGOs and U.N. agencies.
The president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, has called for rich countries to set aside $15 billion, for a so-called "vulnerability fund" to help developing countries weather the downturn. But some development experts say it is not the amount offered that is important - it is how it will be spent.
For example, they say cuts in health funding often increase pressure on women to stay home to look after ill family members.
UNIFEM senior economic adviser Yassine Fall says looking after ill family members takes women away from paying jobs that empower them economically. And she says some caregivers depend on remittances from relatives working abroad to help cover health costs, like hospital user fees. As migrant workers lose their jobs, there is more pressure on families back home, including on women, to earn an extra income.
"Caring requires time and money: Women have to use their own small revenues to pay for user fees to take patients to hospital. If [the hospital] does not have water, they have to bring water in addition to cooking [and providing] physical and emotion [support] to relatives. It is time for boys and men to take responsibility to share the burden of work in the family," she noted.
But she says these are social services that are the responsibility of governments to provide - at least to citizens living in poverty. She says the provision of social welfare should not be shifted onto the backs of women because of budget cuts.
Fall says that beyond these microlevel considerations the economic crisis provides an opportunity to revisit development strategies that have focused largely on market deregulation - policies, she says, that have contributed to the global financial and economic crisis.
She notes that most Western governments are calling for some degree of government spending to end the recession - prescriptions, she says, that are the opposite of the solutions suggested to the developing world: stabilization and fiscal restraint. She says responses to the crisis should include alternatives to existing policies that have failed to decrease inequality.
The United Nations is to host a high-level conference in June to debate ways to finance packages for the least developed countries, while keeping social protections. The meeting is also expected to debate the failure of U.N. agencies to foresee the crisis and how the world body can help solve it.